It was snowing sideways and the roads were slushy and dangerous – the sort of miserable February night when most don’t leave the house. Yet jersey-clad kids and Canadian-flag waving fanatics still turned up in London, Ont., for a feisty sold-out game between the two world powers in women’s hockey.
They were treated to a heated physical game between Olympic adversaries, full of skirmishes and flying fists. They watched U.S. goaltender Alex Rigsby and Canada’s Emerance Maschmeyer stand on their heads. They saw Kendall Coyne Schofield in the flesh, the American who two weeks earlier became the first woman to skate against NHL players in their all-star skills competition and sent shockwaves through the sports world with her 14.3-second lap.
From the electricity in London for Tuesday’s game, you would never guess the next Winter Olympics are three long years away. This far out, the buzz for women’s hockey is typically in hibernation.
Well not this year. Hockey Canada, USA Hockey and the NHL are collaborating on initiatives to keep these female stars in the spotlight. The latest is a three-game cross-border rivalry series between the two North American foes, televised in both countries – one the players hope becomes a regular fixture on the calendar.
“Would we like a rivalry series like this one every year? I feel like every player on both teams would say yes to that,” Canadian forward Brianne Jenner said.
Team USA won the first game 1-0, before the packed house of 9,036 at Budweiser Gardens on Tuesday, home of the OHL’s London Knights. Two nights later, Canada squared the series with a 4-3 victory full of net-crashing goals. It drew 9,014 to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Scotiabank Arena, which nearly filled the lower bowl of the 20,000-seat NHL rink and a just small smattering of the upper level.
One little girl bounced around in Toronto with a hand-made sign that read, “Hockey is my Valentine." Another girl hoisted one scrawled with “Hey Kendall, next year you will beat all the boys.”
The United States was desperately peppering Canadian goalie Geneviève Lacasse in the dying minutes in Toronto. The game ended with Canada’s Laura Stacey and America’s Kacey Bellamy shoving and jawing at one another behind the net as fans roared. It set the stage for the deciding match on Sunday at the Detroit Red Wings’ home barn, Little Caesars Arena.
No medals will be awarded when this series ends. That matters not at all to these women, who crave more opportunities to show audiences what the best female hockey players can do.
“If the game was for a piece of gum, the U.S.-Canada rivalry would still be passion-filled,” U.S. star forward Hilary Knight said. “That’s what makes our rivalry the most beautiful rivalry in sport.”
To help expose the women’s game, the NHL has had top U.S and Canadian female players making appearances at its high-profile events for several years now, from NHL all-star weekends to its outdoor games, awards shows and on its broadcasts.
The women’s rivalry gripped people at the 2018 Winter Games when the United States broke Canada’s streak of four successive Olympic gold medals and became champions in Pyeongchang. With the rivalry at a fever pitch, the NHL, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey soon discussed how to keep the interest alive. The first person they consulted was NHL senior vice-president of scheduling Steve Hatze Petros, who began looking for time inside NHL arenas for these two female powerhouses to play a series.
“We never have any doubt that if we can give those two teams the stage, they will make magic happen,” said Susan Cohig, the NHL’s executive vice-president of club business affairs, who travelled to Toronto for Game 2. “Growing the women’s game is a big priority for the NHL.”
The attention Coyne Schofield earned with her blazing speed on NHL all-star weekend followed her serendipitously to this U.S.-Canada series. She has been a highly sought interviewee at the games this week, and the well-spoken captain has taken advantage of the platform.
She is pushing the idea most players want – one pro women’s league instead of the two currently operating, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) and the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). She would like to see the NHL involved.
“Canada and the U.S., we’re rivals on the ice, but we’re in this together, working to fill buildings and push the envelope for women’s hockey,” said Coyne Schofield, who plays for the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps. “The NHL has a huge platform and that’s why we want to play in one league together under the NHL shield.”
The CWHL, in its 12th season, has six teams divided among Canada, the United States and China. The NWHL began in 2015 and has five U.S.-based teams. CWHL commissioner Jayna Hefford and NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan have each said publicly that one league is inevitable and they’ll work to make it happen, although neither has offered many details about what that could entail. The leagues are structured very differently, so settling on a model will not be easy.
“There are two professional leagues operating and we’re not interested in putting those leagues out of business,” Cohig said. “Should there be a situation where there is not a professional women’s league, [NHL commissioner] Gary [Bettman] has been clear that we’d be prepared to step into that. They operate their own leagues and they have to make their own decisions about what that means for the future of women’s hockey.”
The Canadian roster for this series has 22 CWHL players and just one in the NWHL – goalie Shannon Szabados. The U.S. roster has seven in the CWHL and 13 in the NWHL.
Since the players get little time with their actual national teams in a non-Olympic year, this rivalry series also helps the teams prepare for the IIHF women’s world hockey championship, April 4 to 14 in Espoo, Finland. Several players are battling this week for their roster spots.
“We don’t get a ton of time together as a national team, so this series is huge,” said Gina Kingsbury, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who now works for Hockey Canada as general manager of the women’s team. “It made perfect sense to use this week as preparations for world championships, to see how we stack up with the U.S. and also leave a footprint in the communities where we play, because if little girls don’t get to see what they can become, how will they know?”
In a non-Olympic year, the two national teams were typically only meeting at the world championship each spring and at Four Nations tournament each fall.
“Our goal on the hockey side is to have a good four-year competition for roster spots, more puck touches, more puck control, and we never stop trying to improve,” said former NHL goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, now USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations. “Our players are looking for more, and I think this series is the epitome of that – both countries relentlessly trying to get better at every opportunity.”
Cohig said the NHL, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada would evaluate many things after the series concludes, including attendance at the three games, its viewership on TSN and the NHL Network and the engagement it created on social media. She said there were several NHL markets suited to host this series, and others could be considered in the future.
“The rivalry series is a success already as far as we’re concerned,” Cohig said on Thursday. “We’re already looking at having follow-up discussions among the parties, and do we want to do it again and in which markets? It’s a blank slate. With USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, we will all look at our learnings, and decide if we want to do it again and if so, what can we do to make it even better?”