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Roundtable: NWHL rebrands

Here is what we think about the new PHF

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On Tuesday, the NWHL officially became the Premier Hockey Federation, a rebrand just two months before their seventh season is set to start.

Obviously, we at The Ice Garden had many thoughts about it. So we gathered round ye olde virtual table to share them with you all.

What are your thoughts on the NWHL’s rebrand?

Anne Tokarski: My first thought is that the rebrand comes at an incredibly pivotal time for women’s hockey, what with the conclusion of the World Championship and the approach of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Going from the National Women’s Hockey League to the Premier Hockey Federation is certainly a huge change in terms of brand recognition. Now, I’m no marketing expert, but it doesn’t seem like a very inspiring or recognizable shift.

The use of the word “premier” is also interesting to me; as I mentioned last night on Twitter, “premier” has been a buzzword in women’s hockey for quite some time now. The word has been used to distinguish what some players consider the “elite” from the rest of the crowd. Whether that’s actually true is open to interpretation, I definitely think this was a very deliberate choice done to attract a certain group of players.

Casey Bryant: There’s a term used in locker rooms- maybe it’s more of a baseball thing- eyewash. Basically, it means something that’s being done in the interest of looking like you’re working hard. “Fake hustle.” Like, if every time you get a good look to the net that’s saved, and you come back to the bench and slam your stick and yell profanities, that’s eyewash. You want people to see you caring. It lacks authenticity.

Doesn’t this kinda feel like eyewash? It just seems like a whole heck of a long way to go for what is ultimately not that big a big payoff. Color me skeptical that the league genuinely wanted to make this elaborate change their top priority, rather than trying to cleverly sidestep some very public PR problems the league has had. The lack of press conference is perplexing for such a monumental change, no?

This doesn’t really do anything for inclusion. The National Hockey League could rebrand tomorrow as the Super Inclusive Activist Men’s Hockey Division and it would still be what the NHL has said and done (or not said and done) for years so long as the same group is in control of operations. It’s wallpaper. Fans and players alike haven’t been publicly asking for a name change- they have been asking for concrete actions, policies, conversations within the league itself addressing specific issues. Maybe it means more to the LGBTQ+ and non-binary community than I realize, but it doesn’t seem like a particularly grand gesture to me.

Leighann Strollo: My immediate reaction was honestly a rollercoaster. Good, then bad, then good again, then bad once more. I recognize as a cisgender person, I certainly can and should ease up on my negative opinions on it because, as Harrison Browne put it on Twitter, the idea of removing the W and pushing for more gender inclusion is something inspiring and good. The idea is great. My skepticism comes from knowing the history of the league fumbling the bag on this matter and honestly, the nature of hockey as it still stands in 2021.

Because my mind is just 75% memes, I very quickly pictured the one of the Flex Tape guy covering up the leak, but instead of water it’s fans asking for a rewritten trans inclusion policy and for Digit Murphy’s involvement in a transphobic organization to be addressed and instead of Flex Tape, it’s this rebrand.

I also thought of the momentum the name ‘NWHL’ has gained over the past few years. The Discover partnership, the NBCSN deal, smashing viewership numbers, and more. Whether it had negative connotation to some or not, the NWHL was growing. I can’t say if this will stifle that or not but my guess is that a marketing expert would tell you yes.

Finally, this may be the smallest of potatoes to think about right now but all day my mind kept jumping back to the multiple merchandise sales posted to their social accounts, as late as August 25, with NWHL logo branded stuff. If you knew this change was coming, from a fan perspective, I’d rather be told honestly that you’re warehouse cleaning the NWHL shirts, than thinking I’m buying something that won’t be outdated in two weeks.

Holly Morrison: I found out about the rebrand because my friend texted me “what is women’s hockey doing now?” and I was immediately filled with dread. Look, it’s not the worst thing they could have done, but it’s definitely not the best way they could have gone about it. NWHL had grown to be a recognizable brand in North America, PHF is going to have to start a lot of that process over. Removing gender from the equation is unquestionably a step in the right direction, but when you’re still playing a game called “women’s hockey,” when you haven’t amended your testosterone based trans “inclusion” policy, when you’re logo is designed to subtly form the shape of the letter W, a name change feels like the last step.

It also felt super rushed to me. Leak aside, it seemed like there were some things left unfinished. The website is still at nwhl.zone and all of the NWHL logos and branding still remain. I know the season’s coming up quick and they wanted to give us all a chance to get used to it, but I can’t help but think a little extra time to let it marinate would have made the whole thing go just a little bit more smoothly.

