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Clark, Purcell among Saskatchewan connections set to star in PWHL’s inaugural season 

Green background with a framed picture of EMily Clark (female hockey player) holding silver and gold Olympic medals.

Photo credit – Josh Schafer/getmyphoto.ca

Written by: Matt Johnson for Sask Sport 

Chelsea Purcell remembers exactly where she was when she got the news she’d long been waiting for. 

Purcell, who now holds the title of senior director of corporate partnerships with the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL), was hanging out in her backyard with some family and friends, tending to a tree that had fallen down earlier in the week. That’s when she received a call from PWHL senior vice president of hockey operations Jayna Hefford letting her know that yes, after a collective bargaining agreement had officially been signed — the PWHL was a go. 

“There were so many ups and downs of like, okay, this is going to happen, then being unsure,” said Purcell. “Knowing that it was official and going to be starting in January — that was a pretty big moment and one I’ll remember for sure.” 

The Hudson Bay, Sask. product was the captain of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies for two seasons, before continuing her playing career in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). That’s where she got her foot in the door in hockey business — she eventually took on a strategic partnerships role with the CWHL, a position she held until the league folded in 2019. Ever since, the sport has been longing for a sustainable home. 

Now, after years of uncertainty, professional women’s hockey finally has clarity. Collectively, Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises teamed up to bring a decades-long vision to life. 

A draft held this fall in Toronto, coupled with a free agency period bringing the best players in the world into one league after years of division is part of what makes the PWHL so promising. 

“…dream to play professional women’s hockey.” 

Emily Clark

Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, along with New York, Minnesota and Boston will serve as homes to the six original franchises, with the hope that the likes of Marie-Philip Poulin, Sarah Fillier and Brianne Jenner will become true household names across North America. 

And anyone familiar with women’s hockey in the province knows Purcell isn’t the only Saskatchewan product set to play a major role in the PWHL’s inaugural season.  

So too is two-time Olympian, Emily Clark. Clark was signed to a three-year deal by Ottawa as one of the organization’s first-ever signings in September — an opportunity that she describes as a “pinch- me moment” when reflecting on first having Ottawa general manager Michael Hirshfeld call her about a contract. 

She will be joined by Toronto forward Kaitlin Willoughby and New York defenceman Brooke Dobson, who both hail from Prince Albert, along with Saskatoon product Sophie Shirley, who will play forward for Boston. The trio were all announced to PWHL final team rosters on Tuesday

“It’s really awesome and nothing but good things for those girls in Saskatchewan to see that professional hockey is a route that they can aspire to take,” Clark said, when reflecting on sharing the league with the fellow provincial products. 

“I follow the Saskatoon Stars, I follow Hockey Saskatchewan, and I like to see when girls are getting these post-secondary opportunities — whether it be U SPORTS or NCAA. Now to see that down the line and getting to see more girls from Saskatchewan in the game playing professionally is a lot of fun.” 

One of those players is 16-year-old Stars goaltender Ava Drabyk, who has committed to join the Syracuse Orange in the NCAA Division I ranks when the 2025-26 season arrives. 

“It’s super inspiring. It makes me hopeful that one day I can be like them, and I definitely will be cheering for them. I look up to them so much,” said Drabyk. “I think it shows so much opportunity for people my age and for younger generations, since we now have more players to look up to and teams to cheer on. I think it’s just a great thing to inspire us to work for and to compete for spots in the league.” 

Clark has been providing a home for that work for young Saskatchewan hockey players just like Drabyk for the last two summers at the EC26 Hockey Camp in her hometown. Knowing what the potential that this league can do in terms of growing the game and keeping more women in sport for Clark is something that’s amazing to think about. 

“It’s huge. It’s everything — and the reason that I do it,” said Clark. “At the start of my camp I asked the girls some of their dreams and a lot of them said the national team which I love and some girls are saying that they want to play in the NHL. It’s been nice to open the door and shed some light so that they don’t have to dream like I had to.” 

“Now, you can dream to play college hockey, dream to play on the national team and dream to play professional women’s hockey.” 

The PWHL will officially drop the puck on a new era in the sport on Jan. 1, 2024, when Toronto hosts New York at the Mattamy Athletic Centre. Clark and Ottawa will play host to Poulin and Montreal the following night at TD Place in the nation’s capital. Broadcast and stream information for the 2024 season has yet to be announced.