By Gabi Grande

The sounds of skates carving into ice fill Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena. Ponytails swing back and forth with each player’s stride. Bodies collide and crunch against the boards, leaving them to wobble upon impact. The vibration is felt throughout the arena, hitting Jennifer Faires and her wife in the stands. The pair managed to buy tickets for the Battle on Bay Street, minutes before fans of PWHL Toronto and PWHL Montreal sold out the iconic venue. As the black puck met the white mesh of the net, sounds of people erupting in cheers echoed around the rink. In perfect harmony, Faires and her wife jumped to their feet and high fived their neighbours. Fans, young and old, all cheering for the same thing — women’s hockey. 

The Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) is tackling many firsts in the world of women’s hockey. Livable wages, broadcasted games, massive corporate sponsors — Canadian Tire, Air Canada and Barbie, to name a few. The organization is working overtime to ensure the success of the league. And representation is at the forefront, especially for the LGBTQ+ community. Four out of six PWHL team captains are gay. There are currently over 20 players who publicly identify as LGBTQ+. And for many queer elders, it’s a chance to see some overdue representation.

Faires, lifelong hockey player and avid spectator, started playing hockey in the 1980s when she was 17-years-old. “I’d go to garage sales and beg, borrow, and steal equipment and get on the T.T.C.,” she said. “My parents were against women playing hockey because it wasn’t ladylike.” Now in her 50s, she continues to play hockey with her other queer friends.

Jennifer Faires sitting beside Jayna Hefford on a hockey bench. Both are wearing yellow jerseys and black helmets. Their last names "Faires" and "Hefford" are visual on the back of their jerseys.
Jennifer Faires sitting on a hockey bench beside Jayna Hefford, four-time Canadian Olympic Gold medalist. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Faires)

Faires’ friend started the Toronto Women’s Hockey League, an adult recreational ice hockey league open to women, trans, non-binary and two-spirited people. The teams would play on Friday nights in Toronto’s Moss Park. “I know the older lesbians are just huge on hockey,” mentioned Faires. “[We]’ve always supported it and to have an actual team that we can go and celebrate is fantastic.” 

Before the inception of the PWHL, choices of professional play were extremely limited for women. The National Women’s Hockey League launched in 1999 with the Western Women’s Hockey League following suit in 2004. Both leagues eventually folded, citing lack of financial resources. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League replaced the NWHL and ran for 12 seasons until 2019. Players participated without pay in each league, operating on a not-for-profit basis. The CWHL ultimately folded, again citing lack of financial stability. A new National Women’s Hockey League (later called the Premier Hockey Federation) was expanded in Canada in 2020, and was the first to offer its players salaries. 

However, following the dissolution of previous leagues, hundreds of notable players, including Olympic and World Champions, opted to “boycott existing leagues in pursuit of a unified, financially stable professional league,” ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported in May of 2019. Sarah Nurse, Hilary Knight and Brianne Jenner, to name a few, founded the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA). Two years later, the PWHL was born. (The PWHL did not respond to a request for comment.) 

In contrast, the over-century-old NHL hasn’t had an openly gay player in the entire existence of the league. Last June, the league banned pride tape and speciality warm-up jerseys. The ban came after multiple players refused to wear pride jerseys, citing religious reasons. Also banned were multiple other specialty jerseys, including Black History Month, Indigenous Peoples night and Lunar New Year celebrations. After months of backlash, the ban was rescinded.

A PWHL game day experience video. (Gabi Grande/T·)

Melissa Chadwick, an out and proud lesbian and PWHL Toronto fan, holds an old photograph of her youth hockey team. “There’s several queer people in this photo,” she says nostalgically. “The pride tape thing really made me mad. [It] felt like an attack on gay players.” Chadwick started playing hockey in the 1980s in small town Ontario, and continues to play ball hockey in a queer league in Hamilton. She attended the PWHL three-on-three showcase at Scotiabank Arena — a Friday night event after the NHL’s All Star Draft. She sat up in the nosebleeds with her wife, but that didn’t hinder their experience. “A lot of where we were sitting was for the PWHL,” she said. “People were excited to be there, it was palpable energy.” 

PWHL fans, through thick and thin, support the players and their lives outside the rink — especially within the queer community. During the second game of the inaugural PWHL season, Montreal’s Laura Stacey scored a goal and celebrated with team captain and fiancée, Marie-Philip Poulin. X user @/TiktacTOmar shared a gif of the goal’s celebration with the caption, “Score a goal and celly with your fiancée.” The post was met with generally positive attitudes and over 2,500 people liked it. 

Assuming Stacey was straight, an unknown X user, Marcus, replied “Her fiancé is there? I didn’t see him behind the glass?” Rallying behind the queer PWHL players, a final user in the thread, @/22JQUINN, responded, “Her fiancée is #29, Poulin. She’s gay, Marcus.” Those last three words sent shockwaves through the female hockey community. Older lesbians started coming to games with posters saying, “She’s gay, Marcus.” Some even made their own t-shirts. Each hockey game since that X interaction is a game of I Spy — find the “She’s gay, Marcus” reference.

Pam Wolff, a born-and-bred Chicagoan, struggled for her space in the hockey community. Being a triplet and having two brothers who played the sport, she wanted to play too. “[My mom] would not let me follow after them because [women playing hockey] just wasn’t done,” said Wolff. “I had to fight to be accepted as a woman.” 

With no PWHL team in Chicago, Wolff cheers for Minnesota. “I’m pretty much rooting for anyone who’s not Montreal or New York,” said Wolff. “I’m just a sensible person so I can’t root for Montreal. And New York…? I’m from Chicago!”

She studied at the University of Michigan and frequently used their rink to practise her goaltending. “The more we play, the more that we can explore being ourselves,” said Wolff. “Playing hockey really did help me find myself. I don’t think I would have been able to come out later in life if I hadn’t played hockey.” There are 53 American players who are active in PWHL rosters, some who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Chadwick feels optimistic that the PWHL will give younger generations a chance to find themselves, just like Wolff did. When asked what she’d say to queer youth in hockey today, Chadwick went quiet. “I think there’s more people to look up to and say ‘oh that person is like me,’ or ‘I’m that person,’” she said. “Where we didn’t have those role models growing up.” The women in the PWHL are currently those role models. Older queer people flock to PWHL games for a sense of community and belonging. “We have to keep sticking with it and being visible and present,” said Chadwick. “I want to be visible, I’m not afraid.”