It may have been the best vacation Mikyla Grant-Mentis ever took.
The 23-year-old from Brampton, a forward in the Premier Hockey Federation, was lying in bed in a California hotel room last week when she got a call from agent Spencer Gillis, who had some life-changing news.
Gillis and Buffalo Beauts general manager Nate Oliver had worked out a record-breaking contract for the star free agent: one year at $80,000 (US) with a 10 per cent bonus clause — the richest deal ever in women’s hockey.
“I was with some teammates and they said, ‘This is crazy,’” Grant-Mentis said in a telephone interview. “To think, two years ago I was making five grand.”
Now back in Brampton and attracting attention like never before, she’s preparing to join the Beauts in the fall while keeping her day job — as a FedEx driver, with routes starting at 4 am — until her Beauts salary kicks in.
“People have been calling me — even people from high school who I don’t talk to any more are calling — and telling me how far forward I’ve pushed women’s hockey,” she said. “I didn’t ask for anything close to this money. But hopefully this could be the minimum for everyone in the future.”
Grant-Mentis earned it after starring for the Toronto Six over two seasons. She led the team in scoring this past season with 13 goals and 30 points, and in 2020-21 she was voted the PHF’s most valuable player — the first Black MVP in league history — and newcomer of the year. In her first season, shortened because of the pandemic, league games were broadcast for the first time, putting Grant-Mentis and the PHF’s other stars on a bigger stage.
Elite women’s hockey in North America, however, remains divided between the PHF and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which is stocked with Canadian and American Olympians who plan to launch a league of their own. The concept of a unified league, while attractive on many levels, has been a struggle to accomplish with the latest talks reportedly breaking down in mid-April.
The PHF, formerly the National Women’s Hockey League, started up in 2015 and was the first to pay female players: $10,000 to $26,000 per season, later cut by half to stay solvent. Now, infused with new business deals, the salary cap is set to rise from $300,000 to $750,000 per team this coming season.
That played a significant part in Buffalo sealing that record contract with Grant-Mentis. The league also has a streaming rights deal with ESPN while solidifying its front office and ownership structure. In Toronto, hockey notables Angela James, Anthony Stewart, Bernice Carnegie and Ted Nolan are now part owners.
In all, the league’s board of governors has committed to a $25-million investment over three years with plans to expand by two teams this year (including in Montreal) and one more in 2023.
Unlike the WNBA (which launched following the 1996 Atlanta Olympics) and the National Women’s Soccer League (started after the US won gold at the 2012 Games in London) women’s hockey has been unable to bring all of its stars under one umbrella to capitalize on the popularity of the sport during the Winter Games.
“It would be nice to have everyone in one league, making the same salaries,” Grant-Mentis said. “I’m fine with (two leagues) so long as we’re growing the game, but hopefully we can come together… and hopefully I can cause some reactions. I know players in the (PWHPA).”
She has never been invited to play for Canada at the Olympics: “I’m a pretty chill person. I’m waiting for my time, but if it doesn’t come I’m fine with that.”
Oliver, the Beauts GM, says the Canadian program has “shortchanged” itself by failing to give Grant-Mentis a shot: “All of the players you talk to have a passion for the game. Then there’s an upper echelon who cares for it, and Mikyla is one of those people… it just means so much to her.
Grant-Mentis started playing when she was four, supported tirelessly by her family. Her Mom Sandra, who battled breast cancer, would take her to games and practices even when she was sick from chemotherapy. Dad James competed for Canada in ball hockey. She has two brothers: Marquis (her twin of her) and Tre.
“My mom always said, ‘Don’t give up when you’re down,’” said Grant-Mentis. “I wasn’t invited (to Team Canada or Team Ontario). I didn’t go to the best college.”
She studied criminology and psychology at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, and was the school’s all-time leading scorer after four years.
“My mom went through breast cancer and never gave in. My dad is big into ball hockey and he’s getting on in years, but he’s still doing it and he isn’t giving it up. That’s what I learned from them.
“My brother Marquis asks to see video (of her Toronto Six games) so he can break them down and discuss what I did, what I did wrong, and how I can do better (laughing)… I’ll fight him back on some of it, but we know we’re doing it out of love.”
Family support and her love of the game will help carry her through some long days and nights this summer, when she’ll be up at 3 am to get ready for that 4 am FedEx delivery shift. After work and a nap, she says hockey training, workouts and games will run past midnight — before a quick turnaround to do it all again.
“It’s crazy hours, but I want to do this. I want to play hockey.”
Oliver and the Beauts recognize that commitment and are rebuilding around her after a last-place finish. The team also landed former Merrimack teammates Dominique Kremer and Jessica Healey, who played for Canada at the under-18 level.
Both Grant-Mentis and Oliver see the groundbreaking contract as a sign of progress toward more women’s players earning a living wage along with medical and child care benefits, which has long been the goal. Grant-Mentis, who can soon afford to give up that day job, is what the future might look like.
“When I first started in 2018, I knew players who were police officers, teachers, nurses… they were playing hockey to help make ends meet,” Oliver said. “I do feel we are at the point now where the players can focus on hockey. Not all of them, but we’re trending towards it.”
Grant-Mentis contests: “It’s crazy to think I’m making an actual living wage playing hockey. It hasn’t sunk in yet … I feel good, but I want everyone to be paid the same way.”
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