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New professional women's hockey league seeks to unite game


College football bowl games might grab a lot of the attention this New Year's Day, but today is also the start of something in the hockey world. Regular season begins for the new Professional Women's Hockey League. It's an upstart organization featuring some of the best hockey players in North America. There are six teams. They are all based in northern cities - three in Canada, three in the U.S. Now, these teams do not have logos. They don't even have names yet. But organizers say they wanted to get the league up and running as quickly as possible. Well, to get us up to speed as quickly as possible, we're joined by Sean McIndoe, senior hockey writer for The Athletic. Hey there.

SEAN MCINDOE: Hey, thanks for having me.

KELLY: Why a pro women's hockey league and why now?

MCINDOE: Well, this is something that various people in the sport had been trying to do for years now. The evolution of the women's game over the last, let's say, 20 or 30 years has been impressive at an international level, and specifically with the United States versus Canada. This was a rivalry that really started to take off at the Olympic level, World Championships, to the point where it's - Canada versus the U.S., at elite best-on-best women's international hockey, is one of the very best rivalries in the sport. Now, that has not carried over to a successful professional league. And there have been attempts - just a few years ago there - we had two leagues running at the same time. And I think even at the time, everyone sort of understood that that was one too many.

KELLY: Yeah. And the previous attempts that you just nodded to, I gather among the problems was that players - at least some players - did not feel supported. How are they feeling this time around?

MCINDOE: There's certainly a lot more optimism going in now. This is a situation where, from all accounts, the players are having the sort of support that they're looking for, not just in terms of what they're being paid, but, you know, what kind of support does the team have? If you're going to run a professional sports league, you have to be professional. And that is something that a lot of the players had demanded, to the point where some of them had refused to sign on with the new league until certain expectations were met. Those expectations have been met. So we've got the situation now where, really, for the first time, there's no question about which league is which and which star players are going to be where. All the best of the best are in this one league now.

KELLY: And what about fans? If you're going to have a successful league, you have to have people come watch. Based on what you've seen in the preseason, are people going to go?

MCINDOE: So far so good. The response has been quite strong. You've got the six markets, all of which are in very good hockey markets - three in Canada, three in the U.S. And the early returns on ticket sales have been very good. The debut game played today in Toronto was sold out relatively early. Here in Ottawa, where I'm at, finding tickets to some of the first few home games is difficult. And they're playing in, for the most part, not NHL arenas. But we're talking large arenas - several thousand seats. And the movement for the tickets has been quite strong, and there seems to be a decent buzz around the games.

KELLY: Last thing - I saw you just wrote a piece in The Athletic about how fans can pick a bandwagon team. So I have to ask, what's yours? - which team, which players you're keeping an eye out for?

MCINDOE: Well, see, I mean, you're going to get me in a little bit of trouble here because I'm in Ottawa. And they're - they - we do have a team.

KELLY: You're totally neutral. I know. However...

MCINDOE: And yet, I mean, I also - I grew up in Toronto, and I was a Maple Leafs fan. I've always been a Toronto sports fan. And I got to say, I'm sort of tilting back and forth between those two Ontario-based markets. Toronto kind of has a little bit more of the star power - well-known names in the women's game, like Sarah Nurse; Natalie Spooner's on the team. But as I say, I haven't been able to get my hands on tickets for Ottawa yet. Maybe once I get out there, I'll be locked in. Or maybe, more likely, the kids will get locked in and I'll have to go following along with them.

KELLY: Sean McIndoe is senior hockey writer for The Athletic. Thanks for your time.

MCINDOE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.