The training camp came about after the Four Nations Cup, which was originally scheduled to be played in November in Stockholm, was canceled in September due to an ongoing pay dispute with the Swedish players.
The Penguins stepped in and volunteered to host the United States and Canadian women's national teams for the joint training camp ahead of their upcoming five-game Rivalry Series, set for December 2019 through February 2020.
The training camp consisted of open practices, exhibition games on Friday and Sunday and numerous community events. Afterward, the teams couldn't say enough about how they were treated by the Penguins organization, who also hosted them for the 3-2 shootout win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday.
"A lot of the times we were at a meal or back at the hotel and honestly, we're not just saying it because we're here, but we were talking about were so impressed with this organization and how they treated us on a daily basis," said Troy Ryan, an assistant coach for Team Canada.
"From security guards to people that were just helping out around the dressing room, it was A-1. You can just tell they have a pride to be part of this organization and that just exudes on a daily basis."
While it was a unique experience for both the teams and the staff at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, this is exactly the kind of event that the facility was built for.
"I think when this building was first being thought of as a world-class facility, we wanted to be able to offer everything teams at the national caliber needed," said Kara Radeke, Executive Director of Business Operations at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. "Being able to accomplish all of those things under one roof was great."
The teams stayed in nearby hotels that were just a short walking distance away; all of their meals were prepared by Penguins executive chef Geoff Straub and his team; and the players did their strength and conditioning sessions in the Penguins Performance Training Center.
"I can't thank the Pittsburgh Penguins and all the staff enough," said Katie Million, director of women's national team programs for USA Hockey. "Everybody here has just been so welcoming. Everyone, from the janitors to the folks cooking the food, have treated us like royalty. So we're really appreciative."
Both teams were also appreciative of the fan support they received here in Pittsburgh for the games. Both contests were sold out with standing-room only crowds, who provided a great atmosphere for the games.
When Stephanie Malley heard that Team USA and Team Canada would be playing here, she couldn't believe it. She brought her daughters Eveleen and Mairead here from Cleveland to watch them play on Friday.
"It's amazing. We couldn't pass up the opportunity," Stephanie said. "I teach first grade and I am learning every day how important it is just for kids to see their role models. I never dreamed they'd be able to see them so close. We were like, 'We've got to make this happen.'"
These teams have one of the best rivalries in all of sports. And it showed on the ice, with both games being heated and highly competitive. Team Canada ended up sweeping the series, winning the first game 4-1 and the second game 5-3.
"It was pretty cool to watch," said John Marino, who was one of a few Penguins players to attend a game along with Jared McCann, Sam Lafferty, Nick Bjugstad and Bryan Rust. "We were talking about how fast-paced it was and how well they think the game. They anticipate where the play is going to be and everything like that. It's such a high level. It was definitely competitive out there, too."
And for those who couldn't make it, Penguins broadcaster Josh Getzoff did play-by-play for the live streams on HockeyTV with Tara Mounsey, a two-time Olympian for Team USA, providing color commentary.
"The Pittsburgh area has really been phenomenal," said Mounsey, who won a gold medal in 1998. "They sold out both games, so to see the excitement in this community is very, very special. It's why I love the sport so much."
And the players went above and beyond to make sure that they were visible in our community, as the unofficial motto of Team USA is the Billie Jean King quote, "You have to see it to be it."
Members of Team USA took the ice with girls from EXCEL Hockey Academy; joined girls ages 6-12 for a dek hockey clinic at the Graham Park Dek in Cranberry; practiced with the 14U/16U/19U Penguins Elite girls' teams at Shadyside Academy; surprised the North Pittsburgh Wildcats 12U and 14U teams at their skate in Warrendale; and held numerous autograph sessions, meet and greets and photo opportunities.
To cap it all off, every single player on Team USA took the ice at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday to coach at a girls' 10U and 12U clinic.
"This has been an excellent opportunity to inspire the next generation of girls here in the Pittsburgh area and get on the ice with them a few times," Coyne Schofield said.
They understand just how important it is, because for them, that was how it all started. That was evidenced by Coyne Schofield's reaction of genuine excitement after hearing Mounsey was in town for the games.
"When we were younger, the '98 team - that was who we dreamed of being," Team USA forward Monique Lamoureux-Morando said. "If we're able to light that fire for these girls - whether it's to be on the national team, play in the Olympics, play college hockey, play high school hockey - whatever it is, if we can inspire them in any way, then we're doing our job."
And that's exactly what they did.
"It's just so cool to see women playing hockey because I play hockey," Eveleen said. "They're just so fast. They're just so good. I want to be like them. When I'm older, I want to try and get on that team. That's just amazing."
Right now, these top players are working to build a better future for kids like Eveleen who are part of that next generation, founding the Professional Women's Hockey Player Association (PWHPA) in May.
The goal is to promote, advance, and support a single, viable professional women's ice hockey league in North America that showcases the greatest product of women's professional ice hockey in the world. That means many of the top players here this week are not playing in a professional league right now, instead participating in PWHPA showcases and competing internationally for their countries.
As Team Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin said, it has been scary at times. But the support they received in Pittsburgh this past week was a reminder of what they're working towards.
"It's quite amazing to have that much support," Poulin said. "You realize what we're doing, it's for the right reason. When you see little kids in the stands that come and support, it's quite amazing. It doesn't matter from what country. Really, the reason is to make little girls watch us play and realize they can do it as well. So it was a really great week."