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Waiting wasn’t an option

Starting play in January requires mad rush, but league has good reason for it


When Sarah Nurse dropped her hockey bag at Etobicoke’s Ford Performance Centre this past week, arriving alongside teammates for the inaugural training camp of Toronto’s entry in the newly launched Professional Women’s Hockey League, she figured she’d be picking it up again soon enough.

While Nurse is one of Canada’s highest profile athletes — an Olympic gold medallist with an impressive list of endorsement deals — she’s also accustomed to the oft-humble realities of women’s sports.

While her counterparts at the top end of the men’s game have long enjoyed the luxury of having their equipment hauled and laundered and painstakingly stored by a small army of staff, the women’s game is often a lug-it-yourself proposition, with players accustomed to trucking their gear to and from the rink, just like the house leaguers. But that has changed.

“I was expecting to bring (my bag) to the locker room. And (team staff ) were like, ‘No, we have equipment people for that. Like, we have people who run this,’ ” Nurse said. “Something as simple as that — it’s something we’ve never, ever had before.”

That’s not to say the opening of PWHL camps amounted to some kind of hockey utopia. Depending on your perspective, it was: a) a watershed moment worthy of celebration, or b) a ripe opportunity to nitpick the obvious shortcomings of a fledgling enterprise.

The significance of a) can’t be underestimated. The fact that most of the best women’s players on the planet had been without a workaday professional home since the 2019 folding of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, instead finding competitive reps with national teams and in games set up by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, was a grim study of the historic difficulty of building a league with staying power. Now there’s real optimism that the PWHL, with all six of its teams owned by a group headed by L.A. Dodgers billionaire owner Mark Walter, is possessed of a sufficient combination of competitive heft and financial wherewithal to make it a success for generations to come.

Mind you, those who chose b) had no shortage of ammo. With play set to begin in January, for instance, the league’s schedule has yet to be released. Proper team names and logos have yet to be unveiled.

(On Friday, Nurse said if the players have a vote, she’s backing the Toronto Dynasty. Teammate Renata Fast, meanwhile, is partial to the Toronto Reign.)

Meanwhile, the first viewing of the PWHL’s Season One sweaters — relatively generic, emblazoned with block-letter renderings of the respective city names — didn’t exactly foretell an impending mer

chandise gold rush. And as for the working conditions in Etobicoke, Toronto players arrived to find the dressing room in the nascent stages of construction and not expected to be ready any time soon. Which meant the roster, for now, will ready itself for the duration of its six-week training camp, and perhaps beyond, in two separate change rooms.

Not that anyone was publicly complaining.

“Our dressing room isn’t ready, that’s OK. They’re waiting on permits. We’ve still got great stalls. Everything’s good,” said Jocelyne Larocque, Canada’s two-time Olympic gold-medal-winning defensive stalwart, who was Toronto’s top pick in the PWHL draft. “We know how hard everyone is working to make this happen. And I think when you know that everyone’s heart is in the right place, we’re not like, ‘We need answers, now!’ As players, we’re willing to be patient. We’re willing to be understanding. We knew this first year was going to be a push.”

As Stan Kasten will tell you, the first year of the PWHL is a push that plenty of experienced folks recommended against. Kasten, the L.A. Dodgers president and CEO who doubles as a PWHL board member and business operations frontman, has said that when he told friends in the pro sports universe that a new women’s hockey league was launching in January — this after the final hurdle of buying and dissolving the Premier Hockey Federation, and thus uniting the women’s game, was only cleared this past summer — many scoffed at the timeline. There’s a reason expansion teams in existing leagues usually receive multiple years of lead time to get their ducks in a row.

“Everyone who advised me to take another year — they were not wrong,” Kasten said in an interview this past week. “It’s been challenging. Lots and lots of headaches and hiccups. I’ve said this: It’s maybe the most complicated deal I’ve ever had to do … But I didn’t have (the luxury of time). So instead, we just had to work double time.”

The to-do list was long, to say the least, and remains so.

“Four and a half months ago, we had a blank sheet of paper,” Kasten said. “We had no teams. We had no markets. We had no heads of business or heads of hockey. We had no people. We had no payroll, benefits, insurance. We had no medical staff, we had no equipment, we didn’t have a travel company. We didn’t have a schedule. I can go on and on and go to a thousand things.”

Kasten said the PWHL’s late start meant they’ve been asking to carve out pieces of sponsorship budgets that had already been allocated, and TV schedules that had largely been constructed. On the latter front, Kasten said the broadcast slate set to be announced in the coming days will give the league a level of visibility that is “surprisingly robust.”

And as much as Kasten is aware of the criticism of some details of the league’s early days — “I know there are fans or media who’ve been disappointed or frustrated that we don’t have everything that they want,” he said — he said he got a different view of the PWHL’s progress at Major League Baseball’s recent owners’ meetings.

“I was in a room full of owners and presidents, people who spend their lives doing this, and they’re all saying, ‘You’ve done all of this in 4 ⁄2

1 months? Holy s--t. That’s not possible,’” Kasten said. “So I’ve got both perspectives.”

As much as allowing another year to smooth the wrinkles might have made for a slicker launch, Kasten said the breakneck pace was insisted upon by players anxious to get back to plying their trade after too many years in limbo.

“They made it very clear, they’ve been working too hard and too long to let another year go by. That was a very, very important thing to them. So we couldn’t come this far and then let them down,” Kasten said.

In other words, given how long the players have been waiting for this moment, there’s a willingness to overlook a few quibbles while appreciating the beauty of the bigger picture. After all these years spent lugging a hockey bag from rink to rink, there’s something to be said for the promise of a dressing room of one’s own, even if Toronto’s remains under construction.

“We as players understand there are going to be a couple of bumps this year. We’re willing to accept that, because we’re ecstatic that (the league) didn’t wait another full year,” Larocque said. “We really wanted this league to happen, and we would rather it happen sooner with some bumps in the road. Everything’s not perfect, but it’s still extremely good. We’re just really excited it’s happening now.”





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