Shayna: I’m torn on this… I think that the best bet to build with the PWHPA means forming a future together separate from the NWHL that so many players departed. This could be a step towards that.

But, on the other hand, there were years of growth that did essentially get washed away with the name change. The NWHL was gaining traction, especially in the last year, and casual hockey fans learned that name. Now, it’s gone.

As for PHF as the name: it’s not horrible, but the abbreviation, at least, does lack some flow. Obviously, that will change as we all get acclimated to it. The NWHL was pretty much as close as they could get to the ‘NHL’ without WNHL. This clearly changes that. Removing gender, though, does on the surface make it seem more inclusive. But, the rest of the leagues actions have to match that, and there’s still work to be done there…

Mike Murphy: Honestly, I find it all fascinating. Clearly, the league thought about this and decided it was the right direction to go in despite the long list of things in the “cons” column. Many of those have been covered by the contributors above me. I am also somewhat optimistic about what this might mean for the PHF’s inclusion policy moving forward but I am not getting my hopes up until that policy is penned and made public. One step at a time.

I am still going to call the league the “N-Dubs” though. You can’t stop me.

Thoughts on the logo?

Anne: I’m going to be super honest: I don’t love it. I think the outline of the main shape is a little off-putting and confusing — is it a crown? Is it a maple leaf? — and I don’t like the way the edges of the stars don’t line up with the outline. The chopped-off tips of the stars and the chopped-off tips of the points of the crown/maple leaf also are kind of weird to me and give me flashbacks to my own experience trying to create outlines on Photoshop Elements.

It all just seems a little rudimentary...like something I could have made. And when you’re a professional sports league (federation?), you would think that you might want something a little more refined.

Casey: Can I pitch an alternative? Lots of other leagues include silhouettes as part of the logo, right? Why not make a logo with a former player as the outline? Might I suggest someone of color like Blake Bolden? Or an LGBTQ+ activist icon like Harrison Browne? Heralding either of those two as a league hero would be infinitely more impactful than becoming a Premiere Federation.

Leighann: Once again, I think in memes, so ‘graphic design is my passion.’ I’m sorry, but I can not get over the fact that the space between the H and the F is bigger than the space between the P and the H. Why are the stars cut in half? I’m also not sure it’s the smartest idea to include a crown theme in your league’s logo when one of your team’s features the same thing already. I just think it could be better in a lot of ways.

Holly: It’s not the worst logo I’ve ever seen. I like the idea of a crown as part of the logo, that opens the door for a lot of really fun stuff in terms of merch and branding, but I don’t think it hits the way they want it to. I didn’t notice it was a crown until it was explained to me, which I don’t think is what they were going for. There’s something that’s just a little bit off with the spacing, but that’s a nitpick. Graphic design isn’t easy and I think the team working on the logo probably could have done with some more time and resources before the rebrand went live.

Shayna: Eh, it’s okay at best. It definitely could be better. The color scheme also lacks. The WNBA, for example, has orange: it’s bright, bold, and recognizable. But Casey fully nailed it in my opinion, so I will just re-emphasize having a silhouette with a former player like Bolden or Browne.

Mike: The NWHL logo was incredibly basic and straightforward but had some charm to it. The PHF’s logo lacks that charm right now, but it could develop with time. It’s hard to say. I think the logo looks a lot better without the “crown” around it but the half-stars are rough. I have only ever dabbled in graphic design so I am not going to tear apart someone else’s work because designing a logo for a league is well outside of my skill set.

Why do you think this is either a mistake or a step in the right direction for the league?

Anne: I think, overall, this is a step in the right direction. While there are a lot of aspects of the rebrand that I don’t love, I think from the standpoint of inclusivity, this is definitely a step in the right direction. That being said — it’s just a name change and a logo change. If there aren’t actions taken to make the league/federation more inclusive, what good does this rebrand really do?

Casey: Google PHF right now. What do you find? The Public Health Foundation, the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF), and an Instagram account called “Perfect Hair Forever.” Building back that SEO searchability and overhauling your social media presence takes a lot of time and effort. After just reaching your largest Twitch audience yet and just hitting the big time on cable TV with NBC Sports, radically changing your name and logo is a bold move. I’m not sure the reward outweighs the risk when they could have just called the league the NWHL and stripped the abbreviation, like how the ECHL is no longer the “East Coast” league.

