The revamped Canadian Women's Hockey League sees holding its first player draft as a step towards becoming a professional league.
The CWHL will draft players for the first time Thursday at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
"It makes it real for us, the knowledge that we're taking that next step," goaltender and CWHL co-founder Sami Jo Small said Monday from Oakville, Ont.
"The fact that it's at the Hockey Hall of Fame, it does legitimize it. It makes it something we want to be at and be a part of. If it was just on the internet I feel there wouldn't be as much excitement."
Only three of the five teams in the league will participate in the draft however.
Toronto, Brampton and Burlington will select players from the Greater Toronto Area. Boston and Montreal will recruit and sign players from their respective geographical areas.
"We're not paying enough money to make a woman move from here to Boston," CWHL executive director Brenda Andress said from Toronto. "It's not feasible or logical at this point."
Defender Tessa Bonhomme, who won Olympic gold for Canada in February, former national-team members Delaney Collins, Ashley Riggs and Correne Bredin, and Harvard goaltender Christina Kessler are expected to be sought-after players in the 120-player draft.
The three GTA clubs can protect up to five players who have played in the league at least one season in the last three before they start drafting.
Toronto has the first pick and the next pick will be decided by a coin flip between Burlington and Brampton. Another coin flip will determine the order in the remaining rounds.
The CWHL was founded in 2007 by players from the ashes of the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL), which had suspended operations due to financial issues.
The CWHL players aren't paid a salary. Their travel costs and ice time are covered, but they pay for their own equipment. Coaches and general managers are volunteers.
The CWHL draft is significant, says Small, because it is a sign of professionalism in their sport and the players' desire to have more parity in their league.
"In other professional leagues, people get place on different teams and people get traded and we in women's hockey have never really experienced that," she explained. "It's been your choice as to where you want to go.
"Now you go where you are drafted and you have to make it work there and you really have to work hard to make it work."
The CWHL was a six-team league last season with the Mississauga Chiefs, Brampton Canadette-Thunder, Burlington Barracudas, Vaughn Flames, Montreal Stars and Ottawa Senators.
The league retained clubs in Burlington, Brampton and Montreal, but Toronto and Boston are new. None of the teams have names yet and the draft will drastically alter rosters that had few changes year to year on the established clubs.
"There's a little bit of sadness because the players you've played with for awhile and who have been your teammates and you've sat together on long bus trips with them are going to now be your adversaries," Small said.
"That's going to be hard initially, but I think deep down we all know this is going to be the best for women's hockey."
Andress says Ottawa couldn't draw enough elite players to compete against Montreal and the Toronto-area teams that traditionally carry national-team players on their rosters. And the inclusion of Vaughn meant a watering-down of talent in the Toronto market, she added.
Small, a former Olympian, and forward Jennifer Botterill are on Toronto's protected list. Cherie Piper, Jayna Hefford and Gillian Apps, who helped Canada win Olympic gold in Vancouver in February, are protected by Brampton. Burlington has made four-time Olympic defenceman Becky Kellar off-limits Thursday.
"We are a professionally-run league going into this season and we are not professional yet in that the players still don't get paid, the GMs and coaches don't get paid, but that's what we're really hoping to do to attract new sponsors and to be able to showcase that we've made the changes necessary to have the best women's hockey league in the world," Small said.
Boston was an attractive addition to the CWHL because of travel distance and the fact it is a hockey market where several U.S. national team members reside, Andress said. Olympians Kacey Bellamy, Caitlin Cahow, Molly Engstrom and Erika Lawler are expected to play for the Boston club next season.
Bonhomme, from Sudbury, Ont., had to apply to be drafted by a CWHL club because she's been playing in the Western Women's Hockey League. Olympians Caroline Ouellette, Kim St. Pierre and Sarah Vaillancourt will play for Montreal next season.