TEMPE – A neutral site in a cozy, uptempo arena. A trophy as coveted as the Stanley Cup. A championship bout following an NHL game. It’s not a bad way to put an exclamation point on the Premier Hockey Federation’s eighth season.
The PHF, formerly the National Women’s Hockey League, is heading to Arizona for the Isobel Cup Final Sunday at Mullett Arena, marking the league’s first voyage to the desert.
Besides being the first time the PHF has held an event in Arizona, the championship is an extension of the local hockey community’s desire to build and promote the women’s game, with an assist from the Arizona Coyotes.
The Isobel Cup is the latest in a string of women’s hockey events and organizations that the Coyotes have helped sponsor. The team previously hosted a showcase for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association and continues to host a number of girls’ and women’s hockey programs. The Coyotes also have an official girl’s hockey club, the Arizona Kachinas.
Following the Coyotes’ Sunday matinee against the Colorado Avalanche, the Toronto Six and Minnesota Whitecaps face off at Mullett Arena for the Isobel Cup, the PHF’s most coveted trophy. Named after Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley’s daughter, the front of the Isobel Cup reads in part: “The Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy Cup 1875-1963. This Cup shall be awarded annually to the greatest professional women’s hockey team in North America. All who pursue this Cup, pursue a dream; a dream born with Isobel, that shall never die.”
Toronto is playing in its first Isobel Cup Final after winning a three-game series against the Connecticut Whale. Sunday will be Minnesota’s third Isobel Cup Final appearance, after winning the title in 2019 and finishing second in 2021.
This year’s final also serves as the first time both teams will be coached solely by women. Ronda Engelhardt has been a member of the Minnesota coaching staff since the team’s was incorporated into the NWHL in 2018, but this is her first year as the sole head coach of the team. Engelhardt was shocked that this is the first time two female coaches will face off in the final but is inspired by the progress being made.
“It definitely shows growth and also shows what females can do,” Engelhardt said. “You see what the athletes do on the ice, and it just shows that female leaders can do the same thing.”
Toronto coach Geraldine Heaney is in her first season with the Six and is excited to be able to lead the way for female head coaches. Heaney said she has always had male coaches and is inspired to see more women getting coaching opportunities.
“I think there’s a lot of talented women coaches out there that know the game and usually don’t get the opportunity,” Heaney said. “It’s a great accomplishment not only for myself and [Engelhardt] to be there, but I think there are so many other coaches out there, and if we can lead the way I think that’s awesome.”
For the second straight year, the Isobel Cup title game is taking place at a neutral site. Last season, in a game played at a Florida ice rink, the Boston Pride defended their title by beating the Connecticut Whale in an all-New England affair.
Players from both Toronto and Minnesota are looking forward to playing in not only a new arena but also a new market. While the Coyotes have worked to help expand girls’ hockey throughout the state, there are few opportunities to see professional women’s hockey in Arizona. Toronto captain Shiann Darkangelo hopes the championship game in the Valley will attract some new fans in the area for the PHF and women’s hockey.
“Anytime you can grow the game somewhere else where maybe they haven’t seen professional women’s hockey is pretty exciting,” Darkangelo said.
Minnesota’s Sydney Brodt also highlighted the opportunity to elevate the audience for women’s hockey in a “non-traditional market,” and mentioned the women’s hockey opportunities already in place in Arizona.
“They have a cool youth women’s program, the Kachinas, that’s getting bigger and bigger and there are some cool women’s hockey players that are helping with that,” Brodt said.
While the teams are focused on the upcoming final game of the season, Heaney made sure to point out that many of the players work other full-time jobs during the season. Toronto goaltender Elaine Chuli said she is working ahead in her other job so she can focus on the game while in Arizona. Chuli also mentioned after Toronto’s semifinal win over Connecticut on Monday that she would have to go to her other job as an accountant the next day, once again highlighting the pay disparity in women’s hockey.
“To be honest, I don’t know how they do it,” Heaney said. “But they do it because they love the game, and they want to continue to grow the game.”