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People line up outside Madison Square Garden to attend a Knicks game on Feb. 23, 2021.

EDUARDO MUNOZ/Reuters

Mary-Kay Messier was in the euphoric crowd at Madison Square Garden in 1994, watching as her older brother Mark hoisted the Stanley Cup with his New York Rangers teammates.

This weekend, she will be at the Garden to experience something else significant – the first women’s professional hockey game to be held inside that iconic Manhattan arena.

Today the vice-president of global marketing for Bauer Hockey is an influencer helping the world’s best female players navigate the long and winding road to what they want – a viable pro league that pays them a livable wage.

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Sunday’s game – between teams from Minnesota and New Hampshire – at the self-described “world’s most famous arena” is part of a two-game showcase weekend starring members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association and hosted by the Rangers. The PWHPA is a coalition that formed after the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in early 2019. It has 125 members – including U.S. and Canadian Olympians – who stage a series of games to exhibit their talents, in the hopes of earning support, especially from NHL clubs, for a women’s pro league.

The PWHPA is aiming to solidify its relationships with NHL teams, who can grant them access to NHL rinks, facilities, club staff, marketing, influence with broadcasters and sponsors, and put the women’s game on a bigger platform. Messier says a women’s pro league would help inspire more girls and women to play hockey, become fans, or work in the industry – something that would benefit the sport as a whole.

It’s Year 2 for the PWHPA’s Dream Gap Tour. The women are back on ice for the first time since the pandemic hit last March, after they wrapped up showcases in Toronto, Hudson, N.H., Chicago, Philadelphia and Tempe, Ariz. With leadership from Messier and Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, the PWHPA touts significant progress for this year’s tour, despite the later start. They have some broadcast agreements, $1-million from Secret Deodorant for player-prize money, title sponsors for their teams, and a few partnerships with NHL clubs.

“I think it’s critical that the NHL clubs support the PWHPA. I really believe it’s going to take that because they have the infrastructure in place, the resources and community connections,” said Messier, senior adviser to the PWHPA. “Our goal is to come out of the Winter Olympics and secure a sustainable, professional women’s league with the appropriate marketing and resources.”

PWHPA members choose not to play in the National Women’s Hockey League, which does pay its players, but not enough to live off. The NWHL recently got partway through its truncated two-week-long bubbled season in Lake Placid, N.Y., when a COVID-19 outbreak among its teams prompted it to stop the competition, before declaring a champion.

Amanda Kessel of Team USA skates during the warm-up prior to a Rivalry Series game against Team Canada at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre on Feb. 3, 2020, in Victoria.

Kevin Light/AFP/Getty Images

“Some people connect the PWHPA players with the NWHL and say, “Well, there is a professional league so what’s the issue?’ " Messier said. “The issue is that there isn’t a professional league where women get the appropriate level of resources, training, marketing, exposure for the game and the ability to earn a living wage.”

The Rangers were the first to collaborate with the PWHPA for this season and other NHL teams soon followed. For the second season, the Chicago Blackhawks will host a showcase – March 6 and 7, the first game at the United Center (to be broadcast on NBCSN) and the second at Chicago’s community rink, Fifth Third Arena. The Toronto Maple Leafs said they plan to hold a showcase once Canadian government COVID restrictions are lifted.

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“We believe the NHL being involved gives women’s hockey the best opportunity to succeed,” said Hefford, PWHPA operations consultant. “The relationships with the individual clubs have been really engaging. We have clubs reaching out to us. Getting the teams on board is key. It’s a long process, but it’s all about relationship-building and putting women’s hockey in a good light.”

Only one of this weekend’s games is at the Garden; Saturday’s game is at a local arena in New Jersey. On Sunday, the women will take the MSG ice after an afternoon NHL game between the Rangers and Boston Bruins and broadcast by the NHL Network and Sportsnet. CBC will stream the games not on TV.

Because of travel restrictions during the pandemic, the Canadian players living north of the border won’t play in the U.S. games, which subtracts a little of the PWHPA’s sizzle. This weekend will feature lots of PWHPA American stars, including Olympic gold medalists Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield and Amanda Kessel.

Kessel has been working for the Rangers, who are a big supporter of the women’s game, since 2019 as the ambassador of its junior Rangers girls program, which operates its own girls’ league and clinics.

“Playing in an NHL rink puts us on a different stage, gives it more excitement, makes it more big time,” Kessel said. “Every time somebody watches us that hasn’t before, I think we gain new fans.”

“It’s our duty here, I mean this is an Original Six franchise,” said David Hopkinson, executive vice-president at MSG Sports and president of team business operations. “Our interest here is principally to grow the game, put our money where our mouth is and behave like leaders and ambassadors of hockey, and this is a way to authenticate that. ... I hope Sunday can be another small step in getting the future of women’s hockey on an even more sure footing.”

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The women of the PWHPA train in five hubs: Minnesota, New Hampshire, Toronto, Calgary and Montreal. Each has been impacted differently by health regulations during the pandemic. Some of the Canadian hubs haven’t been able to hold many team practices.

“We’ve been through so many iterations of different plans for this hockey season,” said Knight, who will play for Minnesota at MSG and is on the PWHPA’s board. “We do a great job of preparing our bodies and minds, because we know we have to be ready when we get our opportunities.”

The PWHPA is getting recognition from NHL personalities. Mark Messier said this week that he’ll match donations to support the advancement of a viable women’s league up to $100,000. And the PWHPA released a video on Friday starring many NHL players – including Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and P.K. Subban – calling for a ‘stick in the ground’ for women’s pro hockey.

Mary-Kay Messier admits that it’s a complicated time to ask NHL teams to focus on women’s hockey, when so many franchises are facing their own business challenges. But companies across all industries are pushing equality initiatives.

“It’s a really challenging time during the pandemic, and yet there’s a recognition that the PWHPA had to move forward and we couldn’t just wait around,” Messier said. “This is front and centre right now – equality, opportunities, and the rise of women.”

The top female players have drawn big audiences for the Winter Olympics, their Canada versus U.S. rivalry series, and when they played a women’s 3-on-3 event at 2019 NHL all-star weekend. The PWHPA hopes showcases in NHL rinks add credibility to their cause, especially making history inside the Garden.

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It remains unclear what a women’s pro league could look like or what role the NHL or its teams would play. But the PWHPA says a huge opportunity would be missed if there were no league to capitalize on the momentum emanating from the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

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