TORONTO (AP) — Darryl Watts thought she’d retired from hockey after a stellar NCAA career.
At Boston College, Watts became the first freshman to win the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in women’s Division I hockey. She recently finished her career at Wisconsin, ranking second all-time in NCAA scoring with 297 points in 172 games.
Last fall, the 23-year-old from Toronto was accepted into the University of Wisconsin’s masters commercial real-estate program after a summer internship in the field. But a week before returning to her alma mater in Madison, Watts changed her mind about what she wanted to do with her life.
“I backed out seven days before. My dad was so upset,” Watts told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. “He supports everything I do, and he was so supportive after he kind of got over it.”
The game-changer was the Premier Hockey Federation’s announcement on Dec. 14 of a salary-cap doubling next season to $1.5 million per team. Watts made public on Wednesday that her salary will be a league-record $150,000 in 2023-24, just days after the Toronto Six signed her to a two-year contract.
“That was the turning point,” Watts said. “The conversation with my family was playing women’s professional hockey is a very viable financial option and it can support a really great lifestyle for a 23-year-old. Why wouldn’t I pursue this and see what the options are?
“I’m also disclosing this because I hope this will attract other players, which will then accumulate into the establishment of one single professional women’s hockey league.”
Toronto forward Mikyla Grant-Mentis was the PHF’s highest-paid player heading into this season after signing an $80,000 contract with the Buffalo Beauts.
The seven-team PHF, with clubs in Toronto and Montreal, has upped the financial ante in its bid to be the North American women’s pro hockey league of record. Other teams in the league are located in Boston, Buffalo, New York; East Rutherford, New Jersey; Simsbury, Connecticut and Minneapolis.
The average salary this season is $34,000 on a 22-player roster, but pay ranges anywhere from $13,500 to the $80,000. Watts’ contract converts to $200,000 in Canadian dollars next season, a milestone in terms of raising the financial bar.
It’s also the PHF’s latest message to the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, whose 80-player membership includes stars Marie-Philip Poulin, Sarah Nurse, Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield.
The PWHPA, which holds showcase games and tournaments, intends to start its own league at some point. The PWHPA players have refused to join the PHF, stating that if a player needs a second job to support themselves — and several have side gigs — that’s not the pro league they envision.
With the help of her father Michael, a corporate lawyer who acted as her agent, Watts entered into discussions and negotiations with PHF clubs. She said she was attracted to Buffalo for its proximity and the Boston Pride and the Connecticut Whale because they’re coached by former NHL players Paul Mara and Colton Orr, respectively
Last week, Watts stepped on the ice for the first time in 10 months for practice with the Six. She played in Toronto’s games Saturday and Sunday against Connecticut and had an assist. Her hometown team, which ranks second in the league at 10-2-2 behind Boston, won the Watts sweepstakes.
“Born and raised in Toronto, I had a special place in my heart for the Toronto Six,” she said. “I played high school hockey in Toronto. My family and my friends are here. Great downtown life and I’m a huge Leafs fan. Right now, I’m living in my childhood house, so life is pretty good.”