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Toronto's Sarah Nurse skates on the ice before the start of PWHL hockey action against Boston, in Toronto on Jan. 17.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Two weeks ago, Sarah Nurse could barely hear the announcer during pregame introductions inside Scotiabank Arena. The Professional Women’s Hockey League was showcasing its best players in a 3-on-3 exhibition during NHL all-star weekend in Toronto before 16,392 spectators and the noise was overwhelming.

On Friday, the women return to the arena and hope they can replicate that energy when the PWHL’s Toronto team faces Montreal in what is being billed the Battle on Bay Street. Because the stadium holds some 19,000 spectators, it is likely to set a record for the best-attended women’s pro hockey game in history. Tickets sold out in a single day.

“It was a great taste, with that crowd in the building,” Ms. Nurse, a Canadian Olympian, said after that 3-on-3 showcase. “It was an all-star event, so you never really know how engaged the crowd’s going to be, but they were absolutely outstanding, loud throughout.”

Ms. Nurse said that game was a precursor for Friday’s match. “It’s going to be rocking. We’re going to set Toronto on fire for sure.”

Since its launch seven weeks ago, the six-team league, featuring the world’s best female hockey stars, has exceeded many of its own expectations, from attendance to media attention and merchandise sales. Where some see this new league catching on fast at an unprecedented moment of growth in women’s sports leagues around the world, others wonder if the PWHL’s novelty will wear off and if this league can last for generations.

What does the PWHL need to be a successful hockey business? More Canada

Fans have shown a thirst for the PWHL, with the latest proof expected Friday night.

Toronto’s PWHL team has sold out all five home games at the 2,500-seat Mattamy Athletic Centre this season. Promising crowds are common around the league, which suggested that holding a game in a bigger barn could draw well. And so, Toronto moved a home game to Scotiabank Arena, home of the NHL’s Maple Leafs. Tickets sold out the same day they went on sale – akin to big concerts held at the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment venue.

“Toronto has been pretty special with the sellouts, and while we want to create demand we also want to make sure we don’t leave fans on the sidelines. This Scotiabank Arena game gets more people inside to feel a part of this,” said Jayna Hefford, senior vice-president of hockey operations for the PWHL.

“We hoped that we would put in some good numbers there, but to see it sell so quickly after the public sale began, I think it blew us away.”

Amy Scheer, senior vice-president of business operations for the PWHL, had reached out to MLSE’s president and chief executive officer Cynthia Devine about holding the game. Ms. Devine recognized the league’s early appeal and found an open date in Scotiabank Arena’s schedule.

Ms. Devine is the mother of an elite hockey player – her daughter Stephanie Sucharda played at Princeton University and then professionally for the Toronto Six of the former Premier Hockey Federation. Ms. Devine has established working relationships within women’s hockey, too, including with Ms. Hefford, who had assembled a steering committee when she was leading the Dream Gap Tour and trying to build a new women’s league.

“It felt like there was a lot of momentum around it as everyone was seeing attendance numbers come out of other markets, so I think there was optimism that we would sell this game out, but I did not expect it to sell out so quickly,” said Ms. Devine, who had only a few weeks to market the game.

“It’s going to give [the players] a chance to play in front of a roaring crowd and I think that will be really inspiring not only for the players on the ice, but for the ones in the stands who are going to be the next generation.”

Ottawa and Montreal each experienced crowds of more than 8,300, at TD Place and at Place Bell, respectively. The record for a pro women’s hockey game was set Jan. 6 when Minnesota played host to Montreal before 13,316 spectators at Xcel Energy Center – a home rink they share with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild – in St. Paul.

Next month, the PWHL will play games in Detroit and Pittsburgh’s NHL venues, too.

Before this season, top female players were splintered across leagues, mainly the PHF and Dream Gap Tour, both now shuttered, which were pulling in different directions. Now, finally, the best are competing in one place. The PWHL vows it is built to last, with patient and well-resourced owners, and most business functions controlled by the league.

It’s a league moving at a breakneck pace. It went from the concept stage to its first game in just six months. The PWHL is sending out news releases almost daily, announcing new partnerships, collaborations, and events. There is plenty of room to grow and improve. The players are adapting to a more physical style of hockey, still seeking chemistry with teammates, still adjusting to a 24-game schedule as pro athletes, with the rigours of weekly travel. The PWHL has yet to announce nicknames for its teams, logos, or even mascots.

The league’s total attendance was 121,400 through its first 25 games, an average of 4,856 a game.

Official league and team merchandise have sold rapidly. Fans have stood in long lineups at games to buy sweatshirts, jerseys and toques, while the PWHL’s website is struggling to keep items in stock. Fans are even making and selling their own PWHL memorabilia in online marketplaces such as Etsy and Redbubble – everything from T-shirts and bucket hats to stickers and cellphone cases.

“That’s always been a knock on women’s sports, is that you just can’t get the merchandise you want, that there’s just not enough made, and we did have a good supply,” Ms. Hefford said.

“Much like everything else, we’ve certainly outpaced all our projections on that side of things.”

Ms. Hefford says the PWHL will have lots of its merchandise for sale at Scotiabank Arena. She attended the WNBA exhibition game there in May and witnessed the fan demand. WNBA gear sold out before the game even reached halftime.

“We’re excited to see what we could do in an environment like that on the merch side as well,” Ms. Hefford said. “We’re really prepared for what the demand could be, and for those who haven’t got their merchandise yet, I feel confident that they’re going to have an opportunity at this game.”

While the league did not supply viewership numbers for traditional TV broadcasts, it did say its YouTube channel had more than 566,000 unique fans tune in to games during January with more than two million views. It’s still early, but this league has more media coverage than its predecessors, with reporters regularly covering the league in many of the team markets. Continuing to maintain that interest will be the trick.

Ms. Hefford says the league set conservative expectations for the first season.

“I can’t imagine a better launch,” Ms. Hefford said. “This has outpaced all of our projections.”

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