Stan Kasten calls it a million item to-do list.
Ticketing, transportation plans, insurance, ordering equipment, sorting out where teams will play, and finalizing a schedule are just a few things that need to be done before the first season of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) begins in January 2024.
“The thought of standing up one team in an existing league in six months is kind of nuts,” said Kasten, the Los Angeles Dodgers president who sits on the PWHL’s advisory board.
“And here we are trying to stand up six teams in a new league, none of which existed when we began. And yet, we’re going to do it. I’ve never felt more confident than I do today that we are going to have our first games in January and have our first season in 2024.”
That work began just before the calendar turned to July, when news emerged that an ownership group backed financially by Mark and Kimbra Walter bought assets from an existing professional women’s hockey league, the Premier Hockey Federation, with the goal of starting a new, unified league made up of the best players in the world.
Around the same time, the ownership group finalized a collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union. The players ratified the agreement, which includes provisions around maternity leave, a housing stipend and a minimum salary, among other things.
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Since then, the league has announced the location of its original six teams: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, New York, Minnesota and Boston. General managers and coaches have been hired. Teams began the process of signing free agents. And last month, the league held its inaugural draft — the PWHL’s first big event.
As he and the PWHL staff check more items off the to-do list, Kasten has a warning. It’s one he delivered to members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association almost a year ago, before the league was created.
“We’re all in on this, we’re going to make this work but I’m telling you now, in year one, I’m going to make mistakes … I know it, I’m aware of it,” Kasten said. “When we get to year two, we will fix it.”
Training camps open in November
Next up on the league’s calendar are training camps, which will open for teams during the week of Nov. 13, after the Canadian and American national teams play two Rivalry Series games in Arizona and Los Angeles.
The league hasn’t announced exact dates for training camps, but they are expected to run for several weeks, given that many players won’t have played competitive games since the spring. Players who weren’t drafted have already gotten invitations to attend and try out at those camps.
The league also hasn’t announced where the camps will be taking place. Information on the venues where teams will practice and play are expected to be released in the next few weeks or so, Kasten said. He wouldn’t comment on a report from The Athletic last week that says the Minnesota team will play its home games at an NHL rink.
Kasten also expects to announce more player signings soon, after the league worked through several legal items with its standard player agreements. Teams announced three initial free agent signings prior to the draft, but can now sign additional players, including those who were selected by the team at the draft and players from the pool of free agents who weren’t selected.
“That process has been the subject of extensive collective bargaining discussions involving a lot of lawyers in two different countries with two different sets of laws,” Kasten said.
“We think we have worked our way through those things, so those announcements should be forthcoming very soon. I mean, we’re going to training camp in less than a month, so we know that and we will be ready.”
Team names revealed before puck drop
Behind the scenes, the league has been hiring staff, adding people to a group that Kasten said is spending “150 per cent” of its time tackling the massive to-do list.
The league doesn’t have a physical office yet and Kasten expects employees who work on the business side will continue to work remotely for the first year. For those working in hockey operations, Kasten said the league is looking at office space in Toronto.
While the league had a purple carpet at the draft, a colour that’s prominent throughout its website, it also doesn’t have a logo. That’s on the list, too.
Speaking of logos, it’s not clear whether PWHL teams will have those on their jerseys before puck drop in January.
“We will certainly have team names,” Kasten said.
“I don’t know about logos. But we’ll see. We might. We might surprise everyone. Or we might not surprise everyone. We’re just not ready to announce anything yet but when we are, we will.”
Finalizing league schedule
Perhaps the biggest item on the to-do list is finalizing a schedule.
In the future, PWHL teams will begin a 32-game season in November. But for the first season, teams will play 24 games, including 12 at home and 12 on the road.
The team has finalized its baseline schedule and is now filling in the details around those games that won’t be in their home arenas.
“That’s the last piece of our schedule we need to fill in,” Kasten said. “We need to fill it in for broadcast reasons and even more importantly, we need to fill it in for ticket-selling reasons.”
Kasten originally set this month as the target for that schedule to be released, and he said he’s “hoping” the league can meet that.
Bank account, CBA on to-do list
As they build the league from scratch, the PWHL and players’ union have encountered issues no one thought about. Most recently: how the waiver system will work for a player who gets cut or released from a team, a detail that’s being worked out now.
“They thought they thought of everything, but they didn’t,” said Brian Burke, who is executive director of the PWHL Players’ Association.
“And that’s no different than when I was with the [NHL] and we did our first hard cap. We thought we covered everything, but we spent a year figuring out, ‘OK, well, what did we forget? What else do we need to add?'”
Like the league, the union is new. It means Burke’s to-do list has included setting up Canadian and American bank accounts for the union to use and navigating issues that come up with the collective bargaining agreement.
As issues crop up, Burke takes his lead from five players on the union’s executive committee.
“We’ll just keep plowing ahead till we start playing,” he said.