Year 1 for the PWHL ends with a storybook finish as great things loom for the league

Minnesota's Game 5 victory over Boston caps an incredible first season for the Professional Women's Hockey League.
PWHL Finals - Game Five
PWHL Finals - Game Five / Troy Parla/GettyImages

It takes a lot of ambition to start a new professional sports league, especially when so many other attempts have resulted in the league's dissolution. However, when the Professional Women's Hockey League was announced in mid-2023, the hype surrounding it could be felt throughout the hockey landscape. The best in the world in women's hockey would have a place to come together and battle, apart from the usual friendlies and yearly international tournaments.

It was very clear from its inception that the PWHL was going to be a league crafted and molded by the players. The result was a first season that had it all. The intrigue from the lead-up to the season carried into the first game on New Year's Day between New York and Toronto. Along the way, "The Battle on Bay Street" attracted a women's hockey record of 19,285 fans to a meeting between Toronto and Montreal, only to be outdone two months later when the two met in Montreal for "Duel at the Top." These broken attendance records were just one small part of a great five months of action for the league.

The PWHL playoffs were the perfect end to the season

While there were only three series during the PWHL playoffs, all three provided loads of drama. Toronto found itself at the top of the standings at the end of the season, earning a first-round matchup against fourth-seeded Minnesota, with Montreal facing Boston meeting in the other semifinal. Toronto and Minnesota traded consecutive shutouts on home ice before Toronto's season ended much like their NHL counterpart, with a heartbreaking loss in a winner-take-all game as the victims of a reverse sweep. On the other side, Boston swept Montreal with three straight overtime victories, including an incredible 2-1 triple-overtime goalie duel in Game 2 between Boston's Aerin Frankel and Montreal's Ann-Renee Desbiens.

The excitement continued into the PWHL Finals as the two lower seeds met for the chance to be named the inaugural Walter Cup champions. The first three games packed a ton of intrigue, but Game 4 featured one of the most incredible games of the season. Aerin Frankel and Nicole Hensley battled into the second overtime of a scoreless game, and it looked like Minnesota had it locked up. However, a goalie interference challenge overturned the championship-winning goal, only for Alina Muller to keep Boston's season alive 70 seconds later. Minnesota would get the last laugh in Game 5, winning 3-0 in Boston to complete the job and complete an incredible postseason run.

American standouts highlighted Minnesota's victory

A bit part of Minnesota's run to the title was their unstoppable top line, bookended by an all-time great in women's hockey and the future of the sport. As the captain of Minnesota, Kendall Coyne Schofield added to a legacy that is nearly unparalleled in United States hockey history. Along with an Olympic goal and two silver medals, Coyne Schofield was also a big part of helping launch the PWHL, serving as the President of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association's Executive Committee. It was fitting that she scored the empty-net goal to seal the championship.

On the ice, there are few players in the league more electric than Taylor Heise. After several productive years at the University of Minnesota, Heise didn't have to travel very far once Minnesota selected her with the first pick in the PWHL Draft in September. While her numbers didn't jump off the page during the regular season, Heise tied linemate Michela Cava with eight points in the postseason, including a league-high five goals. She was awarded the Ilana Kloss Playoff MVP Award for her efforts.

The best is yet to come for the PWHL

The PWHL is only scratching the surface of what it could be after its first season. This campaign felt a little like a trial run, with the future looking to be very bright for the league. The turnaround for the next season will come quickly, with the 2024 PWHL Draft set for June 10. New York holds the first pick after finishing last during the regular season, with Princeton captain Sarah Fillier looking to be the consensus top pick.

It's also expected that we'll be getting logos and nicknames for the six teams this offseason, too. Before this season, there were rumblings about potential names for the six franchises, but they only played representing the city or state where they were located. This will be a welcome change as the teams will be able to add a little flair to their organization.

The big question for now is when the PWHL will expand. While it isn't going to happen next season, it feels like a logical next step as more players become eligible to join the league. There are plenty of markets that would welcome a team with open arms, especially in the northeastern United States and throughout Canada. Regardless of when the expansion comes, there's no denying that the PWHL has a formula that seems to be working at the moment. This first season was an absolute success in my book, and it's only going to get better.