Darryl Watts thought she’d retired from hockey after a stellar NCCA career.
The 23-year-old from Toronto was accepted into the University of Wisconsin’s masters commercial real-estate program last fall after a summer internship in that field.
But a week before returning to her alma mater in Madison, Watts did what people her age often do, which is to change 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.”
While recharting the course of her life, what brought her out of retirement was the Premier Hockey Federation’s announcement December 14 of a salary-cap doubling next season to $1.5 million US per team.
“I was kind of pursuing other things at the time,” Watts said. “Once I saw the news that the PHF’s salary cap had doubled to $1.5 million US, that was the turning point.
“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?”
Days after the Toronto Six signed the forward to a two-year contract, Watts made public Wednesday her 2023-24 salary, which at $150,000 is a league record.
“I’m disclosing this because women’s hockey has been struggling for so long,” Watts said. “I’m so grateful and fortunate to be the recipient of this historic contract.
“It’s my duty, almost, to the women’s hockey community, to share this contract, provide clarity into what the women’s pro hockey atmosphere looks like right now.
“This is a staggering number. It sends the message to young girls who play hockey that they can look forward to a pro women’s league where they have the opportunity to make a really significant amount of money to support themselves while playing the sport they love.
“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.
The average salary this season is $34,000 on a 22-player roster, but the salary ranges anywhere from $13,500 to the $80,000 of Grant-Mentis.
Watts’ contract that converts to $200,000 in Canadian dollars next season is 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 with Billie Jean King Enterprises and Mark Walter, co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, as potential backers.
Women’s hockey nearly lost a high-caliber player in Watts, who ranks second all-time in NCAA scoring with 297 points in 172 games with first Boston College and then Wisconsin from 2017 to 2022.
In her rookie year with the Eagles in 2018, Watts became the first freshman to win the Patty Kazmaier Award that goes to the top player in women’s Division 1 hockey.
Watts represented Canada at the world under-18 hockey championship in 2017 in a silver-medal effort. She also played for the national under-22 team in a three-game series against the United States in the summer of 2019.
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 the Boston Pride and the Connecticut Whale because they are coached by former NHL players Paul Mara and Colton Orr respectively, as well as Buffalo because of proximity.
‘Special place in my heart’
But her hometown team, which ranks second in the league at 10-2-2 behind Boston, won the Watts sweepstakes.
“They offered me a really great contract,” Watts said. “Born and raised in Toronto, I had a special place in my heart for the Toronto Six.
Watts stepped on the ice for the first time in 10 months for Six practices last week. She played in Toronto’s games Saturday and Sunday against Connecticut and had an assist.
“I was absolutely sucking wind,” Watts said. “My legs were on fire. I was blacking out on the ice. Didn’t feel great. Physically I was struggling, but mentally having a great time.
“I’m hard on myself. I expect myself to perform at the level that I know I’m capable of. I hadn’t been on the ice in the year and I spent the summer shedding my hockey muscle.
“I hope to be performing at a 100 percent by the time the playoffs come.”