“It’s an atmosphere you dream about often,” Kendall Coyne Schofield said. “You want to see a full building of people supporting women’s hockey. We know we can get there. If you build it, they will come. If we had the proper infrastructure day in and day out, we will have that many fans routinely.”
This was the third straight year that the NHL invited women’s players to participate in its all-star festivities, and it has boosted their presence each time. Last year, Coyne Schofield became the first woman to compete in the skills competition; she placed seventh out of eight in the fastest skater event but was less than a second behind the winner, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. This year’s three-on-three game presented a larger platform, and there is room to grow. Coyne Schofield said she would love to see more international players involved in future showcases.
Multiple NHL players praised the level of play in Friday’s exhibition, with Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie calling it “impressive.” Oshie has two daughters, Lyla (5) and Leni (3); neither has gotten particularly interested in skating yet, but he’s excited about the possibility.
“For them to look up to role models like this and be able to see them at the NHL All-Star Weekend I think is pretty cool,” Oshie said. “They were on the bench with me out there and they saw some of the girls skating around, so it’s pretty special for them to see that.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman shared that sentiment: “The fact that we can shine, using our light, a brighter light on the women’s game I think is a positive for them, for the game and for young girls watching and aspiring to do the same thing.”
But professional women’s hockey is in flux. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League abruptly folded at the end of last April, leaving the National Women’s Hockey League as the lone professional organization in North America. Many of the world’s best players are boycotting that league while waiting for a more sustainable model, and they organized the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association on the advice of tennis legend Billie Jean King.
Of the 20 players who competed Friday night, 19 are members of the PWHPA, but the new association still has its challenges. Ice time has been inconsistent without a league and a routine schedule, Canadian forward Rebecca Johnston said.
“It’s definitely challenging, and it’s a step that we need to take,” she said. “I think there is so much talent in women’s hockey, and for us to try to push for a league that is sustainable for us, a plan, is a step we need to take. For us, it is a challenging year but something that needs to be done.”
There is no timeline for what comes next for the PWHPA. When asked about the possibility of an NHL-backed women’s league, Johnston said she is optimistic.
“I think we are all hopeful. And especially for us being here, I think that is a step in the right direction,” she said. “The NHL is supporting women’s hockey; they are helping us get the exposure that we need. The partnership is there. I think you know it’s not something that you can just build overnight, so for us it is something that we want to continue to grow the game and get as much exposure as we can.”
Focusing on grass-roots opportunities is key, some of the players said. Participation in girls’ and women’s hockey is on the rise in the United States: A record 82,808 girls and women registered to play, according to USA Hockey reports from June, the most recent available. That is a 4.35 percent increase from 2017-18. Every female age group from under-6 to adult increased by at least 1.62 percent.
The group with the highest growth was U9-10, which increased its registration numbers by 7.88 percent. Overall, there are 34,941 girls 10 and under who are registered with USA Hockey.
“I think we obviously want to try to grow our sport any time we can,” American forward Brianna Decker said. “ ... I think winning gold in 2018 [in the PyeongChang Olympics] has helped that. You know, Canada, they have a lot more support up there; [hockey] is what they live for. So our goal as women’s hockey players is to continue to grow the support.”
In recent years, that growth has seen its most significant upticks after the Olympics. The hope is that Friday’s NHL all-star platform served as another reminder to girls that they can participate in hockey, and that there are avenues to pursue even after college.
“I think we all wish we had women role models, like ourselves," Decker said. “And I think girls, it gives them a lot of hope and helps us grow our game as much as possible.”
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