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How the PWHL is giving hockey the creativity it needs

A women's hockey player in a blue jersey shoots a puck, while fans hold up signs by the glass behind her
PWHL Toronto's Maggie Connors shoots during warm-up ahead of the Battle on Bay Street on Feb. 16, 2024 (Photo: Sammy Kogan)


Hockey fans have deserved a league that isn’t afraid to try something new. To bring some new-age thinking and intrigue to an age-old game.

Despite being in its inaugural season, the PWHL is providing. 


Last month, the league announced its playoff format, which includes a fresh twist—the team that finishes in first place at the end of the season will get the opportunity to select their opening-round opponent. They’ll have the chance to choose between the third- or fourth-place teams, the other of which will play the second-place team. 

The players have already expressed their positivity around the format.


“I think it's really innovative and really cool and unique in professional sports,” said Toronto defender Allie Munroe.


Looking ahead to the postseason, Toronto captain Blayre Turnbull wants these new rules to motivate players rather than intimidate them. 


“I think for us, that just gives us the kind of mindset where we want to accept that challenge and run with it and really get that underdog mentality going,” she said.

While Toronto has just come off an 11-game winning streak and is hardly an underdog at the moment, every team feels they want to either be that first-place team or be the one to prove them wrong.


“I think we’d be pretty pissed off,” said Munroe. “I would love to see someone pick us, but we’re going for first.” 

After a loss in Toronto on Friday, Mar. 8, Montreal captain Marie-Phillip Poulin said with about seven games remaining in the season, the stakes are high.

“It's gonna matter until the end,” she said.


At the same time they released the playoffs format, the PWHL also announced “The Gold Plan”, a system where once a team is mathematically eliminated from making the playoffs, they’ll start accruing “draft points.” Draft points are awarded the same way as the league's 3-2-1 scoring system—another much-appreciated move for a lot of opponents to the NHL’s overtime loss system. The team with the most draft points by season's end will be awarded the first overall pick in the PWHL draft. 


The Gold Plan is an example of a rule that doesn’t affect the game directly but adds stakes all season long, thanks to not relying on a flawed lottery system. It deters tanking and gives fans of teams outside the playoff bubble a reason to watch games.


The PWHL needed to be a united league, especially for its inaugural season. What it didn’t have to do but chose to be, is creative with its rules and regulations. Despite a quick turnaround from conception to draft to games, the league made it its goal to think outside the box. 


It's this outside-the-box thinking that Montreal forward Laura Stacey calls “amazing.” 


“I think ever since we started this league, actually ever since we sat out four long years ago, that was what we wanted: a league that was gonna be innovative,” said Stacey. “We wanted a league that was going to be viable for many years to come, if not forever.”


This all comes as a stark contrast to the NHL, whose biggest headlines out of the post-trade-deadline GM meetings were proposals for more video review and unintentionally slowing its game down.  


The biggest hockey league in the world’s product is at a point where after a goal, fans take a breather to wonder if a coach's challenge is on the way. The PWHL, on the other hand, is trying to make the game more fun. 


Probably the most well-known rule introduced by the PWHL has been the jailbreak goal, where a shorthanded goal frees the penalized player from the box. 


This is something Turnbull believes is “a lot of fun” and “adds a bit of an entertaining element” to the game.


“I love the jailbreak goals. I think it gives you a bit more incentive to be aggressive on the penalty kill and really go offensive instead of sitting back,” she said.


With a 3-2-1 points system, the Gold Plan, the jailbreak goal, and a playoff format never seen in pro hockey, the PWHL’s innovation has earned them a nomination for the 2024 Sports Business Award in the Breakthrough of the Year Category—proving that the league’s creativity has garnered recognition from more than player and fans.


When the PWHL was initially formed, the idea that made it different from women's leagues of the past was the idea of a single, unified league. But instead of simply settling for that, the PWHL has defined itself in its first season as a league that isn’t scared to try new things.


It is not hard to find fan support for that boldness. The Battle on Bay Street set a women’s hockey attendance record with 19,285 fans, which is set to be broken next month at the Bell Centre in Montreal after tickets sold out in less than 20 minutes earlier this week.


Poulin said she believes these new rules “make it even better to play in the league.”


“It’s amazing just to see the [evolution]. Every new rule from the jailbreak to the playoff format, it's amazing,” she said. “it makes it even better to play in the league.”


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