What’s next for the women’s game?
by Lucas Aykroyd|27 FEB 2022
Stars like Canadian Olympic MVP Brianne Jenner (left) and U.S. goalie Alex Cavallini showed in Beijing that women's hockey is poised for bigger things in both IIHF and pro competition.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Just 834 spectators got to attend the Canadian women’s thrilling 3-2 victory over the Americans in the 2022 Olympic gold medal game. However, pandemic restrictions at Beijing’s Wukesong Sports Centre didn’t stop an average of 3.54 million NBC viewers in the U.S. from watching the final. 

As The Athletic reported, this was a higher average viewership “than [for] any NHL game televised in the U.S. this season. It was the second most-watched hockey game in the U.S. since 2019, behind only the title-clinching Game 5 of the 2021 Stanley Cup final between Tampa Bay and Montreal.” The viewership was especially impressive for a game that kicked off at 23:10 Eastern Standard Time.

It’s a strong sign that the red-hot Canada-U.S. rivalry can provide a springboard to make women’s hockey a day-in, day-out priority for sports fans – beyond the Olympics and IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships. All the pieces for a great North American pro league are right there.

Start with the sheer quality, power, and creativity of Canada’s play in Beijing. The reigning World Champions roared to Olympic gold with a new single-tournament record of 57 goals. It’s no wonder that analysts worldwide are calling this the greatest Canadian women’s hockey team of all time.
Certainly in Canada, where the gold medal game audience averaged more than 2 million viewers across multiple platforms, hockey fans can easily envision the entertainment value of watching captain Marie-Philip Poulin, Olympic scoring leader Sarah Nurse, and top goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens perform on a regular basis.

You just have to give them the right opportunities. Hockey-wise, that’s what coach Troy Ryan has done in a stunning reversal from the 2019 Women’s Worlds bronze medal disappointment in Finland.

“For a little while, we lost a bit of that swagger, and we needed to understand how good we are,” said Nurse, who set new Olympic records with 13 assists and 18 points. “That’s something we’ve been saying this entire tournament to each other every single game. We needed to believe it, and I think the belief this entire year is what carried us.”

Opening the door for the players to be themselves and have fun is also something that will go far in terms of marketing pro women’s hockey. It wasn’t just Natalie Spooner – a veteran social media influencer and reality TV show participant – who showcased her effervescent personality.

From Sarah Fillier’s irrepressible post-game smiles and tears to Erin Ambrose’s musings about mental health and the NHL 22 video game, the Canadians were not nearly as buttoned-down as at previous Olympics. They came across like what they are – women in their 20’s and 30’s living out their dream.
“That’s something we really value, creating that culture as a group,” said Poulin, who has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals in the last four Olympic finals. “We were able to have fun together off the ice, having Zoom calls and dance parties. All this time together really made a big difference.”

The Americans, of course, will not remember Beijing so fondly. Losing all-time great Brianna Decker with a broken leg in Game One versus Finland set the tone for a tough Olympics that ended with this talented team’s dethronement.

However, the ability to gut it out through adversity is another key ingredient in a successful recipe for a pro league. Especially over the last two years, it’s been about getting over psychological hurdles as well as pushing hard physically.

It was stirring to watch the legendary Hilary Knight bust to the net for a shorthanded third-period goal, keeping the U.S.’s hopes alive in what may have been the 32-year-old’s last Olympic gold medal game. Seeing fellow veteran Amanda Kessel cash in a rebound with 13 seconds embodied her squad’s fight-to-the-end mentality.
“The sacrifice that every player and coach has shown just to get to this moment has been an important part of this journey,” said American captain Kendall Coyne Schofield. “My mom and dad have been watching my dog for six months. I haven’t seen my husband in six months.”

“From an athletic experience, this has been one of the toughest journeys, from the isolation to the loneliness and restrictions that the pandemic faced us with,” U.S. coach Joel Johnson added. “There was the inability to have meetings, injuries...so many details that have been unbelievable. I have a lot of respect for how they dealt with it.”

The next step post-Olympics is backing the top women’s players consistently with training facilities, equipment, ice time, media exposure, and marketing muscle. It’s giving them a chance to make a living while building their skills to even greater heights than we witnessed this month.

“Throwing off your gloves is such a cool feeling, especially on this stage,” said Fillier after defeating the Americans. Even if no pro league can equal the impact of the Olympics when it comes to championship celebrations, the visibility of hoisting a pro trophy is meaningful too.

In a world where everything from curling to cornhole fleshes out cable sports TV programming, women’s hockey deserves to be on regular rotation.

And whether the optimal North American pro league emerges via the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) or an in-the-works Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) initiative, it can ultimately benefit players from Europe and Asia as well.

If the likes of Finland’s Jenni Hiirikoski, Switzerland’s Alina Muller, or Japan’s Akane Shiga can come to a league where they regularly battle the world’s best, it obviously ramps up the entertainment for fans. It can also empower players to make career decisions based on what’s best for their on-ice performance, rather than primarily on family or outside job considerations.

The world hasn’t yet seen the absolute best that women’s hockey can be. Attaining your on-ice peak while working multiple jobs isn’t easy.
For example, Czech goalie Klara Peslarova, who made  the 2022 Olympic all-star team, doubles as a grocery store employee while playing for the SDHL’s Modo Ornskoldsvik. The U.S.’s Lee Stecklein, who led all defenders in scoring at the 2021 Women’s Worlds, also works as a sales coordinator for Clif Bar in her native Minnesota.

These are honourable occupations, and they unquestionably furnish colourful story material for journalists. However, if, say, Andrei Vasilevski and Victor Hedman had to hold down outside jobs while playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning, their chances of winning two straight Stanley Cups would have been a lot slimmer.

At the same time, we’ve seen how women’s hockey stars benefit from organizations that provide pro salaries and amenities, like China’s KRS Vanke Rays, who have signed the likes of Alex Carpenter, Megan Bozek, and Noora Raty.
Around the hockey world, organizations regularly pursue new investments and meet obligations of varying size and significance, sometimes incurring losses. Financial decisions are not always driven by immediate profitability.

For instance, the Arizona Coyotes have announced plans to play in a 5,000-seat venue at Arizona State University until their new arena is completed. Or consider the amount of money that goes into buying out contracts, whether it's the Philadelphia Flyers paying Ilya Bryzgalov $1.63 million USD annually through 2026-27 or the New York Islanders paying Rick DiPietro $1.5 million USD annually through 2028-29.

Every example has its own upsides and downsides, of course. But the point is that women’s hockey is not just an important long-term investment. It’s also an untapped market that is well-positioned to pay off.

The IIHF is moving forward with the rescheduled U18 Women’s Worlds in the U.S. in June and the first-ever Women’s Worlds in an Olympic year in Denmark in August. It will be exciting to see how clubs, leagues, and national federations step up to spur the growth of the women’s game and build on the potential that the Canadians and Americans have shown everyone in Beijing.