What comes next in the professional women's hockey saga?

The Ducks hosted the finale of the 2020 Rivalry Series between the U.S. and Canada and set an attendance record for women's hockey in the U.S. with 13,320 fans. Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

It has been nearly a year since the Canadian Women's Hockey League announced that it was folding and sent the women's hockey landscape into a tizzy.

Although there have been significant strides in the sport since then, the future of professional women's hockey is as murky as ever. The National Women's Hockey League is wrapping up its fifth season and shows no signs of slowing down.

The players who formed the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA) and decided to boycott in hopes of something larger are finalizing their 2019-20 Dream Gap Tour. The PWHPA was hoping this would be temporary, but because the pro league they desire has yet to materialize, they need to figure out what happens next.

As for the NHL? Although it has stepped up its women's hockey efforts -- including organizing a 3-on-3 women's event during the 2020 All-Star Game -- the league office is still hesitant to formalize a partnership.

Where does women's hockey go from here? Here is a primer on where things stand.

What's the status of the PWHPA?

The PWHPA has about 175 members, including some of the top players in the world, such as Team USA's Kendall Coyne Schofield, Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight and Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin and Shannon Szabados. Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss have been serving as advisors. This past weekend in Arizona wrapped up the organization's Dream Gap Tour, a six-stop barnstorming tour across Canada and the U.S. during which players showcased their skills in exhibitions, did community engagement events and put on clinics to try to reach young girls.

"The reaction we've been seeing at each of the stops has been unbelievable," Canadian forward Sarah Nurse said in January. "I think we're opening a lot of people's eyes to what we're fighting for."

The PWHPA reported several sellouts, and by the final two stops, it picked up streaming partners in Monumental Sports Network (run by Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis) and ESPN. Each of the PWHPA's eight regional chapters also organized ice time for its players and put on scrimmages.

When the PWHPA formed, the hope was that the Dream Gap Tour would fill a short, one-season void without professional women's hockey.

"We would have loved for it to have been one year ... and then be at our ultimate goal of a truly professional league," said Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, who oversees the PWHPA. "But it's going to take a little longer. In many ways, the idea that this would have been quick is not realistic. But we're moving in the right direction, and we're moving forward."

Added Decker: "What we've been working on this past year, it feels like visibility for our sport, and our mission of a sustainable, truly professional league has never been higher."

What's the status of the NWHL?

Amid the summer turmoil, the NWHL made several improvements to stay viable. It expanded the schedule to 24 regular-season games and increased the salary cap to $150,000 per team -- up 50% from $100,000 last season. The NWHL also promised players a 50% split of revenue from all league-level sponsorship and media deals. That includes the league's three-year streaming partnership with Twitch.

Although the league leaves salary disclosure up to the players, some players told ESPN that they signed for as much as $15,000, which means they'll make close to $20,000 with sponsorship and media deals. That isn't a livable wage, but it isn't bad for 24 games and two practices per week.

Those who chose to stay with the NWHL felt strongly that it was the best path for women's pro hockey.

"There was so much momentum and growth in women's hockey, especially after [Team USA] won the gold medal [at the 2018 Olympics]," said Boston Pride coach Paul Mara, a former NHL defenseman. "So to miss a season for things that are currently unattainable in the current climate, it's just sad to see these players not playing."

The relationship between the NWHL and its players' association has never been stronger, either.

"This year the [NWHL Players' Association] has created a narrative that we are a part of the conversation, we are in the largest deals on the sponsorship side, we are in the conversation there," NWHLPA director Anya Packer said this week during an interview on the Metropolitan Riveters' broadcast. "We know what's going on. We are actually part of the calls. We're involved. We've created subcommittees and boards that work on things like equipment, what players are needing for the future or what our schedule looks like. There's just so much that the PA is doing now that we didn't have access to before."

The Boston Pride, who finished the regular season 23-1, became the league's big success story, and it's no coincidence. They are the only team that is privately owned. A team of investors, led by Miles Arnone, purchased the organization this summer and funneled resources to the team.

Arnone said other potential owners have reached out to pick his brain, and he hopes other teams will have private ownership as soon as next year. What's more, the league is eyeing expansion for the 2020-21 season.

Are the NWHL and PWHPA at odds?

Let's begin with the fact that many players on both sides maintain friendships. Some PWHPA players have said they understand why their peers chose to sign in the NWHL this season.

