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Rift appears to widen between two women’s pro hockey groups

Engel-Natzke capitals

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 17: A view of the practice pucks of the Philadelphia Flyers during warm-ups against the Tampa Bay Lightning on November 17, 2018 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Hockey Hall of Fame member Angela James opened what could become a widening rift between North America’s top two women’s professional hockey organizations on the eve of joining the new ownership group of the Premier Hockey Federation’s Toronto Six.

Days before the PHF officially announced the sale on Monday, James posted a lengthy note on a Facebook group page in which she accused the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association of stunting the sport’s development because of its refusal to join forces. Her message drew more attention when Six player Saroya Tinker re-posted it on her Twitter account.

“Right now, I’m so disappointed in the PWHPA. Who’s interests are you protecting?” James wrote.

“Why can’t you work out these differences instead of suppressing and handcuffing the elite women’s athletes in the progress of the pro game already made,” she added. “Women’s hockey is bigger than the PHF and the PWHPA, together we can make history.”

James, a Six assistant coach this season, said she was speaking on her own and did not note she was part of the group buying the Toronto franchise. The ownership group also includes former NHL coach Ted Nolan, former NHL player Anthony Stewart and Bernice Carnegie, co-chair of the Carnegie Initiative, which was established to promote inclusiveness in hockey.

James’ criticism drew a response from PWHPA adviser Liz Knox. Without referencing James, Knox tweeted Sunday that “management, coaches, front office (etc) speaking on behalf of players’ experience instead of supporting the true voice of the players is exactly why the PWHPA was formed.”

The back and forth overshadowed the Six’s sale to a group hailed for its diversity.

James is the only Black player to captain Canada’s national team. Nolan, the NHL’s coach of the year with the 1996-97 Buffalo Sabres, is a member of the First Nation’s Ojibwe tribe. Stewart, whose father is from Jamaica, is chair of Hockey Equality.

The group purchased the team from BTM Partners, which established the Six as an expansion franchise two years ago.

The PHF, formerly known as the National Women’s Hockey League before rebranding last summer, is North America’s lone professional women’s hockey league, established in 2015. The PHF plans to expand from six to eight teams, provide health care and also more than double its salary cap to $750,000 per team next season.

The PWHPA membership is made up of a majority of U.S. and Canadian national team players. It was formed in May 2019 following the demise of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

The organizations have been at odds ever since, with PWHPA members balking at playing for the then-NWHL because of differences with former commissioner and founder Dani Rylan Kearney’s management style. Concerns also were raised over the private-investor-backed league’s financial shortfalls. The league slashed players’ salaries by more than half a month into its second season and was criticized for not always reimbursing players’ travel and meal expenses.

The PWHPA instead pushed for forming a league with what it called a sustainable economic model with more robust support for players.

Signs of the PWHPA closing in on its objective became apparent the past two weeks with talks intensifying with select NHL teams and major corporate sponsors to form a league within the next year.

The PHF, meantime, has spent the past two years transforming itself in a series of moves. It has revamped its business model, its teams are now independently owned and the league is headed by a board of governors.

And yet, questions remain after Commissioner Ty Tumminia cited personal reasons behind her decision to step down after this season after overseeing much of the PHF’s transformation. Her departure also coincides with the sale of the Six, with whom Tumminia first joined the league as the franchise’s chairwoman.

James questioned what more the PHF must do to meet the PWHPA’s demands, citing the $25 million league owners are committing over the next three year to increase salaries, add health care and improve infrastructure.

“They have already agreed to everything on the PWHPA’s wish list to my knowledge and still not good enough,” James wrote. “How about combining your resources for the better of the game, and everyone set aside their egos?”