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Toronto players salute the fans before the inaugural PWHL ice hockey game against New York at Mattamy Athletic Centre on Jan. 1.John E. Sokolowski/Reuters

For so long, dating back to Lord Stanley, our national sport has been predominantly a male enterprise.

“She shoots! She scores!” has been an exclamation rarely heard. But get ready for it now. Hockey Night in Canada is broadening beyond the boys’ club.

As of this month, we have a Professional Women’s Hockey League, a six-team pack akin to the good old days of the NHL, and it’s already stirring much excitement (Canadian cities have three of the six teams). The play is fast, physical, highly skilled. Attendance is exceeding expectations, investors are coming forward, there are broadcasting deals with leading networks, and media interest is high.

Success is no sure thing. Maybe the novelty will wear off and the league will falter just like so many other attempts at women’s hockey leagues in North America. It’s unbelievable that it has taken this long – more than a century! – for a viable league to get going.

The first women’s league was formed during the First World War, when young male players were away on the battlefields. The Ottawa Alerts won the inaugural title in 1917, defeating a club eye-rollingly called the Pittsburgh Polar Milk Maids, in three games.

Sporadic attempts followed, but the interest was never strong enough. Today, however, the timing is terrific. Interest in women’s sport is surging and the PWHL can ride and boost the momentum.

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Montreal's Laura Stacey (7) celebrates with Marie-Philip Poulin (29) after scoring on Ottawa's Emerance Maschmeyer (38) to tie the game, during third period PWHL hockey action in Ottawa, on Jan. 2.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

More than likely we will see this league expand rapidly, doubling its number of teams. Now that young women have pro teams to watch, and pro careers to entice them, big growth in playing numbers can be anticipated.

As we’ve heard endlessly, hockey is a national institution – our big identity card, a common language from coast to coast, a great unifier. With women finally taking their rightful place in the game, the dawning of this league is a big cultural moment. Unlike other Canadian institutions that are fraying, the hockey edifice is being strongly fortified.

As the woes of the world pile up, the great diversion that is sport is more welcome than ever. Along with a hearty sense of humour, sports are a terrific survival mechanism. We now have a new big show to go to. More relief from tawdry politics, that clown show on the Rideau.

At the first game in Ottawa, a capacity crowd of more than 8,000 came. It was at the arena where the Ottawa Senators played their first NHL game 32 years ago. It was just as entertaining.

That the league was a rush job is apparent. The teams will each play only 24 games this year. They do not even have proper team names yet, so they just use their city names. Instead of see-through visors, the players wear cages over their faces, making them all look the same. The arena in hockey-hot Toronto, the Mattamy Athletic Centre, is far too small. With its capacity of 3,850, it is already sold out for the season, and no wonder.

But given how it was done on the fly, it’s all the more impressive that the PWHL has captured so much interest.

The women’s sports boom is real. Media coverage of women’s athletics has almost tripled over the last five years. Soccer, hockey, golf and tennis lead the way. Women’s basketball, not so big here, has taken off in the U.S. at the college and pro levels.

A heady start for the PWHL will help pave the way for a Canadian professional women’s soccer league startup. With the legendary player Christine Sinclair as a driving force, it is slated to begin next year.

Women’s hockey got a big boost when it became a sport at the Winter Olympics in 1998. There followed the captivating clashes between Canada and the U.S., and attention grew. At the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Canada’s Marie-Philip Poulin scored to win the gold medal for Canada. The game drew 2.7 million viewers, making it our most-watched Olympics event that year.

The U.S. has three of the six teams in the new league, located in Boston, New York and Saint Paul, Minn. And how about that Minnesota team? It drew an eye-popping 13,000 fans to its first game. The league will expand there, and hopefully beyond its three centrally located teams in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa to embrace all of Canada, the Maritimes included. The static Canadian Football League has repeatedly failed to locate a team in Halifax, using every excuse imaginable not to have one.

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Montreal's Marie-Philip Poulin (29) high fives fans on Jan. 2.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

We read constantly of our national bonds weakening, of polarization east, west and everywhere. Sport, most notably hockey, is a tie that binds this country. The NHL has done so. Expect the new force that is the PWHL to do so, all the more.

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