What’s in a name?
When it comes to the title of a sports league, is a name just a group of words that sets it apart from all other leagues? The name change of a North American hockey league suggests that a name can also indicate how a league wants to be viewed, not just who plays in it.
Earlier this month, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) changed its name to Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) ahead of its seventh season, becoming the first North American women’s sports league to drop its gender designation. title.
In announcing the new name and logo, the league, with five teams in the United States and one in Toronto, said the rebranding recognizes its hockey players for their athletic talent, not their gender. It also aims to respect the gender identity differences of its current and future players and league stakeholders. Not all of its athletes identify as women, so the change also strengthens the league’s inclusion of transgender and non-binary players.
“We are building this federation on a platform where the athlete is to be judged on their skills and not on their gender identity,” said PHF commissioner Tyler Tumminia. “We had a lot of athletes who felt really passionate about the idea of the absence of labels, of limits. No one calls the NHL the National Men’s Hockey League. Our players were a little tired of always hearing “athlete woman” or “she is a phenomenal woman”. Our players deserve a name that allows them to be equal in professional sport. “
The conversation about renaming female entities has long been going on in sports.
Many American universities that once differentiated their female teams by putting words such as “Lady” in front of the school team’s nickname have ceased to do so. The Baylor University women’s basketball team kept its Lady Bears name long after most strayed from that tradition, but earlier this month they also simply became the Baylor Bears, for correspond to other teams in their school.
While removing the W or the word Lady from a title might seem like a small thing, it does mean a lot, says Carly Jackson, a Canadian goalkeeper with the Buffalo Beauts who will travel regularly 230 kilometers from London, Ont., To play, all. by pursuing graduate studies at the University of Western Ontario.
“It’s exciting as a player, the idea of being defined by your athleticism, as opposed to being male or female or non-binary,” said Jackson, who was third pick in the draft. of the NWHL in 2020. “You should be defined by your playing abilities as a professional, like a hard worker, a great person in the locker room, a good penalty killer or a goalscorer. It will be exciting as an athlete to be asked questions about things like that. “
While the crux of the NWHL’s name change to PHF is removing the genre from its title, it also comes at a time when the league is entering a new era, of sorts.
“Our league has really changed over the last 10 months,” said Tumminia, a former baseball executive and part owner of several minor league baseball clubs, who took over in October.
Despite the pandemic and its severely shortened 2020-21 season, there has been growth in the league. Tumminia emphasizes things like private ownership of all of her clubs so that she can move away from the league-owned model. The league has seen big-game streaming numbers on Twitch, record-breaking sponsorship deals, lifted the Isobel Cup on a nationwide broadcast for the first time in Season 6, and doubled the league’s salary cap for the season 7.
But in parallel with the growth, certain image problems persist since the creation of the league in 2015. Player salaries were reduced in 2016, which left a certain suspicion of the commissioner and founder at the time. , Dani Rylan. The bubbling 2020-21 playoff tournament in Lake Placid, NY was disrupted by positive COVID tests, and there was a high profile public feud with Barstool Sports. In addition, some fans criticized Toronto Six coach Digit Murphy, who had, for some time, been listed as a supporter of the Women’s Sports Policy Task Force, which was screened for allegedly transphobic ideas.
PHF’s biggest problem remains: The best women in the world are still not playing in their league. Most Canadian and US national team athletes instead choose to play for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), which has teams in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Minnesota and New Hampshire, and plays traveling showcases. for cash prizes, some staged in partnership with NHL clubs. Many of these stars criticized the then NWHL’s travel, compensation and training conditions based on their past experiences playing there.
“Communication between PWHPA and PHF has never been better,” Tumminia says of PWHPA. “We are talking more now than we have in the past three years. And our goals continue to align. We both want the best opportunity for athletes in sport. “
The PHF has improved the player experience, from travel to equipment, off-ice equipment, locker rooms, pre-game and post-game meals, and player relocation allowances.
“Some of these players have long memories of what they didn’t like about the past – like four or five years ago, and aren’t as willing as we would like to have them give it another try. our league, ”said Miles. Arnone, who chairs the Isobel Cup champion Boston Pride’s ownership group. “What they have said publicly that they want, we are already doing. I challenge anyone to compare the conditions, opportunities and support our players receive with players on the PWHPA Tour. “
More sponsorship and business partner deals, along with increased engagement from private property, have doubled the salary cap to US $ 300,000 per team for the 2021-22 season – the highest of the history of the league. The size of the roster remains the same (between 20 and 25), as well as the number of matches on the program. So a higher cap will mean more money for each athlete, without increasing the workload. Players are also getting shares in league-wide revenue deals and jersey sales.
Arnone says the top players could make up to US $ 30,000 a season – still not a living full-time salary, but a big raise.
Instead of a regular season last winter, the league hosted a two-week ‘bubble’ playoff tournament at the historic Herb Brooks Arena in late January, with NBCSN scheduled to televise the semi-finals and the final, the first times professional women’s hockey games would be broadcast live on a major US cable network. Before the arrival of these playoffs, two teams had to give up after outbreaks of COVID-19 and the tournament was put on hold.
The tournament resumed in Boston in March, the Cup was awarded and the league made history again with NBCSN broadcasting its semi-finals and final, with an all-female broadcast team.
The PHF opens its new season on November 6, the first look at the league’s new era and its increased emphasis on inclusiveness. All six teams will be in action.
“I was extremely proud to play in the NWHL but when asked where I played hockey by strangers it worried me to give the full name of the league and basically get out of it. myself, ”Harrison Browne, a transgender athlete who retired from the league in 2018 and identifies with he / him pronouns, wrote on Twitter. “This is a very important decision for non-binary or trans hockey players.”
Ann Pegoraro, Lang Chair in Sport Management at the University of Guelph, wonders why this rebranding was not immediately accompanied by a new policy on trans athletes, a new website and new social media addresses that include the new league name.
These things all remain the same as before the rebranding. The transgender player policy on the league’s website is dated October 29, 2020 and bases player eligibility on testosterone levels.
“With my gender equity hat on, I’m all for this removal of the gender modifier from the league title, it’s great, but they had to follow it a lot better from a marketing standpoint,” he said. said Pegoraro. “Plus, they just got a lot of momentum from last season, reached new audiences on NBC and Twitch, created a lot of notoriety with their old name and then changed it.”
COVID-19 protocols for fan participation in PHF matches have yet to be announced. The PWHPA will also be in action, with its first stopover Nov. 12-13 in Truro, Nova Scotia.