The PHF commissioner spoke to Boardroom about the early days of the position, including the $25 million investment into players and the league’s challenges and goals.
On Saturday, the Premier Hockey Federation begins its eighth season as the foremost pro women’s hockey league in North America. The Montreal Force join PHF as its seventh team and the second Canadian franchise. And the 2022-2023 campaign will be the first with new commissioner Reagan Carey in charge.
Carey was hired in late April after having served as USA Hockey’s director of women’s ice hockey and the general manager for the 2018 US Olympic hockey team that won gold in Pyeongchang. Her decades of experience in management and fan development bring her to a role in a growing league that drastically increased its salary cap and benefits for players while signing a two-year ESPN media rights extension.
Carey spoke with Boardroom about what she’s done since taking the job, the recent $25 million investment into PHF’s players, what it can learn from other leagues, and its challenges and goals.
Note: This article has been edited for length and clarity.
SHLOMO SPRUNG: Last week marked six months since you were announced as the new commissioner. Why did you take this role?
REAGAN CAREY: It’s a huge opportunity to be able to continue what has been a bit of a thread throughout my career of being able to elevate and champion the women’s side of the sport. Even during my time with the NHL, that was a part of the work I did to grow the girls’ and women’s opportunities there. And then I obviously got to do that in a more significant way with USA Hockey and helping elevate that program as well. So to be able to do that and understand the opportunity that lies ahead for women’s professional hockey is a privilege to be asked to do this and really work with some terrific people to move the needle forward in a sustainable, efficient, and effective way.
SS: What have been your biggest achievements in the role over that six-month span?
RC: It’s hard to pick one. There’s just been so much movement and progress made in a short amount of time. I’m just really energized by getting to know the board and all our investors. They’re more than investing their financial support. They are hands-on and active. We have weekly meetings, but I have not gone a day since jumping on board without talking or emailing and exchanging ideas with members of the board. Also, I’ve had the opportunity to bring in some great and experienced leaders that have really changed the sport already. And to be able to essentially build a roster of these leaders and put them in one league and allow us to continue to do that in a more cohesive way on behalf of women’s professional sports.
The PHF is really energizing as well. Getting to talk to the players and learning more about what they take pride in with the league. So just the communication and really understanding who all the stakeholders are and why it’s important to them. In addition, my vision has been the most significant part of the last six months, but then more directly adding ESPN as a partner and teammate for the next two seasons to broadcast our games is a huge win for PHF and an opportunity to really showcase a terrific league in the best home for women’s hockey. Also, the salary and salary cap increases, the medical benefits to players, all of these things are adding up in a very short amount of time to really reinforce what we’re considering the new era of this league.
SS: You did touch on the $25 million invested back in the league. How are you and PHF trying to make the most out of that investment?
RC: It goes directly to the players in all the different ways we’re providing resources to the players. That is just the amount that’s going to players. There’s obviously more financial support from the team and league front. When you look at all that, it’s a pretty historical and significant number. Our salary cap has increased by 150% in one season. We recognize that to be the best home for women’s professional ice hockey, we have to make sure that we’re providing great resources for our players. I think they understand and appreciate all the work that’s going into doing that, not just in salaries, but medical benefits and continuing to augment the communication with the player pool so that we can work collectively to improve the experience for players as we go. That’s a priority for us, as well as just recognizing and saying it’s possible to pay players more.
This league has a history of being a bit of a trailblazer in regards to saying women’s hockey, particularly in the professional landscape, deserves more. And we’re able to take a big leap and catapult that forward this season. But the roots of our league have always demonstrated that the players deserve more and fans deserve to see a great product on the ice. And those two things are hand in hand.
SS: How would you describe the league’s long-term vision?
RC: I see it as a very strong, growing, thriving community. Anybody that knows me knows that I care about the past pioneers, I care about the future players, and I really understand that it’s our job to really make the most of the moment that we’re in. To make sure that we leave it better than we found it, inspire that next generation to do even more, and do great work on behalf of the sport.
You’ll see from us that it’s more than just a great on-ice product. It’s really a strong movement and an integrated community that is purposeful but is also going to have fun. And it’s going to be a really sound business investment as well. The quality of the business model that we have as well as just the work we’re doing, not just at the league infrastructure with the people we’re bringing on board and the expectations we have, but on the team level across the board, I would look to us to have a very bright, growing future for not just women’s hockey, but women’s professional sports.
SS: What have you learned from other women’s pro sports leagues, including ones that have succeeded and those that unfortunately failed?
