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The Toronto Six ownership change is important growth not just for the team, but for all of hockey

The importance of growing the game of hockey so that it is inclusive of all genders, races, sexual orientations, abilities, and people who are otherwise discriminated against cannot be overstated. The world of hockey was built for white men, and those in it have not yet done enough to restructure the game to make it truly for everyone. We’re not that far from Jordan Subban experiencing race-motivated abuse during a game. We are still in a moment where women aren’t given anywhere near the same opportunities for growth, development, and success as men are.

There are groups who are trying harder than others to make change happen. The Seattle Kraken, for one, have been adamant about diversity and inclusion being fundamental parts of their organizational philosophy. The Vancouver Canucks, for two, hired both Émilie Castonguay and Cammi Granato as assistant general managers, making history with both hirings. There’s the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA), the Professional Women’s Hockey Player’s Association (PWHPA), Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC), to name a few more.

But this story is about another such group; a professional hockey league with proper franchises, proper competition, and compensation for the players. It’s an organization with a mission for equity, diversity and inclusion, which is getting increased coverage and influence, and with wonderful people steering it forward. I’m talking about, of course, the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF).

Being a Toronto Maple Leafs centric blog, our eyes are mostly focused on the local franchise, the Toronto Six. The recent news of their change in ownership was first announced by Jeff Marek on the 32 Thoughts Segment on Hockey Night in Canada, and now it has been confirmed by the league. This gives us an opportunity to have an in-depth conversation about this franchise and what it means for the growth of hockey.

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Coming from an NHL-based perspective as I am and I’m sure the majority of readers are, an ownership change doesn’t seem like a positive story. In this case, it absolutely is. Not just because of who is involved, which I’ll talk about further on, but because of what it means about the team’s future amid the PHF’s ever-evolving growth strategy.

The PHF announced a major investment from ownership about a month ago, to commence next season. The changes include a doubling of the salary cap, player health benefits, expansion to two new franchises, and a number of other improvements.

At that time, there were only three owners of the six franchises:

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Toronto has now split off from BTM Partners to a singular ownership group, which was the PHF’s vision for the future this whole time. Here’s John Boynton’s quote on the topic, from Casey Bryant’s story at The Ice Garden on BTM taking on the Metropolitan Riveters:

“Someday we’ll have just one team,” Boynton noted. “Our first divestment would have to happen within five years. I would expect it to happen earlier than that. I certainly hope it does. Local ownership is the key to sustainability.”

This Toronto Six news means that their first divestment concluded within 2 years of that statement. We can expect some movement on the Riveters as well at some point, but the timeline for that is not clear. There has also been talk of the Minnesota Whitecaps being for sale, but nothing has materialized there as of yet.

Regardless, this change to local ownership for the Toronto Six feels like a statement that they are sustainable as a franchise for the medium term. And really, that’s what anyone wants for women’s hockey: sustainability. Also, equitable compensation, and player health and safety. But mostly, sustainability.

The PHF and the PWHPA

The world of women’s hockey has been tumultuous so far, so all signs of stability are hugely important. There currently exists a divide between what the PHF has to offer and what North America’s most talented women’s hockey players, the PWHPA, want of a professional league. Each step the PHF takes forward to making their league more sustainable and financially supportive for the players is a step toward unity between these two groups. From Myles Dichter’s story at the CBC, Jayna Hefford, the chairperson of the PWHPA, laid out her requirements for a merger in broad terms:

Hefford named three things the PWHPA is fighting for: health benefits (especially for players in the U.S.), a living wage (“a respectable number that allows them to be hockey players”) and professional hockey infrastructure.

PWHPA players currently don’t receive regular salaries, but can win their share of a $1 million US pot with team success on the Dream Gap Tour.

“If there was an opportunity for the players to play in an environment that provided all the things I named off to you, they would be a part of that, right? But that currently doesn’t exist. So those are things that we just don’t think the players should have to compromise on,” Hefford said.

With the above mentioned investment next season, they seem to have be completing the first goal, with some form of health benefits being confirmed. In addition, the league has continually taken steps toward a living wage while balancing league sustainability. And finally, they absolutely have the infrastructure for professional hockey; they have an infrastructure that is continuing to grow with two new franchises coming. Of course, while Hefford is the chairperson, ultimately the PWHPA is about hearing the voices of all players as individuals. Liz Knox, a former CWHL player and current advisor/organizer for the PWHPA highlighted that point:

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So, it may be the case that this still isn’t what the members of the PWHPA as a whole want.

