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Blayre Turnbull #40 of PWHL Toronto is defended by Renata Fast #14 of PWHL Toronto in the 3-on-3 Showcase during 2024 NHL All-Star Thursday at Scotiabank Arena on Feb. 1, 2024 in Toronto.Cole Burston/Getty Images

The women from Toronto’s PWHL team held a rare outdoor practice on Friday, at Nathan Phillips Square. Fans and school kids filed into bleacher seats to watch and passersby stopped to check it out while strolling the Toronto downtown during lunch time.

Not so long ago, the entire crowd at a women’s hockey game wasn’t much bigger. Now, with the long-awaited PWHL showing breakout success in only its first month, these women can suddenly draw a healthy crowd just to watch them train on a weekday afternoon.

Some players sported sunglasses under their face shields to practise in the bright afternoon. Others had cold toes. Still, the women welcomed a class of kids to pile onto the ice after for some photos. Practising outdoors wasn’t optimal prep for the team’s Saturday game inside the Mattamy Athletic Centre against Minnesota, which Toronto won 4-1. But with the hockey world in town for the NHL’s all-star weekend, the PWHL was being as visible as possible.

NHL all-star weekend begins in Toronto but focus remains on five players facing sexual-assault charges

“The NHL has a massive platform and we’re right in the hockey hotbed,” said Toronto defender Renata Fast. She was among the PWHL stars to walk the NHL all-star red carpet at a fan fest on Thursday and to play in a women’s 3-on-3 showcase – before a crowd of 16,000 – on opening night of the NHL’s tent-pole weekend. “There couldn’t be a better time for it, given how successful our launch has been.”

The PWHL is smashing attendance records for women’s pro hockey games. The league aims to eclipse the record again on Feb. 16 when Montreal visits Toronto at Scotiabank Arena – a venue that holds some 19,000. The tickets sold out minutes after going on sale.

“I think everyone that has seen our game so far is surprised to see how skilled we are, and they want more,” Toronto forward Natalie Spooner said. “I heard our game at Scotiabank sold out even faster than the WNBA game, which is just wild.”

As with everyone else in hockey, PWHL stars were asked to comment on the black cloud that has hovered over the NHL recently – allegations of sexual assault by five members of the 2018 Canadian world junior team. It’s a story that has reverberated throughout hockey, brought the sport’s culture under scrutiny and rocked Hockey Canada, the sport’s national governing body.

“We feel that we play an important role, to have some representation within the game and help change the culture,” said Fast, also a Canadian Olympian. “There’s very good culture on the women’s side of the game.”

“I think we’ve definitely been able to separate ourselves a bit in the sense that we’re our own team, we have our own team culture, and it’s an amazing team culture that we’ve worked hard on,” added Spooner, another Canadian Olympian. “We take pride in that.”

The women used the week to display what they always believed would be possible if someone put professional-level resources into the women’s game. A handful of female stars took part in NHL all-star activities in recent years, but this was their biggest participation yet. They’ve seen evidence the interest in their game is widening.

“We always had young girls who have idolized us and come up to us to talk to us and take photos, but I’ve taken more photos with men and boys this week than ever,” said Sarah Nurse, a Canadian forward for Toronto.

Something else feels different now, too. While they felt they were playing on the NHL’s stage before, this time the women felt like they, too, were a draw.

Brian Burke has been among the NHL leaders spearheading women’s involvement in the all-star weekend. Before the women took the ice he always encouraged them to enjoy the big stage provided by the NHL. But this year his message was different.

“He said, ‘I can’t say that any more. You guys are selling out this arena yourselves,’” Nurse recounted.

While being a pro hockey player might be a dream of girls now, Nurse never even imagined it when she was young.

“I wanted to play at the Olympics, and when I did that in 2018, I was like, check, I feel great on my hockey career,” Nurse said. “So this has exceeded every single expectation that I’ve ever had for myself. And I just can’t believe that I get this opportunity.”

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