ST. LOUIS - As the U.S. and Canadian national anthems were being sung ahead of NHL All-Star Skills on Friday at Enterprise Center, an incredible scene was displayed on the ice.
On one blue line stood the Metro and Atlantic Division All-Stars. On the red line stood the Pacific and Central All-Stars. And on the other blue line stood the American and Canadian women's All-Stars.
They were there to compete in the first-ever Elite Women's 3-on-3 presented by Adidas, which took place after the Accuracy Shooting event, in an amazing step forward for women's hockey that builds on the momentum which gained a lot of traction with Kendall Coyne Schofield's historic lap in the Fastest Skater event at last year's All-Star Skills in San Jose.
"Being able to compete in the 3-on-3 in the middle of the Skills competition is huge, and we're really excited about it," said Rebecca Johnston, a forward for Team Canada. "Just being able to have that platform and showcase women's hockey."
Hockey Hall of Famers Cammi Granato (USA) and Jayna Hefford (Canada) served as the coaches. The rosters, which each consisted of nine skaters and one goaltender, have won a combined 39 Olympic and 108 World Championship medals - so there was plenty of talent on both sides.
"It's huge for us being able to have 20 of the best hockey players on the ice playing against each other," Team Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin said.
And they stepped up and delivered in a big way. Their event was the star of the show, as it was a fantastic display of goaltending, speed and skill - along with a fast pace and high intensity. As the PA announcer reminded the crowd, "These teams REALLY don't like each other!"
The 3-on-3 consisted of two 10-minute periods with a short break in between. The puck dropped for the first frame to some loud "USA! USA!" chants from the crowd, which quieted after Johnston opened the scoring for Team Canada just 54 seconds in on a breakaway.
From there, it was a goaltending battle, with the teams trading chances but unable to solve Team USA's Alex Rigsby Cavallini or Team Canada's Anne-Marie Desbiens.
Desbiens, who played for Wisconsin and won the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award in 2017, was particularly strong. Arguably her best save came on Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, who scored that iconic goal in the shootout of the Gold Medal Game against Canada in the 2018 Olympics to give the U.S. the win.
Once again, Lamoureux-Davidson's silky-smooth hands were on display as she deked through a crowd of Canadians, but Desbiens came up with a big stop.
"Once it started going, you kind of forget about everything else and just play the game you love," Desbiens told NBC.
Early in the second period, Team Canada struck again when Melodie Daoust made it 2-0 just 2:25 in. But from there, Team USA began pressing, and finally got a break - literally - when Annie Pankowski sent Hilary Knight in on a breakaway to get the Americans within one.
It was amazing to see the crowd go absolutely wild when Knight scored. For the entirety of the 3-on-3, they were on the edge of their seats for every big play. And while Team Canada ultimately triumphed 2-1, everyone came away winners with how the event went.
"I think it was a fabulous event for the current state of women's hockey and what we're doing this year," said Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada who is cousins with Edmonton's Darnell Nurse. "It was really the perfect event for us to showcase our game and really get that visibility and exposure. We definitely have a lot of thanks to the NHL because we definitely thought it went really well and we had a lot of fun."
"It's phenomenal," agreed Knight while being interviewed on the videoboard immediately following the game. "One of the things we talk about is visibility, and we're lucky to be on this stage here in front of these awesome St. Louis Blues fans.
"You guys are witnessing history!"
The fun didn't stop there, as Knight and Poulin joined eight NHL All-Stars for the NHL Shooting Stars. In that event, the players were positioned on an elevated platform behind the goal and shot pucks at a variety of targets located on the ice, with each target possessing different point values. One at a time, each player attempted seven shots and earned points for each target hit.
Poulin had a phenomenal performance, getting 15 points and finishing fourth behind Chicago's Patrick Kane, Toronto's Mitch Marner and Calgary's Matthew Tkachuk. Knight also did fantastic, earning 14 points and tying for fifth with St. Louis' Ryan O'Reilly and David Perron and Dallas' Tyler Seguin.
It's been incredible to see how the women's participation in the event has grown over the last three years - starting four women demonstrating in 2018, three women demonstrating and one competing in 2019 and now 20 women competing alongside their archrivals and playing the game they love so much on an amazing platform.
The players are grateful to the NHL for their help in growing the game, and hope that their participation only gets bigger from here.
"I hope that we can continue it," Nurse said. "The women have been involved in the last three consecutive All-Stars. We've gained a lot of momentum while we've been here and so we hope to continue it and make it even better as we keep going."