“We are a group of very determined people who are going to prove people wrong”

Olympian Jayna Hefford is launching Canada’s first professional women’s hockey league in her most ambitious expectation-defying act yet

For Jayna Hefford, it is always a numbers game. She’s won four consecutive Olympic gold medals and scored 157 goals and 291 points in 267 games during her 17-year international career. But launching the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) in five short months stands as the biggest accomplishment she has faced.

“This is much different, much bigger, and in many ways more challenging because this is something that hasn’t existed before,” says Hefford, who is the PWHL’s senior vice-president of hockey operations. “And it’s something we’ve had to work really hard to show the value.”

The rapid pace of the approaching milestone is dizzying, and beyond ambitious:

  • The deal to create the league was announced earlier this year, after a group headed by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter and including tennis great and women’s sports icon Billie Jean King purchased assets to clear the way for the one sustainable league.
  • The Professional Women’s Hockey Player Association, at the time led by Hefford, ratified a collective bargaining agreement in July that includes provisions around maternity leave, a housing stipend and a minimum salary.
  • The six inaugural teams — Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Boston, New York and Minnesota — were announced in August.
  • Hefford officially joined the PWHL in October.
  • Training camp started Nov. 15.
  • And the first puck drops in January.

As Hefford explains it, there are “very small margins of error and the minute women’s hockey doesn’t excel, it will be an ‘I told you so,’ sort of thing.”

But one of the greatest hockey players of all time has no doubts they will succeed. “The women that are part of this have been going against the norm their entire lives. There’s a persistence, a resiliency, standing up for what you believe, following a passion despite not being the most common path,” she says, speaking for herself and the former players working behind the scenes to pull this off. “We are a group of very determined people who are going to prove people wrong.”

In early November, when Hefford spoke to the Public Policy Forum about being named a PPF award recipient, she was driving to Ottawa with some of the PWHL front-office staff to make a site visit. They were inspecting some needed renovations and meeting with the new coaching staff. The next day she was off to Montreal.

As she says, launching one new team would be daunting, but six verges on the impossible. There has been so much to do, including arranging ticketing and transportation, securing insurance, ordering jerseys, sticks, skate sharpeners and medical supplies, hiring officials, establishing all sorts of protocols and policies and finalizing a schedule. “The list is sort of endless,” she says.

Hefford started playing hockey in Kingston, Ont., at the age of six, after hanging around rinks watching her older brother’s games. The opportunities for girls in the mid-1980s were limited, so she played with a mix of boys and girls before joining, at age 10, the Kingston Kodiaks (now the Greater Kingston Ice Wolves). She played university hockey with the University of Toronto team.

In women’s professional hockey, she led the Brampton Thunder of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) to three straight Clarkson Cup appearances and, in 2008-09, she won the Angela James Bowl as the CWHL’s leading scorer. In international play, she’s won four Olympic gold medals (five medals in all) and seven gold medals at the IIHF Women’s World Championship. She has the second-most goals, third-most assists and second-most points in Team Canada history. In 2018, she was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

After she retired in 2015, she coached for a time at the University of Toronto, then she shepherded the PWHPA from its inception in 2019 as lead consultant through the deal to create this new league. In October 2023, she switched from the player side to the management side, and says she brings a “player-first mindset” with her.

The positives of creating this league are multi-faceted, and Hefford is excited to watch them multiply, as well as treating fans to the quality hockey she knows they will experience. “We’re all aware timeline is aggressive — but we’ve committed to the athletes to get this up and running,” she says. “We may make mistakes, but we will fix them.”

“We’re creating opportunities in hockey, but I think we’re doing much more than that. We’re changing society,” says the now 46-year-old, adding she sees the impact on her own three children and with partner Kathleen Kauth, who is a former U.S. Olympian Hefford played against in Olympic and world title competitions — and played with on the Brampton Thunder.

Their daughters are 10 and six, while their son is eight. All three play minor hockey (with Hefford acting as an assistant coach when she is in Toronto). “We used to say we just want all the young girls to come out and watch these women play, whereas now we’re trying to attract everyone to see these amazing women play.” She says women hockey players used to serve as inspiration, but now they provide entertainment as well.

“My son loves female players as much as he loves male players.” When he’s older, she believes he won’t question whether women should have equity in the boardroom or on the rink, it will just be expected.

“We know people want to watch professional women’s sport and they’re about to get the opportunity,” says Hefford, adding, “It’s been a long road to get here.”

Profile by Shelley Page

Photo by Blair Gable

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