The Professional Women's Hockey League (PWHL) announced Air Canada as its latest sponsor ahead of its inaugural game on Monday, January 1 in Toronto, Ont. Air Canada will be the official airline of the new women's hockey league and its six teams -- three in Canada and three in the United States. 

"We're delighted to team up with Canada's national carrier as an Inaugural Premier Partner and Official Airline to the PWHL," Amy Scheer, PWHL senior vice president of business operations, said in the league press release. "We feel privileged to fly with Air Canada, a connection that reflects our shared values and the enormous potential for the league, its players and our future stars, as we take the sport to new heights."

The deal with Air Canada grants the company jersey branding rights for the PWHL Montreal team, as well as intellectual property rights for all six PWHL teams and the league itself. The deal specifies broadcast, in-venue, and in-market assets. Air Canada will provide travel support for the league, its players and promote the PWHL in its marketing and communications channels.

"To partner with the PWHL and be part of this historic moment in hockey history is incredibly exciting and meaningful to all of us at Air Canada," Andy Shibata, vice president of brand at Air Canada, said. "As Canada's national carrier, and a longstanding supporter of Canadian sports, this partnership reflects the love we share with our customers for hockey, as well as our work in championing gender equality in the aviation industry."

The press release included the first official mention of a broadcast deal, or sponsorship rather and on Friday the league announced its broadcast plans. The league will have national broadcasts in Canada through partnerships with CBC / Radio-Canada, TSN and RDS, and Sportsnet. The league also announced regional deals in the United States with MSG Networks and NESN.

"The visibility offered across our broadcast and streaming schedule is unprecedented in women's hockey and reinforces the growing interest in our sport," PWHL advisory board member Stan Kasten said in the press release on Friday afternoon. "Accessibility of PWHL games throughout our inaugural season is a giant win for fans everywhere. We felt it was a priority to engage a magnitude of committed partners on a variety of consistent platforms."

To that end, all PWHL games will be made available on the league's YouTube channel and additional broadcast partners may be announced throughout the season, as the existing agreements with regional networks allow out-of-market distribution. The press release explicitly mentioned Sportsnet Pittsburgh as other networks that may be granted access to carry PWHL games. These will be determined on a case-by-case basis, the league announced. 

Retired PHF defender and 2023 Isobel Cup champion Saroya Tinker confirmed her involvement as part of the broadcast team via social media earlier this week. 

"Today, I am so incredibly excited to announce the next step in my career, as your newest @cbcsports @TSN_Sports @Sportsnet Analyst," the Yale graduate posted. "Catch me January 1st on CBS Sports for PWHL Toronto vs. PWHL New York." 

This will be Tinker's first foray into the broadcast booth. She will join CBC Sports host Andi Petrillo, women's hockey reporter for The Athletic, Hailey Salvian, and TSN reporter and Olympic gold medalist Tessa Bonhomme. Daniella Ponticelli and Cheryl Pounder, will join the broadcasts as commentators and analysts while Anastasia Bucsis (SportsNet) will conduct exclusive rinkside interviews and updates.

The Inaugural Season

After only officially launching on August 29 of this year, it's an ambitious lead-up to the opening game on January 4, 2024. However, things are falling into place for the North American women's hockey league. 

Last month, the league announced the PWHL Toronto will host the PWHL New York for the first-ever PWHL game to take place at Mattamy Athletic Center in Toronto. The four remaining teams will play their first games throughout the weekend. 

"We said January, I don't think we ever said January 1," Hefford told CBS Sports last month. "It seems like a really great way to kick off 2024. I don't think we could be more excited to do it on January 1.

Ahead of the schedule's release, there was speculation that the PWHL might participate in the NHL Winter Classic event hosted by the Seattle Kraken. Hefford told CBS Sports that the PWHL and the NHL did discuss collaborating for the Winter Classic. 

"There was definitely a conversation around that and if that was the right opportunity and way kickoff league. What we landed on was that we wanted to launch in our home markets," Hefford said. "We think it's important for the fans in those markets that they get to see their team for the first time."

NHL Collaboration

However, the PWHL has maintained a close relationship with the National Hockey League and will be featured in the 2024 NHL All-Star Weekend in Toronto. 

