Winter Classic exhibition a great step in growing women’s game

Elliotte Friedman joined Hockey Central @ Noon to talk about the suspension to Brad Marchand, and why missing the Winter Classic hurts more than missing multiple regular games.

Hopeful chatter surrounded the first Outdoor Women’s Classic, but that was also tinged with genuine concern after one of the game’s participants was carried off the ice on a stretcher.

Boston Pride left winger Denna Laing was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital after crashing into the boards in the first half of a two-period game. Pride coach Bobby Jay spoke to the media more than two hours after the game’s conclusion, but had no additional information regarding Laing’s condition.

That put a bit of a dark cloud over a day that otherwise featured optimism about what this event could evolve into. But you can’t talk about where the Women’s Classic might go without addressing the challenges that had to be overcome to get the first one off the ground.

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The game—which ended in 1-1 draw—was an exhibition waged between teams from two different leagues. Les Canadiennes de Montreal compete in the five-club Canadian Women’s Hockey League, while the Pride are one of four franchises—all based in the U.S.—that skate in the National Women’s Hockey League, currently in its first season of operation.

For a variety of reasons, the rival leagues had a hard time getting on the same page and making sure this showcase actually happened. According to NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan, a third party played a huge role in brokering the bargain.

“I will say the NHL was definitely standing in the middle, holding both of our hands as we walked to Gillette [Stadium], so to speak,” she said.

Even though an agreement was ultimately forged, a few prominent Pride players—including sniper Hilary Knight—were forced to miss the contest because of a scheduling conflict with USA Hockey, which is holding a training camp for the 2016 World Championship.

All that is to say, while the road to the first Women’s Classic could definitely have been smoother, at least a game of some kind took place.

“This is really just about two teams wanting to expose the women’s game to the fans and to the world,” said CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress.

Rylan, too, was happy this opportunity wasn’t squandered.

“We’re all here, so this is a great first step,” she said. “I know there are many steps that we still need to take, but this is a great first one.”

The process Rylan referred to is aimed at making this an annual event with increasing prestige. The first advancement will be getting the game on T.V., something that was an impossibility this time because of the hasty fashion in which things came together. But with the benefit of some long-term planning, there’s no reason why a Women’s Classic can’t become a large part of this signature happening on the NHL calendar.

“Hopefully next year we’re [planning] the game again, a bit earlier so there’s even more promotion,” said Montreal defenceman Julie Chu, a veteran of two Olympic Games with Team USA. “But for us it’s been such an amazing experience. We always have to start with one step, and then take the next step and continue to move forward and grow.”