RC: I’m sure every league makes mistakes as they’re growing, evolving, and developing. We’re dedicated to making sure we learn from the ones before us as we take all the lessons of those leagues that have had success in those that haven’t to make sure that we’re putting ourselves in position to have long-term sustainability.
What we’re learning is, and what really elevates us is, the authenticity of our league. We don’t have to be the women’s version of whatever professional league is out there. We can do it our own way and we can really determine what relates to our players, relates to our fans, and build around that with the right partners, the right messaging, and the right focus. And being intentional about what we invest not just money, but our time, energy, and focus into. So we’re excited about being creative about how we can do this, and we’ll take some of the best practices, but we’re also going to do things in a new, fresh way.
SS: What would you say are the league’s biggest challenges right now, including potential leagues that are trying to compete with PHF?
RC: We consistently are out there trying to share and update everybody of what we are doing. There’s a lot happening in the sports and entertainment industry, so it’s making sure that we’re communicating and educating those that are either existing fans of sports, existing fans of hockey, and then just new fans. And that same range for partners as well. And just making sure that they’re aware of what we’re doing at the league, what we value, and welcoming those demographics to come on board with us.
I think one of the biggest challenges is making sure that we can get to as many people and be seen and as everybody says, once you come to a hockey game, people are more hooked. So making sure we get people out there to see our product and to get to know our players who are phenomenal and have great storylines. It’s an easy thing to root for once you get connected. Our job is to get out there and get the word out about PHF.
SS: What’s your relationship with the NHL like currently, and do you guys prioritize having a relationship with them either presently or in the future?
RC: If you look at the growth of the NHL and all the strong business development success that they’ve had, we certainly look to that. And like you mentioned earlier, they’re one of the leagues that we always are willing to learn from and work with, and they’ve been great partners. They’ve taken every call when I’ve reached out for any ideas, collaboration, or brainstorming on a range of topics, and I trust they’ll continue to do that. They want to see women’s hockey have a lot of success on the professional side. They’re an important part of our trajectory, but one of many that we’re talking to in order to make sure we have the right teammates on board as we continue to grow the sport.
SS: There are studies that say girls’ hockey is among the fastest-growing youth sports in the United States. How do you leverage that growth as a league, and how do you see that changing the hockey landscape in the future?
RC: One of the most encouraging aspects of the league is the growth in women’s hockey. If you look at even USA Hockey, on average it was the 1998 Olympics when women’s hockey first debuted. You had about 20,000 females registered with USA Hockey and now it’s near 80,000 in not a huge amount of time. To see the trajectory and growth of Division I schools and the caliber of the on-ice product in those programs as well as the growth of Division III. The sport itself continues to grow rapidly. And that just supports everything we’re looking to do in regards to how we recruit the best players and how we make sure that we have a long-term sustainability plan for our league. Women’s hockey is strong.
SS: What’s unique about hockey to the women in PHF who play the game?
RC: If you get to know the personalities, for a lot of the players in the league, it’s the sense of belonging, the sense of camaraderie that just rises to the surface of almost every conversation you have with the player pool. It’s a very diverse group, and at the same time, they really appreciate that aspect and feel it’s a strength within the league. The caliber of the players and the willingness to show up and just be themselves and share what’s important to them.
Again, the range of personalities and journeys to get to the PHF is just really compelling. And the willingness to be part of something bigger than themselves in regards to growing the sport is always front and center. The willingness to do it, whether it’s autograph sessions, doing more on social media to really understand the business of the sport so they can support the growth of it. We’re talking about seven teams of great teammates in regard to us trying to grow the sport. Everything from the product on the ice to the strength of commitment from this player pool really stands out to me.
SS: What are your goals and plans to improve the league and women’s hockey over the next 12 to 18 months?
RC: Everything matters, every little detail. So whether we’re talking about the details of hockey ops and IHF rules that we’re looking to incorporate, the quality of our on- and off-ice officials, the facilities that we’ve upgraded already in the league to the most important people that we have supporting and working on behalf of the PHF, everything is on the table and we’re doing everything we can in all categories to continue to upgrade that in a smart and an efficient way. I can’t even start talking about what that’ll look like because I know how much has been accomplished in the last six months.
If you look at how much the sport has grown, it’s hard to predict where we’ll be, but I know it’s going to be really exciting. It’s going to be a terrific investment for people right now to join the PHF and the movement we’ve got going on. We’d be here all day if I listed everything that’s going to need to happen in the next 12 months. But, I have visions of growing our fan base and allowing the ESPN agreement to really welcome in a number of new fans, and I’m really looking forward to what we can build with our existing partners.
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