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NWHL All-Star Game illustrates growth of women's hockey

Participants to include 10 members of 2018 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning team

by Robby Stanley / Correspondent

NASHVILLE -- The NWHL All-Star Game at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday will give some of the brightest stars in women's hockey the chance to put their skills on display.

The game is scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. ET, after the Nashville Predators host the St. Louis Blues (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, TVAS). There will also be an NWHL All-Star Skills Challenge on Saturday; among the participants will be featuring Kendall Coyne Schofield, who also took part in the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Skills in San Jose on Jan. 25.

Ten players from the gold medal-winning United States team at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics will play in the game, as will goalie Shannon Szabados from Canada.

"This league is just in our fourth season. But the excitement around us, the growth and the skill level continue to rise and rise," Metropolitan Riveters defender Michelle Picard said. "It's amazing to see, and we welcome the opportunity to show off the NWHL and our players in Nashville. I can assure you, the players cannot wait for that game."

Former NHL players and current Predators broadcasters Hal Gill and Chris Mason will be honorary coaches. Gill will coach Minnesota Whitecaps defender Lee Stecklein's team, and Mason will coach Team Szabados.

"I'm honored to be a part of this one because I know how hard they worked to make their own league and to make it a successful one, so anything I can do to help them," Gill said. "It's a great brand of hockey. These girls can play. I've played against them and I've played with them, and they make all the plays. It's not too far off. The skill level is there, it's just there's no [body] checking and it ends up being more of a skill game."

Gill, a defenseman, played 1,108 NHL games. Mason, a goalie, played 317 games during 11 NHL seasons. Each has a passion for helping to grow women's hockey.

"It's some of the most exciting hockey I've ever seen," Mason said. "You saw the Olympic game last year, how incredible was that? Every time Canada and the U.S. play, oftentimes they're way better than the men's games, just the way that they just hate each other. The passion, you can just tell that they leave everything into it. It's love of the game and just respect for each other but also the kind of hate that you need, and that's sports and that's rivalry. It's grown so much."

The NWHL, now in its fourth season, is the first professional women's hockey league in North America. It has given these women an opportunity to continue to pursue careers in the game that they love.

"I trained with a bunch of the USA girls my whole life, really," Gill said. "Since I was in college I've been training with those girls. But it's been every four years. They're showing up every morning all year round for every four years. I was blown away, and they always used to laugh like 'We're not getting any money for this. We're just playing for the love of the game.' It's so nice to see that they have an avenue to play and to enjoy the games. It's not just one game every four years that they're looking for or a gold medal match."

One of the NWHL's biggest benefits might be the inspiration it gives to girls who ultimately want to pursue a career in hockey. Gill and Mason have daughters, and they hope the league's All-Star weekend will be a memorable experience for them.

"I'm hoping my daughters can come down in the [locker] room and meet some of those girls, because the way that they've kind of blazed through their childhood and things like that. For me it's awesome for them to see something like that that's being done right now," Mason said. "When they see women like these women, they think it's attainable. It's like 'Well, if they can do it, I can do it.' They've created that for our daughters."

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