If it comes, though, unity won’t just bring a warm fuzzy feeling for everyone involved in women’s hockey. It is also supposed to bring on NHL support, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly stated. The NHL refuses to step in and support one group or the other, they will only involve themselves in professional women’s hockey in North America when this divide is bridged. What’s stopping them from supporting both, I’m not sure.

One of the named members of the new ownership group, Angela James, who among a long list of achievements is the Six’s current assistant coach, had some strong words about this seemingly approaching unity.

Her words are important not just being in the PHF and being a spokesperson for the league. They’re also important because James is a legend in women’s hockey and esteemed to an unending degree. When she speaks, you should listen.

The Toronto Six as a BIPOC-led hockey organization

This story is not just about how the PHF is making moves toward a more financially stable future. There is Black-ness and Indigenous-ness at the center of this whole team, and that only continues with the new ownership group. For anyone not aware, BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour.

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Angela James, mentioned above, is a member of both the IIHF and the Hockey Halls of Fame. She has been a pioneer in women’s hockey for decades with a long list of accolades, including the Order of Hockey in Canada in 2021. She represented Canada at each of the four IIHF World Championships teams from 1990 to 1997, winning gold thrice. Controversially, she was not selected to the first-ever Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team, when women’s hockey was added to the Olympics in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. In hindsight this seems to certainly be an act of racial discrimination. She was a point-per-game player in the World Championships the year prior. Sure, she was 34 at the time, but she led her team and was 4th in the league with 55 points in 31 games the next year in the NWHL-CA, the first major women’s hockey league in Canada and the predecessor to the CWHL, the first professional women’s hockey league in Canada, which folded in 2019. Regardless of that non-selection, her career was prolific.

Anthony Stewart is a Black former NHL player, who now works as an analyst for Hockey Night in Canada. Stewart played 262 NHL games and scored 71 points. This is Stewart’s first foray into team management in his post-playing career and it is incredibly exciting to see him as a widely publicly known figure being a representative of this franchise.

Bernice Carnegie is a name most readers probably don’t know, as her work in the hockey world has mostly been at a grassroots level. She is the co-founder and current president of The Carnegie Initiative, an organization devoted to inclusion and acceptance in hockey. Her father, Herbert (Herb) H. Carnegie, created the Futures ACES Philosophy, which is still used to this day by schools across Canada thanks to Bernice’s work with the charitable foundation she co-founded to spread its mission.

The final named member of the ownership group, Ted Nolan, should be familiar to many hockey fans. He is also a former NHLer, having played 78 games, primarily with the Detroit Red Wings. Nolan is an Indigenous man, from the Ojibwe tribe, specifically Garden River First Nation community, in what is now Northern Ontario. Ted also coached for many years in the NHL and internationally, coaching 472 games with the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders, and a number of years in the Latvian international program, including the 2014 Olympic games. Ted and his two sons, Jordan Nolan and Brandon Nolan, run the 3NOLANS project, which does talks on the Indigenous experience both in hockey and more broadly, as well as running a First Nations hockey school.

This only continues the standout racial representation that is at the core of the Toronto Six. Their general manager, Krysti Clarke, is a Black woman who is not only awesome, but was also the first Black GM in the PHF’s history. There’s also Mark Joslin, the Six’s head coach, who is also the first Black person to have that role in the PHF. Then there’s Mikyla Grant-Mentis, the team’s scoring leader and last year’s League MVP, and a Black woman. There’s also Cristine Chao and Saroya Tinker on the back end, new to the team this season, both Women of Colour. I also can’t say I know how everyone on the team identifies racially, so while not visibly People of Colour, there could be even more racialized people in the Toronto Six organization that I’m not aware of.

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Final Thoughts

It’s invigorating to see this development for Toronto, and especially for it to be so clearly BIPOC-led. We don’t know the full composition of the ownership group, but it doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch to call the Toronto Six a BIPOC-owned organization now.

It will be so important to see how Jayna Hefford and the PHWPA respond to these continuing developments from the PHF. There’s been a lot of talk of egos and personal differences, but one thing is clear: both Hefford and those in charge of the PHF want the same thing: for people of all genders to have the opportunity for success in hockey. The PHF, in my opinion, is showing that it can provide exactly that.

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