Women in all-star event hope it’s a sign of NHL’s deeper interest in a league

More integration of women into this year’s NHL’s all-star weekend is another milestone for their game.

The women kick off Friday’s skills competition at Enterprise Centre in St. Louis with their own three-on-three tournament. Two women will also go head to head against NHL players in a shooting drill.

Ten Canadians and 10 Americans were selected to play in the tournament, and who got the nod to participate is significant. The American team includes Kendall Coyne Schofield and Brianna Decker, who generated buzz at the 2019 skills competition.

Coyne Schofield, the first woman to test herself against NHL players in a skills event, laid down a competitive time in the speed lap last year. Her circuit of Anaheim’s Honda Center has 307,000 views on YouTube.

A social media campaign also erupted for Brianna Decker to be paid winner’s prize money, with the argument she was faster demonstrating the passing drill than the men were competing in it.

The response to Coyne Schofield and Decker was a spark for the women. Led by the game’s stars, women hockey players are now flexing their collective muscle in a bid for a better professional league.

“After what happened last year, most of the headlines were about the women being there, about Kendall and Brianna breaking a lot of barriers,” Canadian forward Sarah Nurse said.

“I think a lot of us would have been surprised if they didn’t include any women this year. When we got told about the three-on-three event they were planning on having, we were so excited.

“It’s not just a couple of us going to hang out with the guys during skills, but it’s going to be us being able to put on a show.”

The 20 were chosen by the NHL “in consultation with hockey legends Cassie Campbell-Pascall, Cammi Granato, Angela Ruggiero and Hayley Wickenheiser,” according to the league.

Marie-Philip Poulin of Beauceville, Que., Meghan Agosta of Ruthven, Ont., Melodie Daoust of Valleyfield, Que., Rebecca Johnston of Sudbury, Ont., Blayre Turnbull of Stellarton, N.S., Hamilton’s Nurse and Toronto’s Natalie Spooner were the Canadian forwards summoned.

Defenders Renata Fast of Burlington, Ont., and Hamilton’s Laura Fortino, as well as goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens of La Malbaie, Que., round out Canada’s invitees.

Hilary Knight, Amanda Kessel, Alex Carpenter, Annie Pankowski, Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson, Kacey Bellamy, Lee Stecklein and goaltender Alex Rigsby join Coyne Schofield and Decker on the U.S. side.

Hockey Hall of Famers Granato and Jayna Hefford will be behind the U.S. and Canadian benches respectively.

Hefford heads the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) that formed in 2019 following the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

PWHPA players refuse to join the five-team U.S.-based NWHL because they don’t feel it’s financially sustainable.

The women chosen for the three-on-three tournament are all aligned with the PWHPA, which has organized tournaments and exhibition games for its players on both sides of the border this winter.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said the league isn’t interested in running a women’s league while one still operates.

The NHL’s inclusion of the PWHPA and exclusion of the NWHL gives the PWHPA the upper hand in a power struggle over which entity will drive the future of women’s pro hockey.

“I think it shows that the NHL is on our side in all of this,” Turnbull said. “They want to support us.

“Hopefully they’re able to do so down the road by offering us more than just the opportunity to play in this game, but potentially providing a league of some sort that will be able to sustain itself and we’ll be able to compete in for years to come. We’re hoping to get to that point soon.”

Two women — one from each country — will be chosen via a Twitter fan poll to compete against men in shooting skills.

Nurse, Johnston, Spooner and Poulin are Canada’s candidates. Bellamy, Decker, Knight and Lamoureux-Davidson are the American choices.

“If I do get voted in, it will be really cool,” Nurse said. “I’m kind of hoping it will be Marie-Philip Poulin because I think she will be the best representative for our game. She has my vote.”

Goaltending can be a thankless task in an all-star event. Defence tends to be lax.

Desbiens expects to be particularly busy in a three-on-three format.

“I don’t expect to get a shutout,” Desbiens said. “The girls are going to be very competitive so I expect them to play a little more defence than the boys might, but it’ll definitely be super-fun.

“Rigs and I are definitely going to make it fun. We’ll have a little competition between us two old (Wisconsin) Badgers.”

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