Eager as coach Carla MacLeod is to see how her Czech Republic team handles the challenge of making its Group A debut at the women’s world hockey championships, the two-time Canadian Olympian understood the reality of the situation before the tournament even opened in suburban Toronto Wednesday.
The chances of the Czechs or any one else besides America and Canada competing in the gold-medal final on April 16 are very slim.
And the ideal way for other nations to begin catching up, the 40-year-old MacLeod told The Associated Press last week, is by establishing a centralized professional women’s league where the world’s top players can call home.
“If you look back into the men’s game, that’s when the gap closed,” MacLeod said, referring to the NHL welcoming European players in the 1970s, and eventually Russians in the late ’80s.
“Right now, there’s too much of a resource gap. It’s not a knock on any federation. It’s just the reality of the situation,” added MacLeod, a defender on Canada’s Olympic gold medal-winning teams in 2006 and ’10. “So to me, this pro league is so much more impactful than just are we paying our players. It’s going to grow the game exponentially internationally.”
Canada, with 12 gold medals, and the U.S. (nine) have met in the final of 20 of 21 world tournaments, with the lone exception 2019, when Finland upset Canada in the semis before losing the the Americans in a shootout. It’s no different in Olympic play, where Canada (with five goal medals) and the U.S. (two) have met in six of seven finals, with the exception of 2006, when Sweden beat the Americans in the semis, before losing to Canada.
MacLeod’s comments come as the status of the women’s pro game remains unsettled.
In Europe, women are left to play in the Swedish pro league now that the Russian-based Women’s Hockey League is essentially out of bounds to outsiders because of the war in Ukraine.
In North America, the seven-team Premier Hockey Federation has made significant inroads since being established as a four-team league in 2015 by expanding into Canada and raising its salary cap to $1.5 million per franchise starting next season.
And yet, the PHF’s ability to promote itself as North America’s top women’s league is undercut due to an ongoing rift with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association.
Formed in 2019, the PWHPA’s members include a majority of American and Canadian national team players, who are in the final preparations of launching their own pro league by the end of this year.
The differences hinge on the PWHPA’s desire to have a seat at the table in forming its own league, rather than place its trust in private ownership groups.
“I think the PHF has had a good year, and the PWHPA is on their mission and doing some really great work. So it’s not that people aren’t trying,” MacLeod said, before referring to men’s game. “But it’s not rocket science. Look back at who dominated in international hockey and for how long, and when did it change?”
PWHPA executive Jayna Hefford agreed with her former Canadian teammate’s premise, while outlining her differences with the PHF.
“Our vision for our league is so much more than just salaries. It’s infrastructure, proper resources, professional facilities, great leadership and committed partners,” Hefford wrote in a text.
“It has to be a sustainable business. This is the only way to close the gap,” she added. “At the end of the day, people don’t invest in the hope that something will work. There needs to a viable model that shows how the growth will occur and that attracts the best talent.”
The PHF has revamped its business model, switching from a start-up operation relying on outside investors, to having franchises independently owned and the league headed by a board of governors.
PHF Commissioner Reagan Carey said the gap in competition is closing through the International Ice Hockey Federation’s support and with former Team Canada GM Mel Davidson using her connections to attract international talent to PHF teams.
“With the PHF, many of the best players in the world, including a growing number of international players, are able to compete and enjoy the highest salaries and top benefits available in our sport,” Carey said. “Our goal has always been to collaborate, and our door remains open to those who love our game and want to help it grow.”
There are 10 PHF players competing at the worlds, up from seven last year, including Becca Gilmore, who is making her U.S. national team debut.
U.S. star forward Hilary Knight has seen the benefits of competing alongside Canadians on PWHPA teams, by noting it has exposed her to new styles of play.
“It’s been really cool and collaborative to learn different schemes and learn from different coaches,” Knight said. “It’s just really exciting, the future of women’s hockey, because I feel like it’s really untapped, and we’re at this place where it’s going to slingshot forward.”
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John Wawrow, The Associated Press