On December 31, 2015, women’s hockey took an unprecedented step when the NWHL and CWHL partnered with the NHL and the two North American professional hockey leagues played an exhibition game at Gillette Stadium.
The Les Canadiennes of the CWHL, the 5-team Canadian League, played the Boston Pride of the NWHL, a 4-team league in the United States. The Outdoor Women’s Classic ended in a 1-1 tie but those in attendance and the score of media covering it shows that this sport is clearly on the rise. Playing on the same Winter Classic ice as the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens is a step in the right direction. Something that they’re hoping to renew yearly.
“The NHL has done a great job on taking the reins on what this should look like and the marketing outreach we would have together,” said NWHL commissioner, Dani Rylan. “I think when the NHL goes they go big. I think it’s something that we can hopefully look forward to seeing next year.”
Boston Pride defenseman Blake Bolden was very excited to play in this game. So much so that she totally downplayed her goal.
“I had butterflies. I didn’t even know it went into the net until my teammates raised their arms,” said the 2013 Boston College graduate.
USA hockey legend, Julie Chu, who owns eight gold medals from her time with the program had a chance to take part in this game and she was thrilled with the outcome.
“The greatest honor we can do is to step out on that ice and continue to make the most of that moment and celebrate why everyone was a part of this today,” said Chu.
CWHL commissioner, Brenda Andress runs her operation differently. They’re moving slowly. Both leagues have their fans and many people expect that the two “rival” leagues could merge someday. Until then they work in the same space and there really wasn’t any animosity shown before or during this game. The goal was to advance women’s hockey. The Olympics help but more can be done.
“The league’s challenge is how do we bottle that Olympic movement in those other 3 years? If you watch our leagues play you can’t bottle the Canada vs. US emotion but you can bottle that caliber of play and we have that in our leagues,” said Andress.
“We’ve been co-existing together. Its great that we could go head to head with them on this grand stage,” Rylan added.
The NWHL is in its first year. They have been very progressive and faster moving than the other league but the good news is both are making a difference is getting the word out about the sport. The historic game in Foxboro, Mass wasn’t on live television. Some live tweeted but there is supposed to be a recap show to be shown in the future.
“I’m happy there will be a recap and I think the biggest thing today is just the awareness and exposure we’re going to receive today just from being here,” said Rylan. “Obviously we’d love to be on national television but that’s something to work on for next year.”
Is a women’s hockey set long overdue? Some company could license the two league’s or just one of them. Something is better than nothing. Shots from this historic game could be included.
“The more exposure the better. Anything to make these players feel like the professional athletes that they are really goes a long way,” added Rylan.
The hobby has been very luke warm on creating card sets for women to collect. With leagues like this there are a lot of young girls attending these games. The next logical step is to give them something on their own merits. Inclusions in other releases is nice but getting their own set would be a big step in trying to get more women collecting cards.
“That’s what’s so special about this. The role models that are out there for these girls to look up to know. They have these women who are professional athletes and they can dream big in becoming professional hockey players too. A dream that maybe only their brothers could have before that now to know that there’s another way,” Rylan said with inspiration. “To some girls there was always a professional women’s hockey league and they’ll never know anything else.”
The NWHL has made big strides for their inaugural season. Nobody can deny that.
“It’s been pretty good. We have a strong, consistent and very passionate fanbase,” she added. “We signed a deal this year with NESN to cover 8 of the 9 Boston games. We have a streaming deal with ESPN3. Our biggest goal this year is exposure. Everyone knows there’s a WNBA and we want them to know there’s a national women’s hockey league.”
Other legends are watching. Angela Ruggiero is one of them. She’s competed in four Olympics with Team USA including winning gold in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. She was a contestant on NBC’s television show, “The Apprentice” and she’s been one of the great ambassadors for women’s hockey.
“I think everybody’s realizing there’s no stigma attached to women’s hockey anymore. Like, oh you’re a women’s hockey player but you still have all your teeth,” Ruggiero laughed. “That’s what I got growing up. I’m thankful that young girls sign up from day one and their parents aren’t as hesitant as my generation to sign up their daughters.”
If somebody branched out to include both leagues in an all encompassing professional women’s hockey set then additional stars like Hilary Knight (who was with Team USA and not the Boston Pride for the big game), Brianna Decker (the Boston Pride), Meghan Duggan (Buffalo Beauts), Natalie Spooner (Toronto Furies), Caroline Ouellette (Les Canadiennes), Charline Laborite (Les Canadiennes) and more could be utilized.
This was a big day for hockey. This next step is logical.
Angela Ruggiero photo by Sportsology