Interest in the PWHPA was at an all-time high in 2020, until COVID-19 hit. The Dream Gap Tour was gaining both momentum and sports media coverage, and women’s professional hockey was being showcased in uber-popular competitive games across North America.
On Mar. 8, the PWHPA held their final game of the 2019-20 season in Arizona, and then, nothing. For over nine months, women’s professional hockey was at a standstill.
Kendall Coyne Schofield, the captain of the US national team and a member of the PWHPA, was concerned that because of the pandemic, all of the momentum the PWHPA gained over the past year would be lost.
“Through the months of dealing with COVID-19, a lot of us felt like women’s hockey was pushed aside,” Coyne Schofield told ESPN. “It wasn’t top of mind…While we all enjoyed watching the NHL playoffs during the summer, it was a reminder that we still need to value the women’s game. We need to find a way to showcase the women’s game. There’s no reason the women shouldn’t have been playing in a playoff like the men were, just like we saw the NBA and WNBA playing out their seasons side by side.”
Coyne-Schofield wasn’t alone in feeling like women’s hockey was being left behind. The PWHPA’s Dream Gap Tour was created after the collapse of the CWHL in order to highlight the gap between men and women’s professional hockey in North America, but without consistent coverage, sponsors and partnerships, the possibility of a 2021 season was in jeopardy.
Or, it was, until Secret announced in October that they were taking an even larger role in the upcoming season by pledging $1 million USD to the Dream Gap Tour. To date, this is the largest financial commitment made with any professional women’s hockey organization.
Secret’s contribution will target three key areas; operational costs, cash prizes for the players, and media and marketing support. According to Jayna Hefford, the PWHPA Operations Consultant, Secret’s increased monetary commitment is a game-changer for everyone involved.
“That’s something we’re really excited about… It can engage fans on a different level but also just for our athletes,” Hefford said for ESPN. “This is nothing they’ve ever experienced before, being able to play a game and earn money from it.”
Secret set a precedent with financial support for the PWHPA — shortly following their $1 million pledge, two NHL teams followed suit forging formal relationships with the Dream Gap Tour. The NHL still has yet to formalize a clear relationship with professional women’s hockey, the PWHPA or otherwise, but having specific NHL teams getting involved is a great sign that women’s hockey isn’t being left behind.
The NHL’s New York Rangers announced that they will both host and help promote the very first game of the PWHPA 2021 season. The game will be between the New Hampshire and Minnesota hubs on Feb. 28th at Madison Square Garden, marking the first time a women’s professional game has ever been played in that arena.
The Toronto Maple Leafs also confirmed their partnership with the PWHPA, promising to provide marketing coordination, commercial sponsorship consulting and to host a future Dream Gap Tour game as soon as Ontario health regulations allow for it.
The economic and nominal support of the PWHPA by NHL teams is invaluable, echoed by Jayna Hefford when she said this about the partnerships with the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers: “NHL teams are uniquely positioned to elevate women’s hockey to the next level. They bring major brand strength, corporate relationships and access to a fan base.”
The key to bringing a 2021 PWHPA Dream Gap Tour to life was securing long-term financial support from big-ticket sponsors. Because of the economic commitments and marketing involvement from Secret, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers, the PWHPA is able to resume their goal of bringing visibility to professional women’s hockey.
There’s an entire program of exciting PWHPA content to look forward to in the next month or so, although a formal schedule of events has yet to be released. For the five PWHPA hubs (Calgary, Montreal and Toronto in Canada and New Hampshire and Minnesota in the United States), not only are the players able to compete in 2021, but they’re also able to advocate for a sustainable, elite-level league for professional women’s hockey once again.