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Women's hockey happy for Winter Classic showcase

by Jon Lane

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Less than an hour remained before the puck was dropped for the inaugural Outdoor Women's Classic between the Boston Pride of the National Women's Hockey League and Les Canadiennes de Montreal of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, and NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan was beaming.

Rylan's league and her sport were about to take center stage on the eve of the NHL's signature regular-season event, the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET Friday; NBC, SN, TVA Sports). Her dream of elevating women's hockey was about to take a major step.

Moments like this don't come along too often for women's hockey. Every four years, the women compete in the Olympic Games, with the battle for the gold medal usually coming down to the United States facing off against Canada. However, most of the time between Olympiads is a void. Players compete in small leagues worldwide, making little or no money, and are generally off the radar.

But on Thursday at Gillette Stadium, women's hockey took its place on a grand stage. Les Canadiennes and the Pride played to a 1-1 tie. To Rylan, the chance to be part of the Winter Classic festivities was just the start of something big and another giant step for the growth of the game.

"From the very beginning the NWHL has done a good job of dreaming big," Rylan said. "It's always been on the list. We've wanted to play at the Winter Classic. We've wanted to have an appearance at the All-Star Game. We want to partner up with all the NHL teams. We really want it all. It's nice to see when these dreams become a reality and we're looking forward to checking off the next one."

Forward Kim Deschenes put Montreal ahead in the first period at 3:15 of the first period after one-timing a pass from forward Noemie Marin into the Boston net. Pride defender Blake Bolden scored the equalizer late in the second with a blast from the point.

The game was two periods with a running time of 15 minutes each.

Pride forward Denna Laing was taken out on a stretcher late in the first period after bumping into another player and going into the boards. Laing had a collar placed around her neck but was conscious. She was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital and remained there overnight, the NHWL said.

The Winter Classic spotlight was something special even for Les Canadiennes defender Julie Chu, a winner of three Olympic silver medals and five World Championships for the United States.

"As we were getting ready for the game we were just a bunch of little kids in the locker room, and on the bus ride back from Montreal, and even as we were approaching the ice and on the bench," Chu said. "I'd like to say we're completely focused, which we were, but there's probably a big kid in us that came out and it was awesome."

Les Canadiennes forward Marie-Philip Poulin has also been there, done that. She's won two Olympic medals, scoring the winning goals to defeat the U.S. for gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and 2014 Sochi Olympics. But merely stepping inside the home of the NFL's New England Patriots and skating on the surface where 24 hours later the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens would compete in the Winter Classic was worth more than its weight in gold.

"It was a little more exciting just being here at the Patriots' stadium; I think it was quite awesome," Poulin said. "That's where we fell in love with the game, outside. I wish it was a little warmer out there, but the atmosphere was awesome. I just enjoyed the moment, for sure."

For Pride defender Marissa Gedman, it was a moment bigger than she could possibly have imagined.

"There was this huge buildup and then you walk out there," said Gedman, a native of Framingham, Mass., and the daughter of retired Boston Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman. "No preparation could have prepared us for that moment when your heart swells when you see all the lights and the people and the fans and the ice."

It was a major milestone for women's hockey, but there are many more steps on the path for those who dream big.

"This is only Step 1," CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress said. "Trust me. The NHL did not give us this game for the brief moment and not do something after that. They made a great statement, they're here with that statement and it's awesome."

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