When players representing the Minnesota and New Hampshire regions of the PWHPA stepped onto the ice at Madison Square Garden on Sunday evening, it had been 707 days since post-collegiate women's hockey was last broadcast live on national television. The landscape of the sport has dramatically changed in the nearly two years since March 24, 2019, and although women's hockey players have perhaps garnered more regular visibility in recent months than ever before, the match marked the first opportunity PWHPA players have had to showcase their game and mission to mainstream audiences across the U.S. and Canada.
For all the talk of making history and seizing platforms, the message from players was universal: this scale of event shouldn't be such a rarity. It shouldn't be a novelty. And it shouldn't be so hard.
"I think it's just the amount of work and advocacy and pushing that went into this moment happening," said Kendall Coyne Schofield, asked to reflect on the emotion of the day. "I'm so proud of everybody who gave it their all this weekend ― and that's not just the players, that's our entire crew. I'm so proud of the product we put on the ice, I'm so proud of our professionalism. We're going to keep going, we're going to keep grinding, and it has to get easier. There's a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes, but this group doesn't have any quit in them."
The weekend opened with a game in Somerset, New Jersey on Saturday which, for all its quality of play, also highlighted the difference that professional venues and high-quality broadcasting bring to the overall product and presentation. That game was broadcast from Protec Ponds Training Center with a multiple-camera setup at ice level. The CBC made the stream available via its Gem app and website to both Canadian and international viewers. That viewing experience was probably the best that could be done at that venue, but it couldn't compare to the bright lights and high-quality cameras available at Madison Square Garden.
While the first professional women's hockey game at MSG has been widely framed as a unique opportunity for women's hockey players to access top-tier facilities and garner exposure, players emphasized that the point is to move towards a model where that doesn't seem so special.
"There will soon one day be an infrastructure where this is repetitive and it's expected," Coyne Schofield said.
Playing in her first competitive women's hockey game since the spring of 2020, rookie centre Abby Roque stole the show for Minnesota on night one with a pair of goals and two assists to match, combined with strong play in transition. Brianna Decker (NH), Hayley Scamurra (NH), and Ryleigh Houston (MIN) also posted strong showings as Minnesota overcame a slow start to claim a 5-2 win and, with a bonus point for reaching the five-goal mark, three points toward the weekend series.
"I didn't have to play against their first line a lot, at all," Roque acknowledged with a laugh. "And that kind of opens me up to do some different things."
After breaking onto the international scene with a standout performance in the 2019-20 Rivalry Series, 23-year-old Roque reaffirmed her status as a threat at the highest level. And while PWHPA members have spoken at length about inspiring young girls to pursue their dreams in the sport, multiple veteran players also pointed to the young star to emphasize the urgency of their goal, so that up-and-coming athletes can continue to develop with access to a level of support that to this point has not existed in women's hockey.
"It's just great to have the PWHPA," offered goaltender Alex Cavallini. "Because I think that the mission's so clear that we're looking for a league that's sustainable and provides the resources that we need as players to play at the highest level and give those players an opportunity ― like an Abby Roque ― coming out of college and continuing to play the game that we love and we're so passionate about."
Sunday's contest at MSG began with Billie Jean King addressing the players directly, pointing to the significance of the moment not as a stand-alone occasion, but as a step towards normalizing women's hockey being played on the same stage as the men's game: "We're going to fight for every girl and every woman who will be standing on their skates, playing on this ice right where you are ― not for years, but for generations to come."
"She's just... she's the GOAT," said Hilary Knight. "She started all of this for us ― the biggest movement for women. So to have her have a strong hand in what we're doing and believe in us is tremendous. And to also try to fight back the tears when she's giving a pregame speech, because every word she's saying is 100% true. Obviously it was a game of hockey, but it meant more than just a hockey game."
Decker opened the scoring just 2:49 into Sunday's rematch and set up two others as New Hampshire took a 3-1 lead out of the first period. Despite a comeback effort led by a laser of a goal from Knight followed by a behind-the-net assist to Coyne Schofield late in the third, New Hampshire hung on to claim the game by a 4-3 margin. Although the unique scoring system implemented for the USA showcases incentivized strategic risk-taking and New Hampshire, up by a goal, needed at least one more point to win the weekend, Cavallini said that with national attention and pride on the line, there was no discussion of jeopardizing the game to earn the title.
With a pair of games set for Chicago next weekend and a likelihood of further matchups, players from both Minnesota and New Hampshire pointed to the possibility for a healthy rivalry to develop between the regions. The constant head-to-heads weren't what the organisation initially had in mind, but with the limitations made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, the PWHPA is taking advantage of what can be done under the circumstances. While there were hopes early on that the virus' spread might've been contained in time to play full showcases through February and March, operations consultant Jayna Hefford says that by late fall, it was obvious that pivoting to a domestic-style tour would be the most feasible option.
"What the PWHPA is doing... the people who are involved have moved mountains, considering a global pandemic has hit us," said Knight. "To be able to secure valuable partnerships and sponsorships when other sports and other industries are losing billions of dollars just goes to show that people believe in us, they see the value in us, and they're willing to go forward on this journey with us."
And in the intervening 706 days separating Sunday night from the last time the professional game has had this type of platform, Knight figures the ground gained has been significant.
"It's a lot of work," she acknowledged. "We wear many, many hats. There's a handful of people behind the scenes ― too many to mention ― but I think everyone has a very, very strong belief in what we're doing and is very excited about the future. So we're in a wonderful position moving forward. And these relationships and this value is only going to continue to grow and flourish."
- Each game was preceded by a land acknowledgement, an initiative that Jayna Hefford said was player-driven. The New York showcase took place on Lenapehoking, the unceded ancestral homeland of the Lenape. Ojibway and Lenni Lenape artist Tracey Anthony designed helmet decals worn by each team, acknowledging the Indigenous territory on which they are based.
- Brianna Decker, who was initially rostered with Calgary, mentioned that she had to request the Board's approval to be traded to New Hampshire in order to participate in the event. Decker had returned to the U.S. from Calgary for a USA Hockey camp in the fall and has since been training in her home state of Wisconsin, with the border closure preventing her from returning to Canada.
- Jayna Hefford explained that, with a heavily US-based early schedule, the prize money distribution has not yet been determined, as the uneven playing opportunities for the Canadian regions may impact the total amount available each weekend.
(Photo credit: Troy Parla/PWHPA)