FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — To the victor go the spoils, and the victor was not the National Women’s Hockey League, nor the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. No, the winner of this contest was women’s hockey, as a whole.
“It was more than I ever could have imagined,” said Marissa Gedman, defenseman for the NWHL Boston Pride. “There was this huge buildup and then you walk out there. No preparation could have prepared us for that moment where your heart sort of just…swells when you see the lights and the people and the fans and the ice. It was a dream come true.”
Gedman and her teammates took the ice Thursday afternoon against Les Canadiennes of the CWHL, one of the top teams in the Canadian league, chock-full of stars like Marie-Philip Poulin, Julie Chu, Caroline Ouellette and Lauriane Rougeau. While the game ended in a tie – Blake Bolden scoring for the Pride and Kim Deschenes for the Canadiennes – the real story of the day was not what happened on the ice but rather that the women took the ice at all.
Many of these players have grown up playing on ponds, dreaming of playing under the lights and in the big time. Thursday they finally got their chance.
you know who won this game? women's hockey. #narratives
— Hotline Blinn (@NHLBlinn) December 31, 2015
Chu’s sentiments echoed Gedman’s, though she has suited up for her country on Team USA multiple times. “It was unreal,” Chu said. “I think as we were getting ready for the game we were just a bunch of little kids, in the locker room, on the bus ride down from Montreal and even on the bench. I’d like to say we’re completely focused, which we were, but there’s probably a big kid in us that came out and it was awesome.”
Although one player, Denna Laing, was injured in a fall on the ice, having to be stretchered off and taken to Mass General, the game counted as a success in the minds of players and league officials alike.
This game was a long time in coming.
To better things for women's hockey. #OutdoorWinterClassic pic.twitter.com/sGHreIYj3l
— Brenda Andress (@cwhlcommish) December 31, 2015
The CWHL has been giving women a place to play and develop between Olympic years for eight seasons at this point, slowly growing their relationship with the NHL by partnering individual teams with clubs local to them: the Montreal Canadienes with the Montreal Canadiennes, the Calgary Flames with the Calgary Inferno, and so on. “You’re seeing the fruits of our labor,” said CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress, commenting on the years of work her league had put in. The NWHL’s inception seemed to add urgency to the development of women’s hockey and the need for recognition by the bigger leagues.
Seeing the players hit the ice was a huge moment, not only for the players but for those who put them on that ice in the first place, setting out on a course to grow the game.
Dani Rylan, NWHL Commisioner, was not too far removed from the players in sentiment.
“Jan. 1 2015 this league didn’t exist and this wouldn’t have been an opportunity anyone would even dream about,” said Rylan. “Dec. 31 2015 we’re in a totally different position and the women’s game’s on one of the biggest stages around. I think it’s really special to say just how far the game has come and of course we want to be at the Winter classic again next year. We’ll take note of all the logistics we need to have lined up for that (to happen).”
Does Rylan see the leagues ever merging? Possibly, but that isn’t the only positive outcome. “I think there is a solution. I don’t know if (merging) is the solution. But yes, I think what is best for women’s hockey will eventually happen.”
However, Rylan did say she walked away from this event with a better working relationship with the CWHL. “I think this was a great first step. I will say that the NHL was definitely standing in the middle, holding both of our hands as we walked to Gillette, so to speak. We have a lot more steps to go, but this is a good first one.”
The two leagues have been competing for players and fans, but it turns out when they work together they might accomplish more than they do apart.
The bringing-together of the game was hasty, resulting in no broadcast and no stream, as well as two very short fifteen-minute periods, running time. While the players would have liked to see a broadcast, the most important aspect to them took place on the ice.
When asked what the players would like to see in any future women’s hockey showcases done through the NHL, Bolden and Gedman had a ready answer. “A third period,” Bolden quipped. Gedman laughed, exclaiming, “I didn’t want to say it!”
Already, Rylan and Andress are looking ahead to the next Winter Classic.