MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- For the moment, all was calm. The players were friendly, laughing, happy to be at the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend together. But, as Annie Pankowski pointed out, that will all change Friday.
"We've all been joking because we're all hanging out together right now and we're all friends off the ice, and as soon as it gets on the ice, it really comes down to pride for our country," Pankowski said at the 2020 NHL All-Star Legacy initiative announcement at Centene Community Ice Center on Thursday, when the NHL unveiled a long-term investment in girls and women's hockey in the St. Louis area.
Which is to say: The gloves will come off. Metaphorically, at least.
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The NHL will introduce a new element to the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills presented by New Amsterdam Vodka, with the Elite Women's 3-on-3 presented by adidas. Some of the best women's players in the world will compete in a 20-minute, 3-on-3 game, with the American All-Stars facing off against the Canadian All-Stars (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
"It's such a major step in the right direction of growing the women's game and growing our sport from a girls perspective," said Kim Davis, the NHL executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. "Almost 40 percent of our fan base are women, and so when we think about our fan base, when we think about demographic shifts across North America, it's really important for us to continue to be intentional about the growth, the advancement, the engagement of girls and women in the sport. So this is a major step in that direction."
The NHL invited 20 women to participate in the showcase at All-Star Weekend, with the American team comprised of forwards Pankowski, Alex Carpenter, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Brianna Decker, Amanda Kessel, Hilary Knight, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson; defensemen Kacey Bellamy and Lee Stecklein; and goalie Alex Rigsby Cavallini. The Canadian team is forwards Meghan Agosta, Melodie Daoust, Rebecca Johnston, Sarah Nurse, Marie-Philip Poulin, Natalie Spooner and Blayre Turnbull; defensemen Renata Fast and Laura Fortino; and goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens.
Hockey Hall of Famers Cammi Granato (American) and Jayna Hefford (Canadian) will coach the two teams.
"We're honored and thrilled that they're here," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "The conversation I've had with the women who are here confirms to me that they're delighted to be here, and we're honored and delighted to have them participating because I believe that our platform shines an even greater light on them."
It's a novel event for the NHL All-Star Skills, but it will be almost as novel for the women participating.
Unlike the NHL players, who have played 3-on-3 in overtime during the regular season since 2015-16, the format is something that most of the women haven't played very often. So they're excited to try it out, to see how it opens up the game, and how it demonstrates the skill that they bring to the table.
They're also excited to, yet again, bring more visibility to their game, as they did last season when Coyne Schofield stole the spotlight from the NHL players with her participation in the Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater competition.
"I think for us it's big visibility, a big platform to be here at the NHL All-Star Weekend," Poulin said. "It's going to be exciting. I know we talk about the Canada-U.S. rivalry, but tomorrow it's all about women's hockey. We want to grow it together. We want to grow all of this together."
That's the hope from the NHL as well.
"It showcases one of the great rivalries of the sport: the U.S. and Canada," Davis said. "But I think what's more important is to see how these women across the border are working together to ensure that the sport continues to grow and develop. That rivalry is really about women being empowered to move our game in the right direction, and so I think that's what is going to be so exciting.
"And, of course, these women are phenomenal athletes, and so the opportunity for the world on a world stage to see the power of these women and the power of their athleticism is going to yet again showcase the importance of women's sports."