The Connecticut Whale’s stay in Simsbury was brief – just 10 games.
Connecticut was not one of the six cities or locations selected to play in the new Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) that begins play in January 2024.
The PWHL will hit the ice this winter with six teams – three in the United States (New York, Boston, Minnesota) and three in Canada (Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa).
Connecticut and the Buffalo Beauts, both charter members of the National Women’s Hockey League in 2015, were the only two Premier Hockey Federation cities not selected to continue playing. The PWHL selected six locations – all in cities that current have National Hockey League franchises.
The PHF ceased to exist in July when a group of investors purchased the assets of the PHF to create one women’s hockey league. The PWHL also spent months to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), which was comprised mainly of the national team players from the U.S. and Canada.
After seven years in various Connecticut hockey arenas in Danbury, North Branford and Stamford, the Whale landed in Simsbury last summer with a deal to play their home games at the International Skating Center of Connecticut (ISCC). The Whale had agreed to begin training in Simsbury and make the ISCC their full-time base for this upcoming season.
While the ISCC renovated a locker room for the Whale and had strength and conditioning facility on campus, the arena’s seating capacity was small – around 500 fans.
The new league is placing an emphasis on professional-level facilities, including plenty of seats.
“There were various sites visits,” said Jayna Hefford, Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations. “We were looking at game facilities, training facilities, strength and conditioning pieces. We had to make sure (potential markets) had all of the pieces in place.
“We wanted a market excited about the women’s game, with a lot of traditional hockey fans that we think will support this,” Hefford said. “We were looking for venues to provide a level of professionalism and size that we believe we will need.”
Stan Kasten, a member of the PWHL’s Board of Directors and president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, said the league will be playing in American Hockey League (AHL) and Ontario Hockey League (OHL) buildings.
“We will be in some bigger buildings and we understand that on some nights they won’t look great,” he said. “Over the course of the year, we will be in some NHL buildings in NHL cities.”
Kelli Becconsall, owner of the ISCC in Simsbury, said that PWHL officials didn’t visit the building. She said that she was told that the league was focusing on teams in NHL cities so she wasn’t surprised by the announcement.
Becconsall said that she did reach out to league officials to offer the facility as a training site but has not heard anything yet.
Two Connecticut Whale players – Justin Reyes and Lenka Serdar – have been working out at the ISCC this summer to prepare for the upcoming season, Becconsall said. Other players on the Whale roster were invited to train here as well.
“The offer still stands,” Becconsall said.
The PWHL has identified 300 players that will be eligible for the first PWHL draft on Sept. 18 in Toronto. Teams can sign up to three free agents before the draft from Sept. 1-10. The draft will consist of 15 rounds. Training camps begin the week of Nov. 13.
The PWHL will play 24 games this season but hopes to play 32 games in a normal season that would begin in November, Kasten said.
“We don’t care where you played before you got here,” said Brian Burke, the former Hartford Whalers, Vancouver Canuks, Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, who is the executive director of the league’s player association. “If you can play here, you can play. We’ve got a spot for you if you can make us better.”
The league shared information with the 300 players on Tuesday night, Hefford said.
The PWHL is close to announcing their six general managers for the teams. No team nicknames or facilities were announced. The league is working to finalize team names, logos and facilities, Kasten said.
Kasten said there could be some neutral site games this season. Becconsall said the ISCC would welcome an opportunity to host a PWHL contest.
Karsten didn’t specifically address why Connecticut wasn’t selected to be part of the league’s first season.
“We had a lot of great cities (to consider), certainly more than six that would deserve and support a team,” he said. “Whoever isn’t here at the start could well be there in the future going forward.”
The Whale logo is still at center ice in the ISCC rink where the team played and Becconsall has no plans at this time to take down any of the Whale signage around the building.
“It was short lived but we certainly enjoyed every second of it,” Becconsall said. “My hope is that the (PWHL) enjoys great success and the experience (the Whale) had here is matched. Maybe we can get them back some day.”
Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter and his wife, Kimbra, are the sole investors in the league, Karsten said. The Board of Directors that includes sports icon Billie Jean King, sports executive Ilana Kloss, Kasten, and Dodgers Senior Vice President of Business Strategy Royce Cohen.
Connecticut finished 14-8-2 in the final season of the PHF, earning the No. 3 seed in the Isobel Cup playoffs. The Whale dropped a best-of-3 semifinal series to the eventual champion Toronto Six, 2-1.