Hockey, Sports

New year, new league: Discussing the PWHL inaugural weekend

The announcement of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) back in September generated a great deal of uncertainty among hockey fans. How would the league operate? What cities would get teams? Would the league generate good viewership numbers? What would the on-ice product look like? Despite a number of blips in the league’s preparation, the inaugural PWHL game was played on Jan. 1, 2024, and silenced fans’ anxieties.  

With a sold-out crowd on New Year’s day, PWHL Toronto hosted PWHL New York at the Mattamy Arena—the current home of the Toronto Metropolitan University Bold and former Maple Leaf Gardens.  First game, first goals, and first regular-game win were all milestones achieved, as New York prevailed with a 4-0 victory against Toronto. Defender Ella Shelton, who was later on named alternate captain for New York, scored the first-ever PWHL goal. In a stellar performance, New York goaltender Corinne Schroeder earned the PWHL’s first-ever shutout with 29 saves, enshrining New York in the league’s history. 

On Jan. 2, PWHL Montreal took the ice against Ottawa at TD Place in front of 8,318 fans, setting the record for most fans at a professional women’s hockey game. Claire Dalton and Laura Stacey scored the opening two goals for the Quebec franchise with McGill alumni Ann-Sophie Bettez netting the overtime winner for a 3-2 Montreal victory. 

However, playing at the Xcel Energy Centre—home to the National Hockey League’s Minnesota Wild—the PHWL Minnesota shattered Ottawa’s attendance record, drawing 13,361 fans for their inaugural game. Minnesota’s Grace Zumwinkle scored all three goals of the game, earning the league’s first hat trick, and carried her team to a 3-2 win over PWHL Boston for the first home-ice win of the season.  

For some, the most exciting part of the league are the innovative tweaks to the traditional hockey rulebook. Introducing a 3-2-1 point system, regulation wins earn a team three points, overtime or shootout wins earn two points, and an overtime or shootout loss earn one point. (For most hockey leagues, including the National Hockey League (NHL), the points system remains two points for any win and one point for an overtime or shootout loss). Additionally, rather than having minor penalties end only if time expires or when the team on the power-play scores, a shorthanded goal from the penalty-killing team will also end the penalty. The PWHL also decided to part ways with traditional rules concerning shootouts as players are able to shoot multiple times (typically each player is only eligible to shoot once). Those changes from traditional rules showcase the innovative nature of the game, setting its own norms and stakes.

With games being broadcasted by CBC, TSN, Sportsnet in Canada, Bally Sports, MSG Network and NESN in the United States, and each game being live streamed from the PWHL’s Youtube live channel, the viewership for women’s hockey reached new heights. With the inaugural New Year’s Day game garnering more than 2.9 million viewers across Canada, the PWHL had one of the most viewed hockey games in North America, surpassing recent editions of the NHL Winter Classic and many regular season games. The choice to stream the games in high definition and quality on Youtube, a widely accessible, free-to-access source allowed for the games to be seen beyond Canada and the USA. Fans are also able to watch the recorded games for free later on. These heights are even more significant when considering the limited viewership that the Premier Hockey Federation had achieved the year prior. 

This record-setting audience is proof of the excitement and interest in women’s professional hockey, effectively silencing unfairly critical pessimists. After years of turmoil and advocacy for a united women’s professional hockey league, the PWHL’s opening weekend success finally provides a place for young women aspiring to one day be a professional hockey player, in a league that seemingly has the legs to go the distance.

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