An amalgamation of two organizations has turned the long-anticipated Professional Women's Hockey League from a dream into reality with its official debut ringing in the New Year on January 1st, 2024. The PWHL has received an exceptionally warm welcome, seeing nearly 3 million viewers tune in for the inaugural game between New York and Toronto and arenas rapidly selling out tickets and season passes across the board. Weyburn's Alex Clarke, a highly decorated official slated to join the ranks of PWHL Referees, said that the demand for professional women's hockey is obviously quite high.

"Well, it's the most popular sport in Canada, far and wide" she speculated. "Just because it's women playing doesn't mean it should have any more or less viewership, but I think it's because it's so overdue that there are so many people looking for a place to watch competitive women's hockey at this level. It's the first week, but they showed up and were there to support these women."

Clarke shared her excitement for the formation of a professional women's league, stating that the ability for women to reach the Pro level will certainly grow the sport at all levels.

"I've already had a few friends reach out to me and say that since watching the first week of hockey, their young girls have already told their parents that they want to play in the PWHL one day. It will create a very fast ripple effect of interest and goals for these young girls."

The prospect of one day sending their players to this professional league is sure to see rapid developments in other women's leagues as well, with more funding becoming available for athlete development eventually trickling down to the more local Junior levels. As the sport as a whole becomes increasingly more competitive, so too will the investments grow. 

Clarke was recently approached by the league and was selected to be an official for a selection of upcoming games. She will begin her career in the PWHL with two games in January. Hockey fans may notice a few key rule changes that are being introduced and tested in the new league. Previously, the game followed rules that forced physicality out of the equation for female players. Clarke shared her unique perspective as an official on how she sees these adjustments affecting gameplay in the PWHL.

"This league is allowing a little bit more physicality than we're used to while watching women's hockey," she said. "Body checking is almost a full 'Go', which has been exciting in the first week of hockey to see people respond to that. The players seem to love it and fans seem to love it as well to include that physical contact in the game. Another innovative rule they've brought in is if a team that's on a penalty kill scores a goal, they get rewarded in that their player gets to come out of the box."

Clarke expects that adding a physical aspect to the game will increase competitiveness, while the penalty-kill rule will force teams to think more offensively about how they control a powerplay and that this could lead to higher scoring games. 

The outlook is very good for the arrival of professional women's hockey, and there is certainly no shortage of skill or talent to supply an entertaining game. Most players have brushed elbows with Alex Clarke at some point throughout her officiating career, and she said that these women boast incredibly impressive athletic histories.

"Honestly, when I say that this league is long overdue, I mean it," she asserted. "These women have astounding resumes, many of them up to four-time Olympians. Lots of them have been on the national team, to many World Championships, either at the Under 18 or the Women's Division levels. There's a lot of skill out there."

One such athlete, with a Weyburn connection, is defender Micah Zandee-Hart who wears the 'C' for team New York. Zandee-Hart hails from B.C., but her grandfathers were both prominent figures within the community of Weyburn. She carries an Olympic pedigree with her into the PWHL after winning a gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics, as well as multiple medals at the World Championships and U18 World Championships. Team New York will host in their next game against Montreal, scheduled for 7:00 p.m. EST on Wednesday, January 10th.