As the game continues to evolve, women's hockey garners a larger spotlight.
The All-Star spotlight, for instance.
Many of the players showcased on a national stage during Friday night's inaugural Elite Women's 3-on-3 game will soon display that same speed, skill, and on-ice acumen in Arizona.
It was an unparalleled event for the NHL, which introduced a new element to the Skills portion of All-Star weekend to feature some of the best female players representing the United States and Canada.
Eight of the 20 players that participated in the game are among the many players confirmed to visit Arizona in March as a part of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association Dream Gap Tour, with more expected to commit.
Lyndsey Fry, the President of the Arizona Kachinas Youth Girls Hockey Association, is familiar with many of those who played in Friday's game through her decorated Division-1 Collegiate and Team USA Olympic playing career.
"This is a huge step for women's hockey and the exposure of our game," said Fry in regard to Friday's event. "The 3 on 3 setting highlighted the speed, quickness and excitement of the women's game with the most elite players in North America. This is a small step toward a huge goal of women's hockey playing in front of sellout crowds without being in conjunction with a men's event."
The Coyotes have been heavily focused on growing the girls game in Arizona, the team's Director of Amateur Hockey Development Matt Shott pointed out. The Kachinas Youth Girls Hockey Association now has a total of nine teams, per Shott, and according to USA Hockey's final participation numbers from the 2018-19 season, Arizona ranked first among U.S. NHL markets in total percentage growth among female hockey players.
The PWHPA's Dream Gap Tour will be held at Oceanside Arena in Tempe from March 6-8, consisting of hour-long clinics each day catered to local Phoenix-area girls hockey players, followed by exhibition games starring women representing the PWHPA, many of whom played professionally and on an international level in the Olympics.
"We try to touch every part of the country and we want to see that growth in women's hockey all around the country, and obviously we have the chance to in Arizona," said two-time Team Canada Olympic gold medalist Marie-Philip Poulin, who is expected to be a part of the Dream Gap Tour's stop in Arizona. "For little girls, if they can't see it, they can't be it, and that's huge, so when you have that opportunity to be out there and be visible, reach out and be that role model, it should be awesome."
Of the women who played in front of a sellout crowd at St. Louis' Enterprise Center on national television that are set to visit the Valley in five weeks along with Poulin are Renata Fast, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Brianna Decker, Lee Stecklein, Rebecca Johnston, Ann-Renee Desbiens, and Blayre Turnbull.
Additional names will be added as the Dream Gap Tour's stop in Arizona draws nearer. Katie McGovern, an Arizona native and a big part of the Kachinas' growth and success as a coach, won the NWHL's 2019 Isobel Cup playing professionally and will again get to skate with some of her former teammates during the showcase.
Coyne, a teammate of Fry's on the 2014 Olympic Team USA silver medal-winning team and a member of the 2018 gold medal squad, noted the importance of the game's display to girls in every region possible.
"You've got to continue to grow the game in every part of the country that you can," Coyne said. "Especially as a member of the U.S. National Women's team, no matter what state you're in, that state's called home. Lyndsey Fry does an excellent job, I think what she's done for women's hockey is something that each organization is trying to replicate with their club. They have an amazing role model in Lyndsey, so if we can help be there and support her and all the efforts she does, it would be incredible."
The exposure from Friday night's event will undoubtedly go a very long way in the continued rise of the women's game.
"I think it's phenomenal that we can essentially take our sport and create these showcases," said Hilary Knight, a two-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA. "What the Dream Gap Tour is aspiring to do is to deliver our awesome product to different markets that don't necessarily get to see women's hockey on a daily basis and increase that visibility for the sport. Obviously, we wear the hat of competitors, but we also wear the hat of guardians of the game, being good ambassadors of the sport and making sure it reaches the right people and continues to move forward."
Those ambassadors, seen on television Friday, will be seen in the flesh during the first weekend in March.
"It isn't every day that youth hockey players have direct access to their heroes, especially in Arizona. We are hoping to create memories and inspiration for our Kachinas players that will last a lifetime," Fry said.
While this should be a major adrenaline boost to the already ever-growing Kachinas program, Fry and the Coyotes' hockey development staff are working with other local female youth and adult sports organizations to ensure that the weekend showcase is as inclusive and accessible as possible.
"After all, this is so much bigger than hockey," Fry added. "This is about the future of all women's sports and making sure that all girls who dream of playing their sport professionally have an opportunity to do so."
And while the NHL took a major step forward in that initiative Friday night, the youth hockey scene in Arizona is eager to embrace that momentum in March.
Rebecca Johnston Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat - Getty Images // Marie-Philip Poulin Photo Credit: Brian Babineau - Getty Images // Kendall Coyne Schofield Photo Credit: Scott Rovak - Getty Images // Hilary Knight Photo Credit: Brian Babineau - Getty Images // Arizona Kachinas Photos: Janelle Etzel - Arizona Coyotes