Women’s hockey roles set to expand beyond the ice with advent of new league


For many players, the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) provides a reliable space to ply their trade.

But not only does the league introduce jobs for those on the ice — it creates work for women in the infrastructure of the game, including front-office staff, coaches, scouts and more.

The new league, which on Tuesday introduced six franchises in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston and Minneapolis-St. Paul and the New York area, now needs to fill all those behind-the-scenes positions.

In the PWHL, women may be able to step right into roles that could take years to reach in the NHL.

Jayna Hefford, the PWHL’s senior vice-president of hockey operations, is charged with hiring the league’s first six general managers. She said she values experience and hockey knowledge, but hopes to include people with diverse backgrounds as well.

Hefford added that a “very high number of women” are candidates.

“I’m personally less concerned about gender as I am about bringing the right people that bring the right mix of functional skills to the table,” she said. “We’re really pleased with the candidates that have emerged and we’re really excited about the ones that will be announced really shortly.”

WATCH | Hefford breaks down draft, free agency processes:

Professional Women’s Hockey League prepares for free agency and draft in September

Professional Women’s Hockey League Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Jayna Hefford spoke to the media as the PWHL announced its plans for an initial free agency period commencing September 1 and a draft on Sept. 18. The PWHL will have teams in Boston, Montreal, New York, Ottawa, Toronto and Minneapolis-St. Paul, and will play a 24-game regular season schedule.

Jessica Campbell, a former Canadian national-team member, became the first woman to coach full-time behind an AHL bench when she was hired by the Seattle Kraken’s affiliate Coachella Valley Firebirds last July.

She said she always knew she had a passion for skill development.

“But I never saw the representation of females coaching in the National Hockey League or I didn’t really anticipate that my route or my path would go into this side of the game,” Campbell told CBC Sports. “But I guess what you don’t see, you don’t know, right?”

‘Language of hockey’

While there’s no mandate for coaching or management roles to be filled by women in the new league, the opportunity for increased visibility is evident.

Campbell’s coaching journey was borne of passion. After her playing career, she started her own skills development business which took her to Sweden, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

The Moosomin, Sask., native was forced to come home during the pandemic, but that only provided opportunity with NHL players such as Mat Barzal, Luke Schenn and Brent Seabrook looking to stay in shape during the league’s hiatus.

“That’s when I realized, in that moment, that OK, I’m bringing something special to the table,” Campbell said. That’s when I really realized that this is a space that I want to be in and I never really thought about what I needed to do to get here. I was just focused on coaching.”

Campbell said she hasn’t run into challenges as a woman coaching men.

“I haven’t had time to put energy or thought into it. like I’ve really just kind of kept my focus narrow on the task at hand. … They see me as a coach and I see them as players and it’s all the same thing. We’re talking the language of hockey after that.”

Unique paths

Still, NHL roles remain capped out at assistant GM — a title Alexandra Mandrycky holds with the Kraken.

Mandrycky isn’t a former player — in fact, she only started watching the sport at 17 in an effort to impress the man who is now her husband.

From there, she rose the ranks through online data analysis. She said her late introduction to the sport has been a bigger hindrance in her career than possible resistance to her being a woman or her numbers-based view of the game.

“You certainly respect all the experience that traditionally men have brought to sort of their roles,” she told CBC Sports. “But I think also being within an organization you realize you don’t have to have been a former NHL player, former junior player to be able to understand the game and be able to make an impact.”

Mandrycky said the next step for women in professional hockey is normalizing it through all levels of the sport.

“Let’s make sure that we’re not just talking to people within our existing networks,” she said. “Like how do we expand the network of qualified people that maybe previously we wouldn’t have considered?”

The Premier Hockey Federation, a now-defunct rival league, recently saw two women head coaches battle in the championship game for the first time with the Minnesota Whitecaps’ Ronda Engelhardt and the Toronto Six’s Geraldine Heaney. The Six also had a pair of women in management, with Sami Jo Small as president and Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James the general manager.

Potential PWHL players Marie-Philip Poulin and Rebecca Johnston are among those in player development and consulting roles with the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames, respectively.

Growing ecosystem

Canadian defender Renata Fast said it’s “incredible to see” her teammates in those positions.

“And the coolest thing about this is if we do continue to grow on the professional side of women’s hockey, there’s also going to be even more positions on the women’s side,” she told CBC Sports

In the WNBA, women comprise 14 of 24 head coach and general manager positions.

Becky Hammon, a former player and longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant, recently left the NBA to become head coach of the Las Vegas Aces — and she immediately won a championship and was named coach of the year.

That type of ecosystem may be the goal in hockey, where jobs in both leagues are desirable, creating more opportunities and greater meritocracy.

Mandrycky was part of the team that hired Campbell.

“She’s learning a ton [in Coachella Valley] and also bringing a ton of experience to the table,” she said.

The new league is one more avenue through which now can both occur.

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