By Aisha Shabeese

Listen to the audio version of this story

In February 2010, the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver were playing on most television screens across Canada. 

Alicia MacKay rushed home from her own hockey game in Whitby, Ontario to join her family, watching on TV the third period of the men’s gold medal game between Canada and the United States. Team USA’s Zach Parise had scored a rebound goal to tie Canada, sending the game into overtime. 

Seven agonizing minutes later, Team Canada’s Jarome Iginla passed the puck to star forward Sidney Crosby. Amidst the chaos on the ice, Crosby, with unbelievable speed, shoots, and scores, leading Canada to victory. MacKay recalls her household “went absolutely crazy.”

Growing up playing hockey in the Greater Toronto Area, MacKay dreamed of playing professionally in the big leagues like Crosby, who’s the captain for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the National Hockey League (NHL). Yet those dreams for MacKay were “out of question” as a professional league for women did not exist yet. 

But now young girls can dream bigger. On Jan. 1, 2024, hockey history was made when the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) launched its inaugural season, showing young girls around the world that there is an opportunity for them to pursue a career in hockey at a professional level. 

“I think if the PWHL existed earlier, I believe that my parents would have pressured me more to practice my [shooting], stick-handling, etc outside of hockey. Though it would have been a long shot that I would have even made it to the PWHL,” said MacKay.

The PWHL allows girls to cheer on their own “Original Six” teams (Boston, Minnesota, Montreal, New York, Ottawa, and Toronto) with Canadian players like Toronto’s Sarah Nurse, New York’s Ella Shelton, and Montreal’s Marie-Philip Poulin, who inspire them to strive and reach the professional level in hockey. 

MacKay, now 23, plays in the Adult Safe Hockey League (ASHL) at Canlan Sports in Oshawa. “[The PWHL] would have been nice to look up too, instead of always looking up to male athletes, such as Sidney Crosby.”

The growing popularity of the PWHL has broken various records, including the world record for highest attendance at a women’s hockey game: 19,285 fans packed the sold out “ Battle on Bay Street” in mid-February at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The league’s popularity grows as young girls are seen smiling at PWHL Toronto home games holding signs reading “Cuz Girls Are Players Too.” These girls look up to the female athletes on the ice, aspiring to be just like them.

Considering the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won the infamous Stanley Cup in over 50 years, it may give some Toronto fans comfort knowing that the city’s women’s team is worth cheering for. PWHL Toronto is currently holding first place, whereas the Maple Leafs are sitting in 10th place in their respective leagues’ standings.

Kate Phillips, a hockey player and hockey mom from Milton, Ontario whose young daughter is a huge fan of Toronto’s centre Natalie Spooner, says that the excitement for the PWHL gives young girls who enjoy hockey a chance to work towards a goal of playing professionally. 

“It’s exciting because I didn’t have that growing up. I did love watching hockey, like NHL hockey, junior hockey, any hockey I could watch. But that the fact that there’s girls’ hockey, girls can watch that now,” said Phillips. “I think there will be a lot more girls interested [in the PWHL] because of it. They have these teams, players, and role models. I think it would be a huge difference.”

Canadian fans can watch all the PWHL action on broadcast channels including CBC, Sportsnet, and TSN. The league has also created a free live stream format for international fans to watch each games through its YouTube channel.

Students at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) have been informed via news release that their TMU Bold will share their home ice at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (formerly Maple Leafs Gardens) with PWHL Toronto. Although the league plays on the TMU campus, it’s extremely hard for students or anyone else to get tickets to Toronto’s home games, as the Mattamy Athletic Centre’s hockey rink seating capacity is only 2,600 seats. In early December, season tickets for PWHL Toronto home games sold out before the league had officially dropped the puck, showcasing the incredible passion the Toronto community has for its new professional women’s hockey team. 

TMU Bold women’s hockey head coach Lisa Haley says that it’s “very exciting” to finally see the establishment of the PWHL for the next generation of girls. “It’s really, really cool to see that [the PWHL] has finally arrived and there’s an opportunity to strive for a career in women’s hockey,” said Haley over the phone. 

Haley said TMU Bold and PWHL Toronto have a great relationship. The Bold gave its varsity change room for the Toronto team to use during home games. 

“I think for our players, they’ve also got teammates who are recent graduates who are playing in the league, which is really neat to see, and I think that’s also an inspiring experience for our players as well,” said Haley. 

A few TMU Bold staff members now work for the professional women’s league. Alana Goulden, once the manager of sport operations at TMU is now a hockey operations manager for PWHL Toronto. Haley Irwin, a former lead assistant coach for the TMU Bold women’s hockey team, is now the assistant coach for PWHL Ottawa. Lastly, Kori Cheverie, the former lead assistant coach for TMU Bold men’s hockey team, is now the head coach for PWHL Montreal. Cheverie skated on the Canadian women’s hockey team that won gold at the 2010 Olympics.

“Whether it’s on the ice or off the ice, I think this league has created lots of opportunities for females in professional sports,” Haley adds. 

MacKay’s own dreams of being a professional hockey player are long in the past. Still, she thinks that it’s great that the league now exists for girls younger than her to strive for a professional career in hockey. 

“It’s an inspiration to every girl across the world, knowing they could play professional hockey and make a living off doing what they love,” said MacKay. “Myself personally, even before this league existed, would rather prefer watching women play hockey over men.” 

“Women’s hockey has come a long way, and it is continuing to get more popular, so I think this league will continue to gain more popularity and get bigger.”