SIMMONS: Draft Day offers hope, promise for new women’s hockey league


It’s all about building something, getting the public interested, finding a buying public, maybe finding some television interest, the challenge forever for women’s sports.

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Billie Jean King walks by and you stop and stare and then you stare some more.

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Because she’s Billie Jean King.

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Because she’s a living, breathing piece of sports history, all dressed up and wearing bright fuchsia glasses. And because she’s here, in downtown Toronto, not for tennis, not to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her Battle of the Sexes match with Bobby Riggs, but to be front and centre and help launch the Professional Women’s Hockey League, which held its initial player draft Monday afternoon.

This is her latest passion and personal investment. And it wasn’t just Billie Jean King who made the day significant. It was a day that felt alive and different and exciting from the moment you walked in off Front St. and into the CBC building. There was buzz and colour and little girls in hockey jerseys asking for autographs and celebration and excitement — none of these things come naturally — and that was before a single player was even selected.

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“It’s not about a moment,” said the legendary King from the draft stage. “It’s about a movement.”

And the movement begins for public consumption, now. It has been too long a wait for women’s professional hockey to arrive, a wait for one league, under one circumstance, the best players in the world getting together, getting along, making a difference: A step for the future beginning in the present.

King got a call a few years back from the American hockey star Kendall Coyne Schofield, via King’s longtime friend American hockey great Angela Ruggiero, and Schofield asked King a simple question: Can you help us?

Few have advanced the cause of women’s sport more than King throughout her life. Hockey wasn’t something she knew a lot about or cared about. But she got involved, she watched games, she was amazed by what she saw, she got to know some of their greatest athletes, and what you never say to Billie Jean King is this: You can’t.

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She rolled up her sleeves and got busy. American billionaire Mark Walter, a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was brought in the idea of launching a women’s league. He decided the time was perfect for such a venture. With King’s power and Walter’s money, there still had to be a deal made. Walter brought in Stan Kasten, the former Atlanta Thrashers president, the current Dodgers CEO and president, into the mix with the simple instructions: Get a deal done.

Kasten said on Monday at the draft that he has made bigger deals in his sporting life before — but never one so complicated. There already was a professional women’s league. But the best players were mostly playing elsewhere. Kasten had to solve the great divide. He did that, and as he stood on the draft floor watching, looking out at the scene he has been so much a part of manufacturing, he couldn’t help but feel like a proud papa.

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It felt like something on Monday. It felt big. It felt important. This can’t be the best day for the new league. Instead, it’s just the best beginning it could be.

This is Kasten’s league. And it’s Mark Walter’s league. And it’s Billie Jean King’s league. And now, in its own version of an Original Six, there is a league of their own for today’s female hockey players.

“We’re not a charity,” said Jocelyne Larocque, the defenceman who has been around, and was Toronto’s first pick in the draft, second overall. “Sometimes we’ve been seen as a charity.” Larocque is 35 years old, which is unusual for an early hockey pick. But Toronto decided to build from the back out. They signed Renata Fast as a free agent. They drafted Larocque. Now they have the top Team Canada defence pair, playing for Team Canada coach Troy Ryan, playing for the former Team Canada stalwart Gina Kingsbury with the Toronto Somethings.

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They don’t yet have a name beside the city or an announced building to play in — I was told you’ll be surprised by their home rink — and now they have some players. The season starts in January. The first season will be short. Everything moves quickly now. And it’s all about building something, getting the public interested, finding a buying public, maybe finding some television interest, the challenge forever for women’s sports.

“I truly believe we deserve this,” said Jill Saulnier, the Nova Scotian drafted by New York on Monday.

“I think visibility is the key to our future. Seeing this is truly believing it. It’s huge for us. It’s game changing for the sport.”

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The players certainly felt all this excitement on Monday. Around the draft floor was almost a who’s who of Toronto business and sports activity. Tom Wright, the former CFL commissioner, was there. Frank Brown, formerly Gary Bettman’s right-hand man, was there. King was there. Kasten was there. The vaunted television producer Scott Moore was there. The television legend, Gino Reda, was there. Some of the best-known Canadian television professionals in the business, names you won’t necessarily know, were there.

It was the place to be, the place to be seen. A draft for women. And no one was happier than those who were selected.

There is no way of knowing exactly where the PWHL goes from here. The challenge is immense. This is the first great opportunity for women’s hockey. There’s money behind this. There’s quality behind this. There’s more than reason for hope.

It’s time for women’s hockey — time to get this right.

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