It was the official end to an era in women’s hockey on Thursday.

Players and staff from the Toronto Six gathered to celebrate the team capturing the Isobel Cup in 2023 after winning what became the last-ever championship in the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF). The landscape of women’s hockey has changed considerably since the Six defeated the Minnesota Whitecaps in overtime on Mar. 26, 2023, for the expansion franchise’s first-ever PHF championship.

Last June, three months after Toronto’s championship victory, the PHF, which began in 2015 and was then known as the National Women’s Hockey League, ceased operations after it was sold to the Mark Walter Group and BJK Enterprises, with the purpose of creating a new, unified professional women’s hockey league. All contracts for PHF players were voided.

In August, the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) was officially announced, where many players from the Six now ply their trade.

“It’s been a whirlwind, the past year,” Daryl Watts, a forward for the Six who now plays for PWHL Ottawa, told TSN. “I think it’s really important for all of us to come back here, not just celebrate the championship but celebrate this league and everything that it’s done for women’s hockey.”

The PWHL is enjoying immense success so far in its inaugural season, repeatedly breaking attendance records. Earlier in the month, more than 19,000 fans flooded Scotiabank Arena to watch Toronto take on Montreal, the largest crowd for any women’s hockey game in history.

While the PWHL’s early accomplishments are reason to celebrate for all those in women’s hockey, Thursday was about recognizing the PHF and what came before, as Toronto Six players and staff received their championship rings.

“I think we were a big part of what's happening today, and sometimes I think get overlooked,” Geraldine Heaney, Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and former coach of the Six, told TSN. “Was there a real pro league last year? Yeah, there was, and it was a very good league. But it’s just continued to grow into a bigger league.”

Thursday’s atmosphere was reminiscent of a high school reunion – not just for Toronto Six players and staff, but a larger gathering of pioneers of the game. Women’s hockey greats like Gina Kingsbury (now general manager for PWHL Toronto and Canada’s women’s team), Angela James (also the former GM for the Six), and Danielle Goyette mingled in the crowd.

Fran Rider, one of the founders of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, and other trailblazers were honoured as presentations detailed the leagues and organizations that have helped shape women’s hockey in North America.

“All of us in this room are caretakers of this history, so let’s remember it,” Sami Jo Small, former president of the Toronto Six, said to the crowd.

But there was, at times, a melancholy feeling to the evening. This was a celebration of the last-ever Isobel Cup Championship. The trophy was on display for attendees to take their picture with the hardware, but afterwards it would take its place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Small made sure that every single player and staff member had their name engraved on the plate as a tribute to the final team to ever win it.

“It’s a bittersweet moment, I think for all of us,” Emma Woods, a forward for the Six who now plays for PWHL New York, told TSN. “I'm fortunate to be in the PWHL, but something like that doesn't exist without what comes before us. This ring is a symbol of what came before that.”

John Boynton, former owner of the Six and chairman of the board of governors of the PHF, acknowledged to the room that the league was unsuccessful in its goal of unifying women’s hockey.

Before the PWHL, the sport was a fractured landscape, with many players, including the majority of those representing the Canadian and American national teams, opting for the PWHPA (Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association), an organization with the goal of creating a viable professional women’s league in North America.

While Boynton said he believed the PHF could have been that one, unified league, he ultimately felt that selling the PHF was the right thing for the game.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he said, quoting former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln.

The PHF never saw the mainstream success that the PWHL is enjoying so far, although the league had promising announcements for the 2023-24 season before ultimately folding, including an increased salary cap of $1.5 million (U.S.) per team. Watts had signed a contract with the Six in Jan. 2023 that would have paid her $150,000 the following season, the highest salary ever for a professional women’s hockey player in North America.

The Toronto Six played out of Canlan Ice Sports, with a capacity of about 1,200. Toronto’s PWHL team has their home arena at Mattamy Athletic Centre, which can seat approximately 2,600 fans. The team announced in December, a month before the season started, that all its home games had sold out.

But those involved in the PHF remain adamant: the PHF fell so that the PWHL could fly.

“This was a professional league, and the Toronto Six will forever be known as the last champions,” Johanna Boynton, former co-owner of the Six, told attendees.

While Thursday was about ensuring the memory of what came before is not forgotten, players are also looking at the road ahead. In total, 12 players from Toronto Six’s championship team are currently in the PWHL. Elaine Chuli, the Six’s starting goaltender, now plays for PWHL Montreal and is the only undefeated goalie in the league, while also leading the way in goals-against average and save percentage.

Woods, who was an alternate captain with the Six, has four points for PWHL New York so far this season.

“I had a great experience in the PHF. I'm not saying I miss it and I want to go back to that. I think we have to continue to take steps forward as women in sports and continue to grow as a person and an athlete,” she said.

“I'm extremely happy where I'm at in the PWHL. I love my team in New York. I think we're doing something incredibly special there. It's important to cherish the time that we had here in these moments, but as a female in sports, you have to continue to grow and push forward.”