Many of them hadn't played a competitive hockey game in nearly a year. There were no fans in the stands. And yet, as the players stood on the ice after the game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night after the first women's professional hockey game had taken place at the venerated arena, the athletes of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association knew something big had just happened.
Something that, they hope, will build to even bigger things in the future.
"It's historic," said Amanda Kessel of Team Women's Sports Foundation after the game. "This is a memory that we'll never forget. Hopefully we'll be back."
That was the message after Team Women's Sports Foundation had defeated Team adidas 4-3 as part of the 2021 Secret Dream Gap Tour, a series of women's hockey showcase games that continues next weekend, when the teams head to Chicago to play two games, including one on Saturday at United Center (3 p.m. ET; NBCSN): This is only the beginning.
"We knew that this game was bigger than what was said on the scoreboard," said Kendall Coyne Schofield of Team adidas. "It was an incredible opportunity. It showed young girls all over the world that they can be here, too."
The PWHPA was formed to try to push for a sustainable women's professional hockey league and to advocate for and advance equity, fairness and opportunity in women's hockey, and the players that took part in the game Sunday believed that this was a next step toward that vision.
"You're talking about the most iconic sports and entertainment venue in the world," said Hilary Knight of Team adidas, based in Minnesota. "And to be able to lace them up, to be part of the first women's professional hockey game on that ice is pretty epic. So a wonderful opportunity to showcase to the world, to continue to do what the PWHPA does and fill the gap of having a dream of playing at the next level and having a sustainable professional league.
"This is just one step along that journey. I'm hoping that some girl that tuned in tonight feels like she can be here."
The players of the PWHPA have been split up into five regions -- Calgary, Minnesota, Montreal, New Hampshire, Toronto -- with the two teams from the United States playing in the showcases in New York, in partnership with the New York Rangers, and Chicago, in partnership with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the women have not played in an official game in months, if not a year, and some have not been able to train with their teammates. But little of that mattered when they took the ice Saturday, in a 5-2 win for Team adidas at Protec Ponds Ice Center in Somerset, New Jersey, and Sunday at Madison Square Garden. The game Sunday was broadcast on NHL Network and Sportsnet 360.
"The last women's hockey game to be on TV was Feb. 8 of 2020," Coyne Schofield said. "There were girls all over the world who have been looking to watch a game that had someone that looked like them. And they had that opportunity here tonight. I think we put on a fantastic show.
"A lot of us work with so many young girls who have been asking, 'When can I watch you play?' And to look them back in the eye and say, 'I don't know,' it hurts. To have the opportunity to showcase our game, to show them that there's a place for them in this game was extremely important tonight."
It was an emotional day for the women, from Knight fighting back tears while tennis legend and Women's Sports Foundation founder Billie Jean King gave a pregame speech, to looking up at an arena in which men's teams have made history for decades to appearing on national television, to playing in a highly entertaining game in which they more than demonstrated their skills.
"This was a huge step for us," said Brianna Decker, who scored two goals and had two assists for Team Women's Sports Foundation. "We're trying to obviously build here, try to build something bigger and better for women's hockey and women's professional hockey. This gave us huge visibility.
"That's what we strive to do every time we're competing. There's a lot of talented players on the ice every single showcase that we have. But we need a platform like this and being able to be broadcast and play at MSG, that's a huge stage for us to play on."
The nods to the future didn't only come in the form of concepts of what a professional women's league could look like. They also came in the form of new talent breaking out, most notably Abby Roque, the former University of Wisconsin player of whom Knight said, "I think she's going to be the best player in the world. Plain and simple."
And they came in the form of that vision of what could be, of what Jayna Hefford, the Hockey Hall of Fame player and chairperson of the PWHPA, saw in the eyes of her young daughters as they watched the game.
"I hope people looked at tonight and said, this is what professional women's hockey should look like, in an arena like this, on television like this, with first-class broadcasters," Hefford said, of Kenny Albert and Blake Bolden. "A platform like the New York Rangers, Madison Square Garden, it's an opportunity for these players to shine. For people to see them. We don't get to see them enough."