"This summer, with everything going on, a lot of us really had to think," said Jillian Dempsey, the NWHL's all-time leading scorer. "It was a hard decision for a lot of players, but for me, it came down to just wanting to play hockey."

The players share the goal of a viable professional league in which players can make a livable wage. But there are disagreements on how to get there.

"We don't view [the NWHL] as competition for what we're trying to do," Hefford said. "We've been very clear on what we believe needs to be part of a professional league, and we haven't wavered on that at all. We hope everyone has the opportunity to succeed in what they want to do, of course. We just don't see it as a competition piece. I know a lot of people like to view it that way, but we are just focused on what we are trying to achieve."

Arnone doesn't see it that way.

"The PWHPA's objective was to obviate the NWHL, to eliminate it effectively, to cause it to fold or whatever in hopes of creating something new," Arnone told ESPN earlier this year. "So I knew that going in. I did a lot of my own research into a) whether that was likely or b) whether that was a good idea. I decided that no, it wasn't, and no, it wasn't."

Is there any chance that players from the PWHPA would go back to playing in the NWHL?

A handful of players who initially pledged to be part of the PWHPA ended up signing and playing in the NWHL this season.

"We've got 175 members, and it's hard for us to find opportunities for all of those players," Hefford said. "So there are players that initially were with us and chose to play in that league. And it's great if they're providing opportunities for those players."

For the large part, though, the PWHPA membership hasn't dipped much. Although the PWHPA includes players with varying levels of experience, the most elite players [American and Canadian national team players] seem steadfast in holding out for a different league.

Are there other professional opportunities besides the NWHL?

While some players joined the NWHL this season, another few -- including Finland national team goalie Noora Raty and U.S. forward Alex Carpenter -- signed in the WHL, which features teams in Russia and China. Carpenter and Raty are still considered "supporting members" of the PWHPA.

"They support the mission of what we're trying to do," Hefford said. "And although they don't play within our group, they're part of a communication list."

The WHL has been backed by the KHL since 2015, and the men's league shares its resources with the women -- everything from arenas to trainers to promotion (for example, they discuss women's hockey often on KHL TV, which is the Russian equivalent of NHL Network). It's similar to the model the PWHPA would like to have with the NHL. Carpenter and Rachel Llanes -- a former Northeastern University standout who played in the NWHL last season -- both said they are making a living wage in the WHL, and the salary would be considered a living wage in the U.S.

If most players in the PWHPA aren't going to play in the NWHL next season, what's the plan?

"We have to figure out what next season looks like," Hefford said. "We didn't plan any events outside of this season, so we'll take a break after this tour ends and plan for what's next. We want to continue the momentum because there seems to be a lot of positive talk and interest in women's hockey, and we want to build on that for next season. Hopefully we can do even more events with NHL club teams and provide even more opportunities for our players."

What does the PWHPA's vision of a pro women's league look like?

According to Hefford: "We've continued to say ultimately it has to have the infrastructure and resources for it to be sustainable. It can't just be someone investing money into it. Our ideal league would look like a WNBA alongside the NHL, just as the NBA supports the WNBA. I know the NWSL is the other successful women's pro league, but that's also aligned with U.S. Soccer and Soccer Canada. So we know we have to be aligned to have access to those resources and infrastructure."

Added Coyne Schofield: "I think the biggest misconception is that it's only about the money for us. Of course we want to make a livable wage playing hockey. But we also want good coaching, ice time, proper health coverage, access to trainers, help with marketing -- everything that a true professional league has that people sometimes take for granted."

It sounds like the PWHPA would like the NHL to step up and create a WNHL. Where does that stand?

The NHL has long held the stance that it doesn't want to be involved with women's hockey as long as professional opportunities exist.

"Our approach is the same," NHL deputy commissioner Billy Daly said. "We continue to try to be helpful where we can be, but other than that, we don't have much of a role."

The league invited women to participate in the NHL All-Star Game for the third straight year and upped the involvement. Coyne Schofield's participation in the fastest skater competition in San Jose in 2019 was seen as a watershed moment for women's hockey. "Kendall moved our sport ahead by like 10 years," Hefford said.

This year, the NHL invited 20 women to St. Louis and created an event for them in the form of a 3-on-3 exhibition. It was viewed as a huge success, and the NHL hinted that women's involvement at All-Star Weekend should be a staple going forward.

