MINNEAPOLIS — The newly launched Professional Women’s Hockey League is quickly taking shape. Hilary Knight is in her familiar stomping grounds of Boston, Marie-Philip Poulin is home in Quebec and Kelly Pannek landed in her native Minnesota after becoming the league's first player to sign a contract.
On Friday, the yet-to-be-named six franchises announced their head coaches, with Canadian national team coach Troy Ryan most notably being hired by Toronto, along with two of his assistants also landing jobs — Courtney Kessel (Boston) and Kori Cheverie (Montreal).
U.S. national team forward Taylor Heise has more than one reason to look forward to Monday, when the PWHL holds its inaugural draft.
Minnesota holds the No. 1 selection, and there’s a growing buzz the franchise will pick the 23-year-old, who just completed a decorated college career with the Golden Gophers and grew up 75 miles from the Twin Cities.
“It would mean the world, but I’m going to be happy with any situation,” Heise told The Associated Press of the potential of going No. 1. “Minnesota is my home, and I’ll be very grateful if that’s the case. But, like I said, I think this league is going to be one that prospers, and I’m just going to be excited to be part of the process.”
Without naming who, Minnesota GM Natalie Darwitz would only say she already has a good idea of who she's picking first.
The possibility of Heise makes sense, given how Darwitz stayed close to home by filling her three, pre-draft free-agent spots. She signed two Minnesotans, Pannek and Lee Stecklein, and Kendall Coyne Schofield, who is from Chicago, and previously played in Minnesota.
Toronto has the second pick, followed by Boston, New York, Ottawa and Montreal. Teams will then select in the reverse order in each succeeding round of the 15-round draft.
Training camps are set to open in November, with each team playing a 24-game schedule that opens in January for a league that will bring together the top women players in the world, with a majority of them members of U.S. and Canadian national teams.
The league is financially backed by Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter, and includes former tennis star Billie Jean King on its board of directors, bringing what players hope to be much-needed, long-term financial stability and vision to a sport that's had difficulty gaining traction professionally.
The head coaches are but an example of the step up in class for women’s hockey, with Ryan reunited with Gina Kingsbury, who left Hockey Canada to be Toronto’s GM.
Two-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist and Czech Republic national team coach, Carla MacLeod, is taking over in Ottawa. Howie Draper, who coached the University of Alberta women’s team to eight national titles, was hired by New York. Minnesota hired former Bethel University men’s coach Charlie Burggraf, who is reunited with Darwitz, whom he coached while an assistant at Minnesota.
Each team began forming the foundation of its roster by signing three players to six-figure, three-year contracts. The majority of the players signed had connections to their respective communities, with most national team players staying in their home countries. The only exception was Canadian defender Micah Zandee-Hart joining Team USA players Alex Carpenter and Abby Roque by signing in New York.
Knight is from California and has a home in Idaho, but has extensive connections to New England. She attended a prep school and played for both the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League and National Women’s Hockey League Boston-based franchises.
“The City of Boston and its fans have always held a special place in my heart,” said 34-year-old Knight. “This year will be historic in so many ways, and I cannot wait to get started.”
Pannek, the dependable two-way U.S. national team forward, jumped at the opportunity to become the first PWHL player to sign a contract, and do so with Minnesota. The 27-year-old is from Plymouth, Minnesota, won two national titles with the Golden Gophers and her agent, Brant Feldman, just happened to represent Darwitz.
“I think it was no secret that this is where I wanted to be. And when the opportunity came along, I was ready and pretty decisive,” said Pannek, who followed up a day later by shooting a hole-in-one.
“Just a whole lot of luck, that’s all I’ll say about that,” she added about her golf feat. “It made for a pretty fun weekend.”
Darwitz hoped good things come in threes.
“We have Kelly as the first-ever signee. We have the first pick, so we would love to have that third No. 1, too, hopefully in June,” she said, referring to winning a PWHL title.
Heise, college hockey’s player of the year in 2022, is grateful to know she can transition to the PWHL immediately after completing her college career. Her predecessors had to wait.
“I have to give credit to all the women and people who have put in the time and effort to get our league started and to get all the groundwork done,” she said. “I’m super, super excited to prosper off of this amazing opportunity and do everything I can to continue the success of this league.”
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