The Professional Women's Hockey League has spent the past six months building from the ground up, and soon the first game will be played in Toronto. Not everyone has followed every twist and turn of the birth of a true professional hockey league, so this is an opportunity to catch up on the path that led us here.

If you just want the current facts on the ground, wait until tomorrow for the story of the PWHL Launch.

A full history of the road to true professional women's hockey would need a book or two to tell. Women have been playing the game for over a century, just like men, and just like the men's game, women's hockey has gradually professionalized into league play all over the world. In North America, for many reasons but most notably because of Title IX rules for US colleges, the women's game was a college sport for a very long time.

Leagues would start up and falter, begin again and fall by the wayside, and the reasons were many, but mostly the intersection of money and the quality of the play on the ice. Oh, and the perception of that play as well. Add in some uncooperative national team management and the competition with the NCAA, and it was tough to build a league that had growth potential. It undersells the current glorious state of the game to pretend growth in interest and the quality of the on-ice product hasn't been dramatic.

International championships were the path forward for the game in the beginning. The IIHF began their women's division championships in 1990, and the first Olympics to include women's hockey was Nagano Japan in 1998. Those early competitions were marked by many serious problems the sport has had to overcome. The officiating was often of poor quality (if you remember Salt Lake, you know what I mean), the team quality fell off a cliff beyond the top three, and some countries, notably China, tried hard to push for the sport at home, only to give it up for a decade or more. As the years wore on, the game seemed to be only taking hold in North America. US College games had fans who paid for tickets, but leagues in Canada really struggled.

In 2007, the CWHL was formed in Canada, the most serious attempt ever made to build a sustainable league. There was just one problem: in order to raise money from donors, they structured the league as a sports organization that functioned like a charity, whose rule prevented them from every paying the players. When it became clear the league couldn't get sustainable funding even to continue as they were – forget transitioning to a structure with player salaries – they folded in 2019.

Meanwhile, American entrepreneur Dani Rylan first tried to get an expansion CWHL team, and then pivoted to starting her own American league in 2015. The NWHL used a different corporate structure and was set up like a tech start-up with angel investors funding the cost of getting the league on the ice. It succeeded in attracting many American players away from the CWHL and a rivalry tinged with nationalism and occasional jingoism developed between the two leagues.

They ably proved there was a bigger market for women's league play than in the past, but not enough of one to support two leagues full of teams. The talent was spread a little thin, and while the NWHL, later the PHF, paid players, they didn't pay them much. The participation of European or Asian players was minimal.

Ownership of the NWHL changed, and the new men in charge brought in some unspecified more money and a new vision of privately owned teams. They changed the name to the PHF, and "sold" several teams to groups dominated by the league owners in various combinations. They also sold the Toronto team to a large group of notable hockey people, a deal that never was finalized, and the Minnesota team had been an existing entity that joined up. But the salary cap per team in 2021-2022 was $300,000, doubled from the prior season. P stood for professional, but in more of an aspirational way than in reality.

When the CWHL folded, the players were in Finland at the world championships, and that timing may be the reason we have the PWHL. The players were all together, and they were angry. Many had left the NWHL, tired of unrealized aspirations, and here they were with the rug pulled out again. They didn't want to ever go through another league collapse, and as a group, they had no hope for the PHF's sustainability.

The players formed a union, the PWHPA. A union without an employer, but its function was two-fold: they soft-boycotted the PHF because of the low salaries and unsustainable business model, and they played exhibition games to raise funds and to prove that women's hockey was a viable business.

A lot has been said, some of it even true, about the PHF and PWHPA conflict and coexistence. But nothing has ever illustrated the problem the PWHPA was seeking to solve more than when Toronto's Sarah Nurse talked about the difference between her experiences in the CWHL and her brother's with the Edmonton Oilers. Forget his salary vs her tiny per diems or stipends. The more meaningful difference was the training facilities and staff, equipment, medical care, insurance, coaching, skills development and support of all kinds in an endless list that Darnell Nurse could take for granted and that Sarah Nurse never saw. Kia Nurse walked into a pro league on graduation from college. Sarah has had to fight for it.

And that would have been as true if she'd played in the PHF. At times in that league's path to growth, it was worse, and at its best, it was not good enough.

Well before the CWHL collapsed, and the PHF put a new spin on Rylan's start-up, the game itself was changing. The IIHF expanded the number of teams that play in the women's top division, and those teams were getting better every year. Many countries were seeing growth in participation in hockey by women and girls far outstripping men's participation. In Canada, almost all growth in the sport is from more women and girls playing the game.

Agitation for better quality leagues and club teams in Europe bore fruit, and the national teams of Czechia, Switzerland, Germany and many others started to climb the rankings and narrow the gaps with the top teams. The desire to perform well for the home crowds in several winter Olympics in Asia got China back into the game. Japan made strides. Korea made strides. Czechia has won the bronze medal twice in a row now. The game was drawing more and more fans, and the belief that "now was the time" was taking hold as the pandemic ended. The three post-pandemic championships have showcased the growth in the quality of the play, the coaching, the officiating, and growing sophistication in how the women's game approached physicality and checking – the women's game was ready. More than ready for a professional league that wasn't chronically making do with too few dollars.

In early 2023, the PWHPA had acquired a figurehead and advocate in Bille Jean King, interested investment from a group let by Mark and Kimbra Walter, and they set about to negotiate some kind of fusion with the PHF. Any knowledgeable fan of women's hockey could see that there wasn't enough players in North America to fill up a dozen or more teams and maintain quality. A look today at the rosters of the PWHL's six teams, made up almost equally of PWHPA and PHF players with a healthy dose of graduate NCAA players and Europeans, bears this out.

It took until June 30 for the nascent PWHL and PHF to come to a deal. That deal saw the end of the PHF, the dissolution of all its teams, and the voiding of all the contracts the PHF had continued to sign while the negotiation went on, some for some eye-popping numbers. This beginning wasn't without acrimony, and assumptions of bad faith, but it's hard to find the downside of a league with an average salary per team of $55,000, dedicated training facilities, an independent union and a CBA that lays out the path for the first few years of the fully funded, first-ever, truly professional women's league.

Might it fail? Of course. Anything might. The PWHL has a good plan made by people who aren't trying to sell their vision to investors – the money people already bought in. More importantly, an active and empowered group of players are equal partners. Now is the time.

Tomorrow you can read about the launch of the PWHL, and get up to date on the new league, and how it will work.