"It's been two years in a row now where women were really the talk of All-Star Weekend," Hefford said.

There is some mounting pressure on the NHL to make a decision, especially as the women gain supporters. Ahead of the 2020 All-Star Game, Wayne Gretzky told ESPN that the NHL did a "tremendous thing by bringing these women out."

"Exposure is everything," Gretzky said. "It's baby steps. You're not going to flood the market overnight. It takes time to get into the markets and get more youth girls to participate in hockey. It's very important that there's an understanding from the National Hockey League that we want to help grow women's hockey and make girls hockey bigger and better than it's ever been."

Still, the NHL remains hesitant to formalize the relationship. Sources told ESPN that the NHL continues to explore the logistics of getting more involved in women's hockey, and when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman met with the women's players before the All-Star Game, he told them that the league supported them and asked them to stay patient.

Sources also said the NHL will begin negotiating rights for a new TV deal in 2021. It is taking the temperature on how it might be able to bake women's hockey into the deal and whether networks are interested. There is also the possibility that the NHL won't form a women's league at all and instead will continue to use its platform to increase the visibility of women's hockey.

"We understand it's not an easy decision for the NHL to make," Hefford said. "It's not like all of a sudden, one day they're going to wake up and start a pro league. I imagine they need to have broadcast rights in place, they need to have partnerships in place, they need to have the buy-in from their owners in place. There's a lot of things that have to happen. And for them, it has to make business sense. We believe it does, but when they're ready, they'll make a decision of whether they will or not. I wish we had more control over it, but they have to make the decision that makes sense for their business, too."

Where do other stakeholders stand in the PWHPA's fight?

Hockey Canada and USA Hockey are what Hefford calls "supporting partners" that have a "great relationship" with the PWHPA.

"We do work through our insurance policies with them," Hefford said. "We share the same assets with them, which is the players. And for the players who do have the opportunities to play for national teams, we're supporting them when they're not with those teams."

However, neither organization provides funds for the PWHPA.

Several of the NHL's biggest sponsors are itching to get more involved with women's hockey but want to follow the NHL's lead. As excited as they might be about the untapped market, they don't want to overstep their boundaries with preexisting relationships.

Adidas -- which signed a seven-year deal with the NHL ahead of the 2017-18 season -- has been one of the most involved brands with women's hockey. After Coyne Schofield, Decker, Rebecca Johnston and Renata Fast participated in the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, Adidas signed the players to multiyear endorsement deals (then later added Nurse). Adidas has been active in supporting the PWHPA and provided on- and off-ice gear for everything the PWHPA does. Adidas also supplied uniforms for the 2020 NHL All-Star weekend.

"We're committed to the mission," said Dan Near, head of Adidas hockey division. "I see hockey being more inclusive moving forward. I think there is leadership at the league who believes in the mission and wants to see a better future for the sport and embraces partners like us who are trying to push the envelope."

What can we expect next season?

Look for more growth from the NWHL, which kicks off its playoffs this weekend. The NWHL will continue to recruit from the NCAA and promote the league as the only one in North America in which players can play post-college.

"I'm excited to watch the growth," Packer said on the Riveters' broadcast. "I think there's going to be a lot of growth in the offseason. There's a lot of conversations hosted today that will affect tomorrow. There's a lot of conversations that happened before the season began that are going to make some major strides and changes as we move into season six."

Although the NHL league office might not have a formal relationship with women's hockey, keep an eye on how individual NHL teams amp up their efforts to partner with the women's game. Seven NHL franchises have been formally involved with PWHPA events this season. The Anaheim Ducks set the standard when they hosted the finale of the 2020 Rivalry Series between the U.S. and Canada and set an attendance record for women's hockey in the U.S., with 13,320 fans at the Honda Center.

"Over 85% of the buyers were not the primary account holder on season tickets," said Aaron Teats, the Ducks' president of business operations. "There might have been some overlap on analytics, but we're guessing we had about 80% new to file on folks that were taking this in."

The Ducks are the talk of the NHL for their efforts to promote the game, setting new best practices. That included arranging a publicity tour for women's players ahead of time, including flying Meghan Keller and Hilary Knight to Southern California to do a series of radio and TV interviews and appearances.

"I think what other teams can learn from this is the power of these women and what they can do from a promotional standpoint," Teats said, "as well as the power and growth of women's hockey."