Given the relationship between the NHL and the USA Hockey and Hockey Canada women's programs over the years, we can assume we'll see big names from both programs represented. It would also be nice to see representatives from other elite women's programs like Team Czechia and Team Finland. 

"Putting the schedule together, obviously, is a big puzzle," Hefford said. Between potential opportunities with the NHL to International tournaments, the league had to strike a delicate balance to be ready for a January 2024 launch. 

The league tapped Jeremy Langer to assist with managing the inaugural schedule. The only women's hockey league in the North American market will run its regular season from January 1 through May 5. Langer is a special advisor to the PWHL Board, the league confirmed and has provided consultation on a variety of projects, including the league schedule. 

The PWHL will participate in the Thursday activities for the men's All-Star Weekend and resume league play on Saturday, Feb 3. Teams will also pause for the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championships taking place in Utica, N.Y. in April. 

The PWHL Rulebook

Another overlap with the NHL will be reflected in the officiating. Hefford confirmed the PWHL will use officials trained and familiar with the American Hockey League (AHL) and NHL rulebooks. Prior women's leagues have used NCAA or IIHF rules. 

Hefford told CBS Sports the PWHL was advised to use NHL and AHL officials. 

"Our goal all along was to match the professionalism that we know that the players will bring and that we've committed to this league with the officiating platform as well," Hefford said. "And so with our relationship with the NHL and the AHL, we've been able to great conversations with that about a strategy around officiating and potentially sharing officials who work in those leagues and ensure that we have the best available [officials]." 

Using a pro men's rulebook makes sense with regard to ensuring there is a deep pool of officials the PWHL can call on. Hefford reinforced that. 

"What was recommended to us, I guess I would say, is that if we're going to use a large number of officials typically work off the NHL rulebook, and we want consistency, that's the rule that we should work off of," Hefford said.

However, there are specific ways in which the women's game is officiated that differ from pro men's hockey -- specifically when it comes to open ice hits and overall body checking. One can only assume there will be a learning curve as officials get used to the adaptations the PWHL will make with respect to hits. 

Further, women's hockey does not use the trapezoid -- the area directly behind the goal. In the NHL, goalies may not play a puck below the red goal line if it is outside of the trapezoid zone. Neither the NCAA nor the IIHF use a trapezoid. When we spoke to Hefford last month, she was still unclear if the PWHL would use the trapezoid rule or not. 

The official league rulebook has yet to be released but hopefully will be made public soon. 

Trouble in Paradise? 

Overall, there is growing excitement for the PWHL, especially among players who've wanted a more sustainable women's professional league in North America. PWHL board member Stan Kasten reports the league is bank-rolled for the next 10 years, including incremental salary increases laid out in the historic collective bargaining agreement. However, there remains an absence of things the traditional sports fan, women's hockey or otherwise, are used to. 

Recently, reports suggested players have not been paid on time, the very thing that stalled the NWHL in its second season, especially after a mass exodus of the very same Olympians who left the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) for the NWHL ahead of the 2015-16 hockey season. 

"Some players released in the initial waiver period were not paid the $500 per week guaranteed in the collective bargaining agreement, and many signed players across the league have yet to receive any payment more than a month after joining their teams," Ian Kennedy of The Hockey News reported earlier this month. 

Longtime NHL executive and PWHLPA executive director Brian Burke clarified the matter. 

"There is no grand conspiracy here. All players will receive all funds due them. Some of the delay is due to incomplete paperwork, some due to the fact that we are all new at this! It will all be set right," Burke told women's hockey reporter Melissa Burgess on December 18. 

The league also commented -- "All matters between the league and Players Association are being handled in a professional and collaborative manner."

Final Verdict

While specific team names and branding might arguably be creature comforts, the lack of official news on broadcasting across North America leaves much to be desired. 

While the league itself catches up, I for one have faith the quality on the ice will impress. PWHL Toronto has already sold out season tickets and PWHL Montreal's home opener against PWHL Boston on January 13 is already sold out. 

The PWHL will not be a perfect product come Monday, nor will it hit every mark of a professional league. However, the PWHL has the goodwill, and most importantly the attention of the greater hockey community like we've never seen. What they do with it will determine their early success.