By Dan Plouffe
Reflecting on the demise of the Ottawa Senators Canadian Women’s Hockey League team over a decade ago, Shelley Coolidge lamented the fact that top female graduates of university hockey programs couldn’t make a living playing hockey unless they were among the two dozen best on Team Canada.
“For me, the unfortunate part is that if I go back 25 or 30 years when I played, they’re in the exact same spot,” reflected Coolidge, one of Canada’s final cuts before the inaugural Women’s Hockey World Championships in Ottawa in 1990.
After 14 years without an elite senior women’s hockey team, the new Professional Women’s Hockey League announced today that Ottawa will be one of six founding franchises set to begin play in January 2024.
“This is exceptional news,” Coolidge said in an email to the Ottawa Sports Pages, underlining that the CWHL’s creation is also a great victory and testament to the power of women in sport leadership.
“Ottawa as a community has always been a leader,” added the former coach of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees and Carleton University Ravens. “They hosted the first sanctioned IIHF Women’s World Championship, and in partnership with the (NHL) Senators, they built what is now known as Scotiabank Girls HockeyFest, which was a leader in development.
“And the other great news is that our local youth will have the opportunity to interact with and witness first-hand the exceptionally talented, educated and entertaining female athletes and role models that this sport has to offer.”
The season before the CWHL booted Ottawa from the league in 2010 for not being competitive enough on the ice, the Senators would often have to play with a short bench for road games, with players unable to get time off work or be away from their families.
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When top-tier women’s hockey returns to Ottawa, it comes with the promise of showcasing players who make their living playing hockey. A minimum salary of $35,000 US is expected and six marquee players per team will make at least $80,000. Health insurance, a retirement plan, commercial rights, maternity leave and other benefits will also be offered.
The PWHL continues to determine which venues will serve as home rinks for each franchise, while some league games may be held at neutral sites.
Ottawa hosted the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association All-Star Weekend last December, and was a prior stop on the PWHPA’s Dream Gap Tour, which served as a launching pad for the new league financed by L.A. Dodgers owners Mark and Kimbra Walter.
The Ottawa Girls’ Hockey Association encouraged the PHWPA to come to Ottawa in the past and “are super excited” to welcome a PWHL team to town.
“A professional league, that has financial backing and pays its players fairly, is what we have been waiting for for a long time,” signalled OGHA marketing and programs director Marc Lugert by email. “Now our girls and women have a goal that goes beyond U Sports or NCAA. Women’s professional hockey is here to stay!”
Local players Jamie Lee Rattray, Geneviève Lacasse, Rebecca Leslie, Megan Eady, Sam Cogan, Natasza Tarnowski and Erica Howe played in PWHPA events last season, while Ottawa’s Lindsay Eastwood was part of the Toronto Six’s championship victory in the Premier Hockey Federation, which was bought out by the PWHL’s investors.
There is no guarantee any of those players will play for Ottawa in the PWHL, which will also feature teams in Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Minnesota and New York. Clubs can sign up to three players between Sept. 1-10 prior to a 15-round draft on Sept. 18 where most roster places will be filled.
The PWHL will play a 24-game regular season in 2024 before ramping up to a 32-game schedule for the next season to begin in November 2024. The league plans to announce general managers for each franchise soon.
“Today, we look ahead to a phenomenal future for the PWHL,” PWHL senior vice president of hockey operations Jayna Hefford said in a media release. “We have never seen more excitement and demand for women’s sports, and through the launch of this league, the top women’s players in the world will have the opportunity to reach even greater heights.”
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