Julie Chu calls it "an awe moment," when you're fascinated by your surroundings while taking in the magnitude of where you are in your career or in life.
One of Chu's awe moments was practicing for the first time as a member of the United States Olympic team in 2002. The arena was empty, but the fact she would represent her country at a special event hit home.
"We all have it," Chu said. "When you step on the ice, there's always that awe moment, whether you want to admit it or not. It's just how quickly some of us who've had a chance to experience it a few more times, and maybe worked on the mental confirmation of that moment, we're able to shift out of that a little bit quicker and back to the focus of it."
For all her accomplishments, Chu is never immune to awe moments. She'll have another on New Year's Eve when the NHL hosts the inaugural Outdoor Women's Classic presented by Scotiabank. The exhibition game between the Boston Pride of the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) and Les Canadiennes de Montreal of the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) will be played at Gillette Stadium (2 p.m. ET) and help serve as a prelude to the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins on New Year's Day (1 p.m. ET; NBC, TVA Sports, SN).
"I think we're going to be a bunch of little kids on the ice and I think that's what hockey is all about," Chu said. "Now to actually be there as a participating player as opposed to a huge announcement like the Olympic team, it validates where women's hockey is going. And also the support that the NHL is giving to the growth of the women's game."
The Outdoor Women's Classic is another example of how the women's game has grown since the United States defeated Canada to win a gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. It's also a chance for some up-and-coming female players to receive exposure on national and international platforms larger than they've ever experienced.
"It's really hard to follow the women's game and be avid supporters of it if you can't tune in to see it," said Hockey Hall of Fame and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Angela Ruggiero. "By having this broadcast and the support of the NHL specifically, it's creating opportunities to engage with new fans who may not typically watch women's hockey outside of the Olympics, and to continue to follow the players they love.
"I think the Winter Classic elevated the NHL from Day One, and I think by incorporating women into the game, it will certainly elevate women's hockey."
Formerly the Montreal Stars, Les Canadiennes are one of five teams in the CWHL, a pro women's league founded in 2007, and the Pride are one of four teams playing in the NWHL's inaugural season. One player who will compete Thursday is Pride defender Marissa Gedman, the daughter of retired Major League Baseball catcher Rich Gedman, who played 10 seasons with the Boston Red Sox. The significance of playing in her backyard on the biggest stage of her life isn't lost on the 2015 graduate of Harvard University.
"It's incredible," Gedman said. "My whole family lives and breathes Boston sports. That's definitely a personal significance to me and my family. If you love sports, Boston is the place to be. Professionally, it's so important to the game of women's hockey, which is just erupting right now popularity-wise. We're just so grateful to the NHL for giving us this opportunity. I hope it's going to be an amazing event for both leagues and for specifically women's hockey, and the players who put so much into it.
"That's the beauty of what's happening here with the NWHL too. We've been playing in front of what I would consider huge crowds. We've sold out a couple of games and it's that same feeling of both those butterflies and also just appreciation of, 'Oh, my gosh, this is happening. This game is really catching on, and it's really, really cool to see it happen in my lifetime and in my playing career.'"
Two seasons ago at the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich., Chu was present for the formal announcement of the U.S. team that competed in the 2014 Olympics. After winning silver in Sochi, Chu, the first Asian-American woman to play for the U.S. hockey team in the Olympics, was selected by her teammates to lead them into the closing ceremonies as flag-bearer. The four-time Olympian knows how to embrace the grand stage while not allowing emotions to get the best of her. It's a message she'll be sharing with the rest of Les Canadiennes: Take in your new awe moment before getting down to business.
"I think it's going to be important to have that warmup for our players to step on the ice and get a chance to have that, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm doing this,'" Chu said. "And after we get into warmup, we get down to the actual game where we're competing against another opponent, that's when I think everything clicks back into place and we have the opportunity to just compete and play in an amazing venue."