(Photo: Melissa Burgess)
For members of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League All-Star teams, Saturday’s game was all about showcasing the league on a wider scale.
That certainly seemed to be a success, as 8,122 fans attended this year’s All-Star Game at the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto. That's a significant increase from the roughly 5,400 tickets that were sold for the 2016 event, and the highest-attendance ever for a CWHL All-Star Game that charged admission.
"It's getting bigger every year," said Toronto Furies forward Natalie Spooner. "We're getting more fans out, so I think eventually we're going to fill up this whole building."
The game, which was presented in partnership with the Toronto Maple Leafs, was also broadcast several hours later on Sportsnet across Canada and was available live online for fans both in the United States and internationally.
In the end, Team White defeated Team Blue 9-5, and the fans in attendance got to see some of the most talented women’s hockey players take the ice together.
Calgary Inferno forward Jill Saulnier surprised even herself and stole the show with a hat trick. She also added an assist and finished with a plus-7, which resulted in her being named the game’s first star.
"No. Never," Saulnier said when asked if she thought she'd get a hat trick in the game.
"To have events like this, to have thousands of people watching the female game, is huge," Saulnier said. "It boosts our confidence -- and the confidence of the little girls who want to grow up and be in our shoes one day."
Jess Jones also registered a hat trick for Team White, while Marie-Philip Poulin had a goal and three assists.
Jones scored twice in the first period, with Saulnier adding one to put Team White up 3-0. Team Blue came back in the second, with Kelly Terry putting them on the board just five minutes after Charline Labonte came in net. Christina Kessler was the only goaltender to not allow a goal in the game.
In the last two minutes of the second period, Saulnier scored her second to put White up 4-1; just 39 seconds later, Brianne Jenner made it 4-2.
Both teams exploded offensively in the third. Jenelle Kohanchuk scored her first of the game to make it 4-3, but Rebecca Johnston and Poulin quickly helped Team White regain their three-goal lead.
Of course, with all the talent on the ice, it didn’t last long. Haley Irwin scored for Team Blue before Jones notched her hat trick for Team White. Kohanchuk potted another for Team Blue before Meghan Grieves made it 8-5. Finally, Saulnier topped things off with her empty-netter to complete the hat trick.
Emerance Maschmeyer allowed three goals in 30:29, while Erica Howe allowed five goals in 28:46. Meanwhile, Kessler was perfect in 30:29, while Charline Labonte allowed four goals in 29:31.
"Great game, lots of goals. It was back and forth...maybe not so fun for the goalies, but for us, it was fun," Poulin said after the game.
"The group of girls we have out here is tremendous," Saulnier said.
"Some of them were my idols growing up and I had the opportunity to play with them today, in Poulin and [Caroline] Ouellette," she said. "It's an exciting time and it's fun to contribute to a special game like this."
CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress noted the importance of having an event like the All-Star Game for all the young girls watching.
"Research will tell you -- females at the age of 13 no longer participate in sports. They drop out and don't come back into physical activity or sports until a much later age," Andress said. "These types of events are essential to show young girls that they can grow up and play in a professional league."
It's clearly working, as Andress has noted that she's seen many young girls say they want to grow up to play in the CWHL.
"You think back to when we were young, and we had idols growing up, girls that we looked up to," said Team Blue co-captain, and Calgary Inferno defender, Meaghan Mikkelson.
Part of growing the game is showcasing the game, which is exactly what the CWHL did on Saturday.
"Just to have the All-Star Game in the first place was a huge step in our league," Spooner said.
"There's so many fans that come out to this game, and it's on TV, so it gets out there to everyone. Hopefully they get to see the best of the best at this event and that's what we want to showcase, so it just helps to grow the fanbase," Spooner said.
"This was another opportunity for us to show our skills. There was some forechecking, some back-checking, which you don't always see in All-Star games, but I think everyone just tried to bring some skill but also some effort," Mikkelson said.
Could they add a "skills competition" event, a la the NHL or NWHL, in the future? Possibly, but it isn't in the cards right now.
"At this early stage in our growth, it's essential for people coming to our game just to see the skills of the player in a game. To do a breakdown of specific skills, to stop the game and have a bit more fun, is a possibility - but it doesn't grow our game," Andress said.
The CWHL All-Star Game came just one day after the league announced partnerships with the NHLPA and Boston Pizza. The partnership with the NHL Players' Association will give players a chance to help grow the game even more.
"We've always been talking to different groups, to make sure our players have access to research, access to contracts and different expertise," said CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress.
Andress clarified that the partnership is just that -- not a sponsorship -- and that it will help the players to work with someone who's already been there. In the end, it's all about putting the players' needs first and ensuring they have access to what's best for them.
"[It's about] making sure the players know they have a voice and their opinions are heard," Mikkelson said.
"The board of the league does a fabulous job of making sure that we're able to have some input, and they do a great job of listening to players and letting us have a say," she added.
Naturally, one of the hot topics in this subject is paying the players, which is something the CWHL has said that it will do.
"Our strategic plan says that we will pay our players," Andress said. "I've always stated that when we pay our players, we'll continue to. It's not something that we would do and then not do the following year. So it's always been our intention and continues to be our intention."
Andress noted that while the plan is to pay players next season, the economy is naturally a factor to consider. However, having partnerships and sponsorships both now and in the future will help ensure the success of the strategic plan going forward.
"If I was a fortune-teller, I wouldn't be the commissioner," Andress said.
While the CWHL does not currently pay its players, Andress says, "what we try to give them are opportunities to grow the game and create their own legacies."
"How we treat our players is a very professional manner. What they have access to, what we provide them with...opportunities which I think are as important, maybe even more important, than a paycheck right now," Andress said, bringing up individual sponsorships with companies like Bauer as just one example.
With another All-Star Game complete, the CWHL now returns its focus to the regular season. Teams have just a small handful of games remaining before the Clarkson Cup in Ottawa on March 5.
This is the second year of a two-year partnership to ho the Clarkson Cup in Ottawa. Andress said that the focus remains on this season for the moment, but said the league will look at a number of different options for locations to host the Cup going forward, and will consider what will help grow the game, its fanbase and what's best for the CWHL.
"We've created a sustainable business plan. We're still here -- and ten years for women's sports is unheard of," Andress said.
"We're very proud. I look back, I look at all the dedicated individuals...and I'm really lucky that I've been able to work with people who have the same passion," Andress said.
"We're ten years old. We're like a newborn in the sports world. We're starting to learn to walk, we've crawled a bit," Andress said. "I look back at what we've created today and I'm very proud of how the players have created this with their passion."