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Women's players have 'perfect' All-Star weekend

Elite 3-on-3, big stage in St. Louis give players platform to help raise visibility

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS -- The girls lined up, in skates and pads and jerseys. They wanted a photograph and an autograph and an audience with these women they had seen on TV, had seen play hockey, had seen reach the pinnacle of their sport and who, later that night, would find themselves on a different sort of national stage.

But it was so much more than seeing Brianna Decker and Rebecca Johnston and Renata Fast and Sarah Nurse. It was about getting on the ice themselves at Centene Community Ice Center on Friday, 50 of them, in the first-ever all-girls Wayne Gretzky Hockey Clinic, a step for them in their hockey careers, and a tiny step forward for women's hockey, for the game's progress and its future.

After being invited to the past two NHL All-Star Games as demonstrators for the All-Star Skills events -- and the surprise inclusion of Kendall Coyne Schofield in the Bridgestone Fastest Skater competition in 2019 -- the women's hockey players had a showcase at the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend. They had their own event at the 2020 All-Star Skills presented by Amsterdam Vodka, the Elite Women's 3-on-3 presented by adidas, in which the Canadian All-Stars beat the American All-Stars, 2-1, with the NHL donating $100,000 to girls' hockey organizations.

 

[RELATED: Complete 2020 NHL All-Star Game coverage]

 

But that wasn't all.

The women were seemingly everywhere over the weekend, celebrating at an event to unveil a Legacy project in which the NHL, St. Louis Blues, and Bauer Hockey would make a long-term investment in girls' and women's hockey in the St. Louis area, practicing at Enterprise Center, at the Gretzky Hockey Clinic, sponsored by adidas, at the Skills, at the Fan Fair. 

It was a stage that had only been rivaled in their biggest moments.

"This platform, the visibility this weekend is honestly huge," Fast said. "It's one of the biggest things for women's hockey in a long time."

Johnston cut in.

"This [could be] compared to an Olympics," she said. 

"Or higher," Fast added.

So many people watching, on TV, at Enterprise Center. So many people paying attention, testing their idea of what women's hockey is against the reality. So many people getting to see their skill and talent, their abilities.

It was, for many of the women, a glimpse of what could be. 

"The visibility is really the key," said Hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato, who coached the United States team in the 3-on-3. "That's why last night was so important. More people can see the game and realize the level and how competitive and what great athletes these women are."

They took the spotlight given to them by the NHL, by having their own event at the Skills, and they tried to use every moment of it, every minute. They delivered the message that the best players in the world, the best League in the world, recognized them and believed, as Nurse said, that "there's a place for us with them."

Video: Elite Women's 3-on-3: Daoust leads Canada past USA

A place on that stage. 

Or, rather, they want their own stage.

Because it was made clear over the weekend that the women want more than they have right now. All 20 players in attendance at the All-Star Game are members of the Profession Women's Hockey Player Association, a nonprofit dedicated to the establishment of a women's professional league in North America. When the Canadian Women's Hockey League folded suddenly in March after 12 seasons, instead of all the best women's players uniting in the remaining league, the National Women's Hockey League, 200 of them opted for a boycott under the aegis of the PWHPA. 

Kim Davis, executive vice president, social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs for the NHL, said that the League wants to help raise up women's hockey, to give them a showcase, like the All-Star Game.

"Our role is to be leaders," David said. "Our role is to really be that North Star to ensure that all up and down the hockey spine understands the importance of women and girls in the sport and that when ultimately decisions are made about one, two, or however many leagues ultimately happen, that there's a pipeline of talent, pipeline of girls and women in the sport so that we continue to grow that sport in a successful way."

To continue to grow their sport, the women understand that they are going to need converts to get there. And so, they set about converting people at All-Star Weekend. 

"I think this is the perfect event for us to have," Nurse said. "It [was a] huge showcase of our talent. And that's what we want. We want all eyes on us so they can see our product."

Video: Weekes and Rupp react to the Elite Women's 3-on-3

As Decker said, her U.S. team wanted to win but, ultimately, they were in St. Louis, "for a bigger purpose."

"It's a great opportunity for everyone," United States forward Hilary Knight said. "It's a great opportunity for fans, people who aren't necessarily introduced to women in the sport. Also, for that young girl who's looking at the TV who can now see a women's hockey player and aspire to be that."

That was what Coyne Schofield once saw in Granato, who, she said, "truly changed my life." Coyne Schofield knows other girls will now see that in her, after the All-Star Game last season, after the 3-on-3 this season, after kids who might never have seen the women play, now have done so.

But it wasn't only the girls. At a panel on Saturday, where NBC Sports host Kathryn Tappen moderated a discussion at NHL Fan Fair between Decker, Johnston, Canadian team coach Jayna Hefford and Granato, three boys wearing Blues gear approached Decker and Hefford, seeking autographs. 

It was for them, too. 

"It's all about women's hockey," Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin had said, at the Legacy announcement. "We want to grow it together. We want to grow all of this together. And seeing this again today, seeing little girls wanting to play hockey, wanting to start, I think that's where we all started, where we had no idea how to put our shin pads on, where to put our shoulder pads. But that's part of it. That's part of the journey."

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