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NWHL Excited to Showcase Women's Hockey in Pittsburgh

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

If Pens fans think Phil Kessel is good at hockey, they should see his sister Amanda - who's one of the best female players in the world. And they'll get the chance this week, as she will be taking part in the National Women's Hockey League's 2017 All-Star Weekend on Feb. 11 and 12 at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

"I'm excited and honored to be part of this year's NWHL All-Star Game," Kessel said. "And it's especially awesome to have it in the city where my brother has found a new home and success.

"I've been lucky to experience first-hand what a great hockey town Pittsburgh is. To be able to showcase the talented hockey players of the NWHL to the passionate fans of Pittsburgh is going to be a lot of fun and a great opportunity to expand our fan base."

That's the biggest reason the NWHL - in its second season - decided to bring the event here. They currently have four teams - the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters - and are constantly looking to grow the league's reach outside of those markets.

"We pretty regularly will have different markets reach out to us asking when we're going to have an expansion team there or when we're maybe going to put the show on the road, so it got our wheels turning," said NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan. "We started to look at some of those markets and Pittsburgh was high on the list. We definitely haven't regretted the decision ever since the announcement."

Two players who are particularly thrilled are Kelley Steadman - who will serve as a team captain alongside Kessel and is the director of hockey operations at RMU - and her Buffalo Beauts teammate Brianne McLaughlin, both area natives.

"They've been ranting about how awesome the city is for a while now," Rylan smiled. "I obviously made both of them aware that we were going there, and their first reaction was just like 'oh my gosh, all of the girls that are going to be at the game, they're going to be so excited.'"

Hockey fans in the area should be just as thrilled, because it truly is an incredible opportunity for fans of the game to see these players, who are the best of the best on the women's side. For so many years, pretty much the only chance people got to watch the women's game came once every four years at the Olympics.

Now, it's gotten somewhat better with online streaming - that's how Phil watches Amanda's games - but nothing beats watching live. And now fans in the area will get that chance.

"We're trying to grow the game all over," Rylan said. "After our first year, we looked at the USA Hockey registration and there's almost a five percent increase in girls' registration last year alone. We believe we played this huge part in that.

"And really, it's only our second year too, so going to Pittsburgh will be very much like playing our first home game last season where everyone is excited to go out and see it for the first time and see what it's like and really experience our brand of hockey. We expect that we'll develop new fans and we'll have some fans from our current markets making the trip out there, so it should be a special event."

It's definitely different compared to the men's game, but in a positive way. It's fast, it's filled with a ton of skill, it's physical and it's professional-caliber. These women are the best of the best in their sport, after all.

"A lot of people who say they're students of the game really enjoy the women's game," Rylan said. "Just because you can watch the plays develop, you can see how smart and strong these players really are - they actually have a ton of size - and you can get closer to the game than maybe going to a men's game where you're sitting in the nosebleeds. So for a pretty inexpensive ticket, you can get close to the action, you can really see how talented these players are."

Rylan remembers a unique experience from last year, where she watched Kessel's New York Riveters take on the Connecticut Whale after an NCAA Division I matchup between Yale and St. Lawrence.

"Just to watch the jump in skill, I was watching the D1 game thinking, 'wow, this is really great hockey,'" Rylan said. "And then to watch our game after, I was like 'oh wow, this is better than I've been telling people.' To really see that was pretty eye-opening, and then also to know that was last year and the skill level has really jumped pretty dramatically from Year 1 to Year 2, it's the best of the best."

To purchase tickets to NWHL All-Star Weekend, click here.

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