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Fans hold up signs before the inaugural PWHL ice hockey game between New York and Toronto at Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto, on Jan. 1.John E. Sokolowski/Reuters

Billie Jean King and Jayna Hefford linked arms and walked out to centre ice before a sellout crowd at Mattamy Athletic Centre on New Year’s Day, then dropped the puck on a new era for women’s hockey.

The icon of tennis and equality, flanked by the Canadian Hockey Hall of Famer, raised the curtain on something they’ve been building since 2019, but fast-tracked into existence these past few months. It was the first game for the Professional Women’s Hockey League, and New York proceeded to beat Toronto 4-0.

Canadian Olympian Ella Shelton scored the PWHL’s first goal, and that puck is destined for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Monday’s debut was the long-awaited launch for the centrally owned six-team league featuring the best female players in the world – finally, all facing off in one place. Other women’s hockey leagues have come before it, but the PWHL claims to be built to last, with patient and well-resourced owners.

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Billie Jean King and Jayna Hefford walk to centre ice for the ceremonial puck drop.Mark Blinch/Getty Images

The debut game felt like a real event – albeit in a small venue – like something people have been anticipating. Every seat and suite was full, with more elbowed up in standing-room spots. Inside Mattamy – the former Maple Leaf Gardens – fans sought autographs from the women, and lined up to buy merch, including sweaters and jerseys. Many waved rally towels and wore grey-and-purple-striped PWHL toques. The rink was full of deliberate purple accents – from banners to staff clothing, even King’s suit. The players skated out to a darkened arena lit with purple spotlights. Demi Lovato’s Confident blared from the speakers.

Toronto star and Canadian Olympian Sarah Nurse recalled the loud knock on her team’s dressing room before the game. King entered and read out Toronto’s starting lineup. She’d tell them to cherish this day.

“Just to be in her presence is pretty awesome,” Nurse said. “She’s part of history herself and she’s had a huge hand in us getting here today.”

King and her partner Ilana Kloss are PWHL board members, and watched the game from a suite, one broadcast live to a national TV audience. Fans wore glowing bracelets, and little girls in Timbits jerseys took the ice between periods. Media areas were packed. It was a holiday, but women’s hockey supporters turned out.

The league features 157 players across the six teams, hailing from 12 different countries – 90 of the women from Canada. Each club will play a 24-game regular season this year, and 32 next year.

Although it’s been a long time coming, the league was announced just six months ago, and really came together in the last four. Many have used the analogy “drinking from a firehose” while describing the frenetic rush to get it up and running.

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A general view of the former Maple Leaf Gardens, now known as the Mattamy Athletic Centre.John E. Sokolowski/Reuters

“We know we’re going to make mistakes this year,” said PWHL advisory board member Stan Kasten. “By next year – which will be our first 32-game season – we’ll have the problems and the bugs ironed out.”

Next season, they’ll start in November. He said doing so this year would not have been possible but called this January start “only marginally insane.”

The fans got loud on plenty of occasions, but the just-forming Toronto fanbase was left waiting to see its team score its first goal. The game itself was a bit of a rout.

The visiting team did all the scoring in this inaugural contest. It was Shelton – from Ingersoll, Ont. – who inked her name in the league history books with her first-period goal off a snapshot from the top of the circle.

“It was pretty exciting,” Shelton said. “I hope that young girls look up and go, ‘I’m gonna do that one day, and be just like her and play in this league as well.’ ”

U.S. national team player Alex Carpenter got the assist on that first goal before she later potted New York’s second goal in a hot-scoring third period for the visitors. Jill Saulnier and Kayla Vespa also scored.

Corinne Schroeder made 29 saves in New York’s net to record the league’s first shutout.

The league released its rule book right before the game, its highlight a rule distinct to this league. If a team serving a minor penalty scores short-handed, the penalty is over.

The players asked for more physicality to be permitted in this league, and the first game showed glimpses of the refs swallowing the whistles to allow more than the women usually get in international games.

“We’re not going to be afraid to try new things,” said Hefford, the PWHL’s senior vice-president of hockey operations.

Toronto announced a sold-out crowd of 2,537 for the debut. Most of those were season-ticket holders. Sections for reporters and photographers were packed, with the new league staff juggling interviews in small, jammed hallways. It remains to be seen whether the PWHL can keep the interest of fans and media throughout the season.

Many of the other teams will have bigger venues and not all are selling well.

The PWHL’s other four clubs will open in the coming days with stars like Marie-Philip Poulin, Brianne Jenner and Hilary Knight still to hit the ice. Montreal will visit Ottawa on Jan. 2, and Boston will host Minnesota on Jan. 3. Ottawa’s home opener at TD Place is sold out, a venue that holds some 8,000.

The six teams are going solely by their city names at the moment, as the league has not yet announced any nicknames. Only Toronto and Ottawa have full-time home arenas for the season; the other four teams will hold home games between a few venues. Locations for six games on the league’s 72-game schedule are still listed as to be decided.

“The hype leading up to this game was insane, and rightfully so. It almost felt like an Olympics,” Nurse said. “This is the start of something that is going to be here for generations to come.”

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