Some thoughts on a developmental league — Must-click women’s hockey links

The IX: Hockey Friday with The Ice Garden, Nov. 3, 2023

It’s Hockey Friday with Angelica Rodriguez from The Ice Garden! There’s a lot that goes into developing a sport, or even a league within that sport. I’ve been a part of this community long enough to know it takes a lot of planning, attention to detail and foresight if you want to keep it going longer than just a few years. 

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Women’s hockey has borne witness to a lot of people with big dreams and lofty ideas, and some of those have come to fruition. Still, there seems to be a gap where the details need to be filled in, and not a lot of people willing to step up and fill them in. At least, that’s the outside perspective — and it’s hard to shake when you hear an executive of the newest pro women’s league literally refer to things like team names and branding as “mundane details,” however facetiously. (No, Stan Kasten, we’re not letting you live that down.) 

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That said, I’m not here to talk about the branding mess. I’m here to talk about a different sort of mess, one that isn’t as (sorry) messy or obvious, but is still emblematic of the lack of foresight needed to make professional women’s hockey a going concern: the lack of any plans for a development league. 

This isn’t really exclusive to women’s hockey (women’s basketball has the same issue) but this is a women’s hockey newsletter, so this is where I have my focus. And I’ve puzzled for a while over why a development league hasn’t been in talks for at least the near future. With the talent pool bigger and deeper than ever before, and women’s sports experiencing a sort of zeitgeist in terms of viewership and success, this would be a great thing to try and implement early. After all, if it’s progress you want, you need to pay attention to these kinds of things — and if you’re interested in creating a place for elite talent to flourish, it should also be in your best interest to foster and cultivate that talent down the line. 

But Ang, you say. The NCAA is a thing! True — the NCAA and its Canadian counterpart, U SPORTS, do serve as a kind of developmental stop for players in the collegiate realm, but let me stop you right there: that’s not, or least it shouldn’t be, the point of collegiate sports. Anyone who plays in the NCAA is described as a “student-athlete,” meaning they’re there for an education first and foremost. Is that always the case? Probably not — there are schools better known for their hockey programs, and as a result, those most interested in honing their craft are likely to want to go there. 

But ultimately, the NCAA doesn’t necessarily function in the way a development league needs to. You can’t call up players from a college team; eligibility rules and by-laws make it difficult for athletes to bridge the gap between amateur hockey (for lack of a better term) and professional hockey. Athletes jump from college to pro and have to essentially sink or swim, and that doesn’t facilitate the illusion of elite-level play those at the top want to provide us. 

I haven’t even touched on the players no longer in college. The PWHL has just six teams and will feature 23 players per team once rosters are finalized. There is a reserve-player program in place, but even that will only feature a handful of players (three per team, if memory serves correctly). When you consider where both the PHF and PWHPA were prior to the PHF’s acquisition in late June, that’s a hell of a lot of players who will be left in the cold or looking for a place to play if they don’t make the roster out of training camp. Spots are already filling up prior to camp, as top picks like Sophie Jaques, Alina Muller, and Taylor Heise sign deals with their respective teams. For a player drafted later, like Kennedy Marchment, or an undrafted player like Madison Packer or Mikyla Grant-Mentis, it’s going to be more of an uphill battle, and if the bottom falls out, where does that leave them without a D-league or farm system to try and keep in shape with? 

This is a bit of a ramble at this point, but I just want to put the conversation out there. A development league should be a focus within the PWHL’s first five seasons. Players like Hilary Knight, Marie-Philip Poulin, and Natalie Spooner might not necessarily benefit, but they’re not the only players this league needs to worry about. The PWHL has put itself in a position as the only remaining pro women’s league in North America, as well as one that will do things bigger and better than anyone else before it. It’s up to them to make good on that promise, and that includes fostering the sport’s future. 

Women’s hockey links: All the news in fits of print 

All the best to former Wisconsin Badger and Canadian national team legend Meaghan Mikkelson, who announced her retirement on Sunday. The two-time Olympic gold medalist spent 16 years with Team Canada and also won a Clarkson Cup with the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno in 2016 (which I remember fondly). Congrats to Mikkelson on an incredible career, one that continues in the world of broadcasting with the Calgary Flames. 

As for former PHF players, one of them has found a home with the QMJHL’s Sherbrooke Phoenix in a coaching role. Force goalie Tricia Deguire has apparently been acting in a video coach capacity since the beginning of the season, according to the hiring announcements by Sherbrooke on Thursday. Congrats, Tricia!

Zoe Hayden over at The Victory Press did an in-depth look at the role of sports agents in pro women’s hockey, including interviews with two agents themselves (including TIG and The IX alumna Eleni Demestihas). Definitely check it out, it’s incredibly illuminating and well-done. 

In the world of college hockey, we have an undefeated Wisconsin team to consider. Check out my most recent roundup at TIG for the biggest stories of the past weekend, and if you’re a paid member (or would like to be), check out my thoughts on who I think has the best shot at giving the Badgers their first loss of the year.

Something we’ve been monitoring over the course of the past few months is the investigation out of Western University in Ontario. Head coach Candice Moxley was officially cleared of the misconduct allegations against her and will continue on in her role, according to a report by Rick Westhead published Wednesday. Strength and conditioning coach Jeff Watson was fired after the allegations against him of inappropriate touching and statements toward players were proven true. For her part, Moxley was alleged to have told players she “didn’t care” about their mental health and chastised them for wearing clothes she thought were too revealing, but again, those accusations were said to be unsubstantiated by a third-party investigator. We’ll have more about this as it develops, if the findings are made public and if a subsequent boycott by players (something Westhead mentions in his report) happens. 

And finally, we have a plethora of signings out of the PWHL to discuss. Ottawa has been especially busy, with eight players offered contracts since the draft (five of them just over the past 48 hours). Daryl Watts and Kristin Della Rovere have signed one-year deals, while Hayley Scamurra is done for two years and Ashton Bell has signed a three-year contract. Meanwhile, in Boston, Sophie Shirley and Emma Buckles have signed for one year, New York has locked down Brooke Hobson for the upcoming season, and Toronto has signed Rebecca Leslie to a one-year deal. These are just a handful of the signings that have recently been announced, so be sure to keep an eye on TIG’s signing tracker for a comprehensive list of PWHL signings for the 2023-24 season!

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