The Women Team Exhibition Was Overwhelming

ST. LOUIS – Team Canada. Team USA. The greatest rivalry in women’s hockey is also the greatest rivalry in all of hockey and one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. When the two teams clash, it’s viciously competitive every time. Yet it wasn’t a surprise to see members of both teams standing side by side, sticks in the air, at center ice Friday night at Enterprise Center.

The best Canadian and American women’s players had just delivered a spirited, thrilling edition of 3-on-3 hockey, but the moment was obviously bigger than that. The post-game ovation, while they saluted the crowd, was as loud as any other cheer during the NHL Skills Competition that night. Through the Elite Women’s 3-on-3 event, the women had an ideal opportunity to showcase the game to a large audience, and they excelled in front of a sold-out crowd of 18,000-plus.

“It’s something that you dream about, the day that there’s routinely that many people watching women’s hockey, and there’s sold out buildings,” said Team USA forward Kendall Coyne Schofield. “So to have that here tonight for 3-on-3 alongside the NHL’s best is just incredible.”

After a tentative first minute, the teams started to find their legs and trade chances – and then the breakaway parade started. Rebecca Johnston broke loose to give Canada a 1-0 lead, but the Americans pushed back hard. Canada goaltender Ann-Marie Desbiens was tested and then some, most notably when she robbed forward Annie Pankowski on a breakaway during the first half.

Canada forward Melodie Daoust beat U.S. goalie Alex Rigsby Cavallini on a beautifully placed wrister in the second half, and the Americans fought back, with superstar Hilary Knight scoring on a power move to the backhand. It wasn’t enough, as Desbiens, the game’s unofficial MVP, weathered a storm, even baseball-catching a shot in the game’s final second. It was a 2-1 final that showcased Desbiens and Rigsby Cavallini, but it was no snoozer. The action was consistent and back-and-forth, likely birthing a bunch of new fans watching who hadn’t gotten a high-profile dose of the women’s game since the 2018 Olympics. And while it had the all-star fun factor, it had the intensity, with plenty of elbows and mini cross-checks delivered during puck battles. That was particularly impressive considering that, as Knight explained after the game, both teams had to share a dressing room, so it was awkward trying to plan a pre-game strategy.

“You think of a typical all-star game, and it’s pretty lackadaisical out there, but that was a Canada-USA rivalry,” said Canada forward Sarah Nurse. “We’ve battled each other constantly. There was a lot of pride on the line, and it was nice that we were able to come out on top.”

The NHL all-stars on hand had an up-close look at the exhibition, and many were blown away. As Nurse pointed out, it was a surreal experience to have all the best men’s and women’s players on the ice at the same time, talking to each other.

“They really support our cause, and they want to know more about what we’re doing, because these last few years, we’ve been out of sight, out of mind, and people haven’t really been privy to what goes on in women’s hockey,” Nurse said. “So they were really just curious to see what’s going on, and they want to know how they can help and what they can do to promote the game.

“It was exciting, it was up and down the ice, and the score wasn’t indicative of all the chances,” said Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber. “There wasn’t a lot of down time. It was just back and forth. No matter what, they were going for it.”

So Friday in St. Louis was certainly a high for the women’s game, with the cherry on top being the inclusion of Knight and Marie-Philip Poulin in the Shooting Star event, during which each scored a 10-pointer. Now the question is what will happen when the adrenaline rush wears off. As of now, the PWHPA and most of the sport’s best players are continuing their boycott of the pro hockey season in hopes of gaining support for a unified pro league after the CWHL shut down. They’ve kept a degree of spotlight on the game with events such as the Dream Gap Tour and the upcoming Philadelphia PWHPA’s showcase in late February, and the NWHL season is continuing with the non-boycotting players, but after the elite Canadian and American women delivered on high expectations with an entertaining game Friday night, might the NHL reconsider investing in a new league? If not, is there another intermediary step the NHL can take next year to offer a bigger showcase – for instance, a full-fledged women’s all-star game, held on the same day as the men’s game?

Coyne pitched one idea: more of an international event, with representation from more countries than just Canada and the United States. The NHL All-Star Game features players from all over the world, she said, so it would be great for a women’s event to do the same. It would introduce a bigger audience to some elite players from other countries, such as blueliner Jenni Hiirikoski, whom Coyne Schofield singled out.

Time will tell if the NHL expands the women’s event – or takes a bigger step and considers sponsoring a new league. But there’s little chance the women’s representation at all-star weekend goes backward at this point. It’s been too big of a success not to grow. A full-fledged women’s all-star game next year would be an exciting step.

“It was a great opportunity for everyone,” Knight said. “It’s a great opportunity for fans, people who aren’t necessarily introduced to women in the sport, and also for that young girl who is looking at the TV who can now see a women’s hockey player and aspire to be that. That’s what we’re going to continue to do – raise the visibility, increase the programming, and if she can see it, she’ll be it.”