While many of the most decorated hockey players in the world are playing in the PWHL this season, there are also top talents playing in other leagues. This article aims to explain the lay of the land to help new fans understand where the world’s supply of elite hockey is located. Many of these players may be participating in the European Hockey Tour, the third stop of which takes place from February 7-11 in Liberec, Czechia.
The newly launched PWHL is starting with a highly concentrated talent pool. Right now, the league has around 150 athletes on active rosters or on reserve. In comparison, over 650 players have scored a goal in the NHL this season! In the PWHL’s first season, the expectation is that competition between the most elite players will draw the most new fans and spur on the most attention to and investment in their stories. While this does ensure that every game is top tier entertainment, it also means that there are excellent players who aren’t on one of the six rosters.
Some of the best hockey players in the world play in Division I of the NCAA. Historically one of the world’s most competitive leagues, it offers top-tier coaching, elite competition, and infrastructural support such as access to campus resources and staffs. It also offers financial support in the form of scholarships and, more recently, NIL opportunities. Most NCAA games take place on NHL-sized ice, rather than the larger ‘Olympic’ ice used in international competition and in leagues outside North America. The NCAA is the top developmental league for elite hockey players, and almost all of the players in the PWHL have spent time there.
At this point, the gap between the NCAA and professional leagues is better compared to that of women's college basketball than men's college hockey. NCAA women’s basketball provides resources that many WNBA teams can’t right now, whereas the NHL can provide more to athletes than NCAA men’s hockey programs. Basketball players will almost always play out their entire NCAA eligibility before beginning their professional careers. Similarly, it’s likely that we won’t see a surplus of NCAA players declaring for the PWHL draft before using all their collegiate eligibility until they can make significantly more money doing so.
Some of the top players in the NCAA have experience on senior international teams, like Abbey Murphy (Minnesota, USA), Sarah Fillier (Princeton, Canada), Sanni Ahola (St. Cloud State, Finland), and Nelli Laitinen (Minnesota, Finland). There are also many excellent players who have not played for their national teams, like Kristýna Kaltounková (Colgate, Czech), and Izzy Daniel (Cornell, USA).
USports, the top Canadian college hockey league, is increasingly being seen as a place where top talent can develop, especially French Canadian universities where francophone players may prefer to play. A number of PWHL players have USports experience, including Jade Downie-Landry (New York), Catherine Dubois (Montreal), and Kaitlin Willoughby (Toronto).
Many of the top players in the world were already signed to contracts in European leagues before the PWHL announced that it would begin play this season. Swedish forward Lina Ljungblom was drafted by PWHL Montreal, but did not attend training camp as she is signed with MoDo Hockey in the SDHL. Some players in European leagues could put up heavy competition for PWHL roster spots, if not walk onto teams, if they weren't already locked in elsewhere. We are likely to see a lot more players competing for PWHL spots in the coming years who are currently in Europe.
The top European league is the SDHL (Svenska damhockeyligan, or Swedish Women’s Hockey League). Many current PWHL players have experience there, including Denisa Křížová (Minnesota, Czech), Johann Fällman (New York, Sweden), and Sidney Morin (Boston, USA). This league has increased its profile in recent years as it has begun allowing bodychecking, a practice that has been restrained in women’s hockey for the last few decades. The SDHL allowed increased physicality in stages over a three-year period, partnering each step with education on how to dish out and absorb contact safely, and studying the effects to ensure player safety. The increase in contact will serve to prepare players in the SDHL for the rigor of international competition.
Some of the world’s best players are competing in the SDHL right now. Forward Petra Nieminen and defender Jenni Hiirikoski are both stars on Finland's national team. They both play for the league-leading Luleå HF along with Daniela Pejšová, one of Czech’s best players. Top Swedish players Hanna Olsson and Sara Hjalmarsson are the captains of Frölunda HC and Linköping HC, respectively.
The ZHL (Zhenskaya khokkeynaya liga, or Women's Hockey League) in Russia has also been one of the world’s top leagues, where PWHL players such as Alex Carpenter (New York, USA), Hannah Miller (Toronto, China), and Fanni Garát-Gasparics (Ottawa, Hungary) have played. As in other sports, Russia (and Belarus) have been frozen out of international competition in recent years, and some countries’ ice hockey federations have encouraged their players not to play in Russian leagues. But the ZHL remains the home of some of the world’s best players, including Team Russia standouts Anna Shokhina (Dynamo-Neva St. Petersburg) and Olga Sosina (Agidel Ufa).
Other leagues boasting top players include the Naisten Liiga (Women’s League) in Finland, where players like Michaela Pejzlová (HIFK, Czech) and Elisa Holopainen (KalPa, Finland) can be found. Minttu Tuominen, who was drafted by PWHL Minnesota, is currently one of a limited number of import players in the WCIHL in China. Lara Stalder, the captain of the Swiss national team, is playing in Switzerland.
And finally, there are excellent players who are not playing this year. Amanda Kessel is a longtime member of Team USA who some suspected could be one of the players signed to a team before the draft. She is working for the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL this year, but has not ruled out playing in the PWHL in future seasons. There are a number of athletes from the PHF and PWHPA who either were not drafted, or chose not to compete for a roster spot this year, in several cases because of the demands of their other professions.
There's no question that there is enough talent outside the PWHL to make up at least one more team. Over the next few years, as talented NCAA classes graduate and as top European talents complete their contracts and challenge for spots, the PWHL will start feeling the pressure to expand, to make room for more and more talented players; just as the WNBA and the NHL have. There are cities and states and provinces waiting patiently (or not so patiently!) for their turn to support a team.
For now, fans can watch excellent hockey in the PWHL and a number of other leagues, and know that there is a lot to look forward to.