It should come as no surprise that the first free-agency period for the new Professional Women’s Hockey League saw the signings divided largely by national lines.
Whether it’s at the Olympics or the world championships, the rivalry between the United States and Canada is one of the fiercest in sports — especially because there’s no clear-cut No. 1.
Since the pandemic pause, Canada held the edge with wins at the 2021 and 2022 world championships and at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. But Team USA came back to grab gold on Canadian soil at the 2023 Worlds in Brampton, ON last April, scoring four unanswered goals in the third period for a 6-3 win.
During the 2022-23 season, players from both sides of the 49th parallel co-existed as teammates during the PWHPA’s Dream Gap Tour. Players were divided into four teams for a 20-game barnstorming event which touched down in nine regions stretching from Nova Scotia to California.
Maybe, once the rosters of the PWHL’s six teams are fully populated, we’ll also see some integration — as well as some players from Europe and from the the PHF, which was purchased by the PWHL in order to finally make the goal of having one professional women’s hockey league a reality.
But after this week’s initial free-agent period, when teams were allowed to sign up to three players to three-year contracts, all nine slots on the three Canadian franchises were filled by Canadian Olympians. Stateside, eight of the nine signings were members of the U.S. National Team.
The lone exception? Defender Micah Zandee-Hart, a 26-year-old from Victoria, B.C. She served as captain at Cornell University in her senior year, 2019-20, and has collected gold with Team Canada at U18, world championship and Olympic events.
Zandee-Hart signed on with the PWHL’s New York franchise, along with U.S. forwards Alex Carpenter and Abby Roque.
New York general manager Pascal Daoust is also Canadian. Most recently, he spent the last seven years as the GM of the Val D’Or Foreurs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Prior to that, he was an assistant coach with the women’s hockey team at the University of Montreal, winning two national championships over six years.
Among Canada’s three teams, two GMs also have roots in Quebec.
Daniele Sauvageau, now running the new Montreal franchise, is a Montreal native who coached Team Canada to gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics. She founded the University of Montreal women’s hockey program and served as its GM, at the same time that Daoust was an assistant coach.
Sauvageau’s first signings include two Quebec natives: Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin and goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens, along with 29-year-old forward Laura Stacey, who is Poulin’s fiancee.
The Toronto PWHL franchise is being managed by Gina Kingsbury, who was born in Saskatchewan but grew up in Quebec. After a successful playing career, Kingsbury embarked on a management path with Hockey Canada. She rose to become vice president of hockey operations and was general manager for Canada’s women’s national team program since 2018.
Kingsbury’s first signings are also from Team Canada — Nova Scotian forward Blayre Turnbull and a pair of Ontarians: forward Sarah Nurse and defender Renata Fast.
Rounding out the Canadian franchises, Ottawa was the first team to announce its signings, last Tuesday. Headed up by Michael Hirschfeld, the former executive director of the NHL Coach’s Association, the Team Canada members signed to play in the nation’s capital are goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer, who hails from Alberta, along with forwards Emily Clark of Saskatchewan and Brianne Jenner of Ontario, who was named MVP at the 2022 Olympics.
Returning to the U.S., the Minnesota franchise is the only one outside the Eastern Time Zone. But the State of Hockey has a rich history with the women’s sport which warrants its inclusion as one of the first six franchises.
GM Natalie Darwitz is a native of Eagen, MN and an alumnus of the University of Minnesota. She spent three years as captain of Team USA, including at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and is a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Darwitz’s first signings are midwest-focused. Defender Lee Stecklein and forward Kelly Pannek are both Minnesota natives and former captains of the Golden Gophers, while lightning-fast Kendall Coyne Schofield hails from the Chicago area. She gave birth to her first child in July.
Finally, the Boston franchise is being overseen by Danielle Marmer — a Vermont native who played at Quinnipiac before working with their women’s team for three seasons as director of player development and director of hockey operations. Last season, she worked with the NHL’s Boston Bruins as a player development and scouting assistant.
Marmer’s first signings are headlined by arguably the greatest player in U.S. women’s hockey history, Hilary Knight. She previously spent time in the region with the Boston Blades of the CWHL and the NWHL’s Boston Pride. The group is rounded out by defender Megan Keller, 28, a Michigan native who attended Boston College, and goaltender Aerin Frankel, a 24-year-old New Yorker who went to Northeastern.
With the first round of free agency completed, the PWHL Draft is up next. It will take place in Toronto on Sept. 18.
The draft will be 15 rounds and follow a snake format, where the order of selection reverses for each round.
Minnesota will get the first-overall selection in Round 1:
Any players not selected by the end of the draft will be deemed free agents, and allowed to sign with any team to fill out their 23-player rosters. PWHL training camps are expected to open on Nov. 15, with a start date in January for this season’s 24-game schedule.
In the meantime, there’s plenty of housekeeping still to be addressed. A schedule needs to be built — which is expected to include neutral-site games which can spread the visibility of the PWHL beyond its six home markets. Also, teams need names, logos and home bases. So far, only Ottawa has announced where it will be playing — at TD Place Arena, home of the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s, which has a capacity of 6,500.
Starting a league from scratch is a massive undertaking, and the clock is ticking. But with Mark and Kimbra Walter writing the checks and their Los Angeles Dodgers associate Stan Kasten looking after the logistics, the foundation for the new league looks to be solid for this new professional women’s hockey venture.