PWHL showcases physicality of women’s game, with full approval from players

Extremely physical.

That’s how Montreal head coach and former professional player Kori Cheverie described the game play after her team completed three Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) exhibition games in Utica, N.Y., last month.

The games still showed off speed and skill, which have long been hallmarks of women’s hockey. But it was obvious early on that they were not going to be called the same way as a game at the international level.

That’s carried into the first three regular season games of the inaugural PWHL season, and for casual fans of women’s hockey who only follow the sport at the Olympics or world championships, the physicality in this league might come as a surprise.

“That’s just women’s hockey,” New York forward Jill Saulnier told Mainstreet Halifax host Jeff Douglas earlier this week, after her team won the first PWHL game 4-0 against Toronto. “I feel like a lot of the arguments and a lot of the kind of water off the duck’s back that we brush away is that, ‘Oh, it’s not physical. You can’t fight. You can’t hit.’

“I can pretty much for sure tell you that there is hitting in women’s hockey now. There were bodies flying all over the place. I was flying all over the place.”

Women’s hockey has always been a physical sport, but officiating hasn’t allowed it consistently.

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Things will be different in the PWHL, and that’s by design. As Hefford and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) started to build a vision of what an ideal league might look like over the past few years, it was clear the players wanted a more physical game.

“They train incredibly hard,” Hefford said in an interview this week. “They’re strong, they’re fit and they want to be able to play with some physicality.”

The PWHL rulebook, which was released on Monday, says body checking is allowed “when there is a clear intention of playing the puck or attempting to ‘gain possession’ of the puck.”

The message given to the officials, who are primarily drawn from the American Hockey League ranks, is that there should be contact happening along the boards, Hefford said.

“We’re not looking for open ice hitting,” she said. “We’re not trying to make the game unsafe. But we are trying to create the brand of hockey that is physical and skilled, and that can show both of those things.”

Good reviews from players

The players Hefford has spoken to after the first three games have told her it’s the way they’d like the game to be called. Some players, of course, are still adapting.

“But I can even tell from Utica, there’s more heads up,” Hefford said. “There’s people that are getting themselves prepared for that physical play along the boards.”

Among the players with good reviews of the PWHL’s approach to physicality is Ottawa forward Hayley Scamurra, a grinding type of player who prides herself on winning puck battles and being hard to play against.

“I’ve always been a physical player, and at times what bit me a little bit is that I’d be too physical and get body checking penalties,” she said.

She sees it as a “huge advantage” for her to be able to play as physical as she’d like to be along the boards, and believes it will fit in nicely with the gritty identity her team is trying to build.

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After hearing how a record-breaking crowd of more than 8,300 fans reacted to hits in Ottawa’s first game against Montreal, Scamurra believes fans like the way the rules are being applied, too.

“It’s not like we weren’t hitting each other prior to this,” Scamurra said. “I think what it allows is a free flowing game where they’re not calling [a penalty] every single time someone falls.”

Seeking consistency in officiating

Scamurra isn’t the only one who’s had trouble figuring out where the line is when it comes to how physical a player can be in women’s hockey.

Part of the problem is the line hasn’t always been in the same place. It’s something Hefford experienced in her own career.

“Some games would be very physical and some games wouldn’t be, and you just didn’t know how to play the game,” she said. “It’s difficult as a player when you don’t know where the line is from game to game or period to period.”

To solve the problem of consistency, the PWHL started by adopting the NHL rulebook with some modifications. The PWHL’s rule on scoring shorthanded, which frees your team’s player from the penalty box in the case of a minor penalty, is one example of a tweak from the NHL’s rules.

“Between the NHL and the AHL, they really helped us build this platform,” Hefford said. “The first piece of advice was if you want consistency, and you want the best officials, then you should work off of the NHL rulebook because that’s the rulebook that the best officials are working on right now.”

Hefford said the PWHL’s leadership knew that in order to build a league with the best players in the world, they needed the best officials. They wanted the product to be fast, so they needed people with a high-level knowledge of the game. 

Having the best officials, Hefford said, was the first step toward building the type of consistency that women’s hockey has long been lacking.

The third piece of the puzzle was having staff at a league level who lead the officiating crew.

A goaltender in a blue jersey tracks an opposing player in front of the net with the puck, while her teammate tries to defend the player.
The PWHL is aiming to allow a more physical game while showcasing the speed and skill women’s hockey has always been known for. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

That doesn’t just mean making up schedules for officials. They also watch games in arena, work with officials and give them feedback and guidance after each game.

“That’s something we intend to continue doing,” Hefford said. “I know that happens at the highest levels, but I don’t know if it’s always happened from a league level in the women’s game as consistently as what we’re doing.”

Less time on special teams

During the first three games, there were 19 penalties handed out. The majority were for stick infractions like hooking, slashing or tripping. 

Meanwhile, there have been a ton of big hits along the boards that haven’t drawn penalties.

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That means more time at five-on-five, which lets a game develop in a different way then when a big chunk of it is spent on special teams.

“To have that leash to play the game and not worry about so much of the penalty drawing or having to [penalty kill] or be on the [power play], just allowed us to play five-on-five,” New York defender Ella Shelton told Sports’ Rob Pizzo on Hockey North this week.

“You can really see the momentum that women’s hockey has playing five-on-five.”

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