SIMMONS: The wild and unlikely rise of the Professional Women's Hockey League

Mark Walter walked into Stan Kasten’s office some 13 months ago with a most unusual request.

“Can you get this done for me?” the Los Angeles Dodgers majority owner asked his team president.He wasn’t talking about signing Shohei Ohtani or Yoshinobu Yamamoto. That would come later. He was talking about a professional women’s hockey league, which was its own kind of a delicate negotiation.“I didn’t know anything about it, really,” said Kasten, the former president of the Atlanta Thrashers. “I had 30 days to line up the issues and the conflicts and understand what was going on in women’s hockey.“Mark was involved. Billie Jean King was involved. Jayna (Hefford, the Hall of Fame player) was involved. That’s when I said to Jayna ‘I think we can do this.’”

He wasn’t sure how – or when – or where – all that would come to life in the rather incredible past 12 months of bringing warring factions of women’s hockey together under one banner, finally, with some unfortunate victims being pushed aside – progress always comes with a cost of some kind – all in a most unusual way.

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It all begins for real on New Year’s Day in Toronto. Kasten will be in Toronto on Monday for the historical league opener. Then in Ottawa for Game 2 on Tuesday. And in Boston for Game 3 of the first days as the Professional Women’s Hockey League begins.

How much demand is there for women’s hockey at this early stage? Well, enough that the Toronto franchise has sold out for the season already and enough that the rumour is – and I believe it – that three Canadian networks, CBC, TSN, and Rogers Sportsnet will all broadcast the first game simultaneously.

That has never happened before.

Kasten feels like a nervous dad as the days to Game 1 approach, and why shouldn’t he? This is, in many ways, his baby. Walter and Billie King’s company owns all the franchises. They are the money behind the league. Kasten came up with the team format, the cities, the salary structure, the numerous details needed to make the impossible possible.

This is the time for women’s professional sports around the world. The WNBA – and the billionaire Walter happens to be the owner of the Los Angeles Sparks – recently put up expansion franchises for sale at $50 million US. The National Women’s Soccer League just signed a $240 million television deal with Amazon, CBS and ESPN. The money involved in the early stages of the PWHL will be nothing like that but this is abhout building.

You start with six teams. Who knows where or how they go from here? Walter is betting that once the product is witnessed, it will grow organically.

But first, a six team league. A new Original Six. And no plans yet to expand. “We’ve had a lot of time and lot of problems to fix,” said Kasten. People told him he was rushing. People told him to wait a year and launch in 2025 when everything was smooth and ready to go. The teams don’t have franchise names or logos of anything creative to sell.

“It’s been a race,” he said. “This has been such an exciting time and such a collaborative time with Mark and Billie Jean and Jayna and (former NFL executive) Amy Scheer. I feel a share of pride with this happening. This wasn’t one guy sitting in a labratory getting this done.

“This was all of us. We’re not playing a full season this year. We’re playing a partial season. It gives us time to figure a lot of things out.”

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Shohei Ohtani speaks with Mark Walter, Dodgers Owner and Chairman, and Stan Kasten, Dodgers President and CEO, at Dodger Stadium on December 14, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images) Photo by Meg Oliphant /Getty Images

What a time this has been for the Dodgers, who have won more games in the past 10 seasons than any club in baseball. Then they went out and paid more money than anyone has ever paid to sign Ohtani. “That was exciting,” said Kasten. Then they went out and signed Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the Japanese free agent for huge money. “That was exciting.”

This is a different kind of excitement for Kasten, with hockey in his blood. This is more personal. This has been more hands on.

“This is so exciting,” said Kasten. “This is historic. This is important. This is legacy building.”

“It was one thing to get the details worked out with how we were going to bring the two sides (in the women’s game) together. And basically, we’ve put the league together in six months. If you had told me I had to start an expansion franchise and you’ve got six months to get it done, I’d say you’re nuts. You can’t do it.”

But they did.

They hired the GMs and the coaching staff. They organized the draft. They organized the training camps. They put a schedule together and will soon announce the total television package. Toronto will play its games at Mattamy, the former Maple Leaf Gardens, which doesn’t seat a whole lot of people. But the Ottawa franchise, for example, expects to sell 8,000 tickets for its season opener on Jan. 2 at the TD Place Arena, home of the junior 67s.

The first game – New York at Toronto – comes on Monday and “everything has already exceeded my expectations,” said Kasten. “Our plan from the beginning, and some of this came from Billie Jean, is we have elite athletes and we’re going to treat them the way elite athletes deserve to be treated.

“We still have so much to learn,” said Kasten. “We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to learn from every ticket we sell and every ticket we don’t sell. We have to build something that works and can be sustained.”

Hefford is more than involved as vice president of hockey operations. Scheer is more than involved as vice president of business operations. “This couldn’t have happened without the invention of Zoom,” said Kasten. “We put this together, I was in one city, Jayna was in Toronto, and Amy was in Utica.

“We’ve already had calls about expansion franchises,” said Kasten. “We want to be bigger eventually but we’re not planning on selling anything. Not for now. There’s still way too much work to be done.”

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