Leighann: Can it be both? I think as of right now there’s more bad than good. As Casey said above, it’s extremely hard to rebuild a brand from the ground up that wasn’t particularly that notable to begin with. Along with that, it seems like the first day of this news being out in the open was met with a near-unanimous dislike by everyone who has supported this league for years. That can never be good. However, for a sports organization that has been a pioneer for trans athletes and has also faced criticism for their trans inclusion policy, leaning into the idea of dropping the W and being more welcoming means that even with new ownership and management, that is the direction they want to take and that’s a good thing.

Holly: If they really are sincere about removing gender from the equation when it comes to the league, then yeah, this is a step in the right direction, a very small one, but it’s a step. Ultimately, if calling the league the PHF and not the NWHL makes trans players feel more comfortable, then I’m all for that. It needs to come along with a commitment to ban gender testing and a serious rewrite of the trans inclusion policy, but it’s a step.

That being said, there’s going to be a lot of work to do to regain the name recognition of “NWHL” every single piece of merch, every single sponsorship, every jersey, up until this point has had the NWHL logo on it. If they’re ready to do that work, then it can be a step forward, if not, it could end up being a disaster.

Mike: It can be both and, I think, it is both. The big question I have is: how long will it take for this to be a net gain for the league?

That all depends on what happens between now and puck drop on Season 7. The league needs its players to buy in — which some already have — and to move in the right direction with shaping the narrative around the rebrand. Inclusivity. Taking things to another level. New beginnings. All of that jazz.

Why do you think the NWHL is making the change right now?

Anne: I mentioned it briefly earlier, but I think the rebrand hinged on the gap between the end of the World Championship and the beginning of season seven/start of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. There’s also going to be a serious overhaul with regards to the PWHPA’s format and available players, and I think part of the rebrand was done to appeal to those players who might be undecided or on the fringes of the PWHPA.

TL;DR: The landscape of women’s professional hockey is so complex right now, but it’s clear Tyler Tumminia wants one league/federation/association. This rebrand is a step towards that goal.

Furthermore, as my colleagues have mentioned, I think a big part of this rebrand was done to attempt to sidestep many of the league’s past issues, mainly Digit Murphy’s transphobia and the league’s transgender inclusion policy. While I don’t think it’s wrong or misguided to celebrate the name change or the rebrand, I think there’s more work to be done on that front. We still have yet to hear or see an apology from Murphy, and have only received vague promises about the league’s transgender inclusion policy being under revision. If the PHF truly wants to rebrand as an inclusive hockey league, they have to do more than just change the name and logo. The work doesn’t end with the rebrand.

Casey: At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words- and no, changing the league’s name doesn’t qualify as an action without supplemental league bylaws and addressing the Digit Murphy-sized elephant in the room. To quote a wise Batman, it’s not who you are, but what you do that defines you. I’m eagerly awaiting the next step.

Leighann: Honestly, I think because they’ve seen a slew of new management over the last year, they don’t have a player’s association head currently, just over six months ago they had a huge PR nightmare that spilled a giant stain on the NWHL name to people who never knew what it was before, and like Anne said, if getting PWHPA talent back on your rosters is what you really want, distancing yourself from the NWHL name is something that could definitely work.

Holly: Judging by the press releases and comments from players, inclusion was on their minds when it came to the rebrand.

There’s another part of me, a more cynical part that thinks there’s another reason for this rebrand, and it’s one that they’re not going to say out loud. We all know that they’d love to get the North American Olympians back and I can’t help but think that this is part of some longer-term to get to the “one league” solution that everyone’s been banging on about for years now.

Shayna: If the NWHL was intending to change, the sooner the better to start building up history. And it feels like it could be a step towards one league, which is the best way to not just gain traction for women’s hockey around key events, but year-round. With how complicated the landscape is, as Anne noted, this can try to get to that stability sooner than later. But the timing is tough given how it comes in place of dealing with legitimate issues that need to be remedied.

Mike: The most cynical part of me thinks the PHF and its current leadership has taken a lot of steps to distance themselves from the league’s early missteps, especially in the first few seasons. Chances are, this has something to do with what this leadership sees as the “next step” for the league — expansion, forging a new path forward that leaves the door open for collaboration or incorporation of the PWHPA, and a new image. An image that is shaped by Tumminia and the PHF’s leading investors.