NHL players generally don’t bring their “A” game to All-Star weekend. It’s an opportunity to relax, have fun and engage in some light competition.
But the same cannot be said for the women’s hockey players who will take part in the All-Star Game festivities this weekend.
No time to give up. They will be on the ice and proving themselves under the NHL spotlight.
“The reality is you have to do it,” Montreal captain Marie-Philip Poulin said earlier this month. “We can’t take it away, because at the end of the day people will always think that if we don’t give our best, women’s hockey isn’t good.”
Poulin and 23 other players from the new Professional Women’s Hockey League will face off Thursday in a 20-minute, three-on-three duel at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena to kick off the NHL’s three-day All-Star festivities.
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Montreal defender Erin Ambrose is excited to take the ice and enjoy some three-on-three action, but she doesn’t lose sight of the fact that the players are there to grow women’s hockey and promote the PWHL during its season inaugural.
“Every time our game is on, we’re always trying to prove ourselves,” Ambrose said. “It’s a frustrating thing as a female athlete, but it’s kind of the situation we’re in right now in the world.
“So we’re going to enjoy it, we’re going to have a lot of fun with it, but we also know why we’re here.”
Record start to the championship
The PWHL is off to a record start since opening on January 1st.
The league opener between New York and Toronto at the Mattamy Athletic Center on New Year’s Day reached 2.9 million Canadian viewers.
During its inaugural week, the PWHL twice set attendance records for professional women’s hockey games as 8,318 fans filled the TD Place Arena in Ottawa on January 2 before 13,316 spectators gathered at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, on January 7.
The league will aim even higher when Montreal takes on Toronto at the 19,000-capacity Scotiabank Arena on February 16.
For that reason, Montreal forward Laura Stacey views PWHL players’ participation in NHL All-Star Weekend as a chance to build on the league’s initial momentum and take advantage of the extra looks they will inevitably attract.
“Anytime there’s a big spotlight, a big game, a lot of attention on women’s hockey, I think we want to show the best we can,” Stacey said. “We’re just going to have that little extra feeling of ‘let’s do this for the next little girl that’s watching us, let’s prove to the world that our sport is great, that women’s hockey is growing and it’s special.’
“There’s something really important that we’re still fighting for.”
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The legacy of Coyne Schofield
Women’s hockey players have participated in four consecutive NHL All-Star Weekends since 2019, when American star Kendall Coyne Schofield – who currently plays for Minnesota – became the first woman to participate in the skills competition.
Coyne Schofield did more than just compete. She placed seventh out of eight in the fastest skating competition with a blistering 14.346-second lap around the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., less than a second behind winner and Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid.
It still remains a decisive moment for Poulin.
“I remember when Kendall Coyne really took off,” Poulin said. “She came around fast enough to really open a lot of people’s eyes at that point.”
Although PWHL players hope to be able to host their own All-Star Games in the coming years, they are determined to make the kind of impact Coyne Schofield had during the NHL festivities for now.
“Every time you get the chance to step on the ice, it’s just a way to showcase our sport,” Poulin said. “You want to play against the best, with the best, and 3-on-3 will be able to promote women’s hockey.”
Where is the line?
The PWHL has made waves and received many positive reviews for its physical play, but some coaches and players are starting to question where to draw the line.
“I understand neck-and-neck,” Montreal coach Kori Cheverie said after a blowout 3-2 win over New York on Jan. 16. , it’s a penalty in women’s hockey.
“There just needs to be some consistency with it.”
Poulin and Minnesota forward Taylor Heise had a couple of unpenalized collisions on the ice during a game on Jan. 24. Meanwhile, Ambrose was penalized for a hit at the end of the third period on an arguably less physical play.
“There are certainly questions we ask ourselves. Where is the limit in these moments?” said Poulin. “But I think at the end of the day, that’s what we want, and the more we play, the more the referees will understand what’s fair.”