Impact of PWHPA debut showcase resonates beyond return to on-ice action

Young fans greet players of Team Knox as they take the ice for their game at the Unifor Women's Hockey Showcase in Toronto, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. (Cole Burston/CP)

TORONTO — Marie-Philip Poulin had one leg curled up on a bench in a small room in Westwood Arena, and the long-time Team Canada captain looked up at the ceiling while she thought about the last time she’d played a competitive game of hockey.

"It was February," Poulin said.

Yes, that’s last winter. Prior to this weekend, one of the best in the world had not played in a competitive game in seven months.

"It’s been a long time," Poulin said, grinning, after her team (actually named "Team Poulin") registered a 5-1 win over Team Jenner on Sunday afternoon. Poulin recorded multiple assists and was named the game’s second star. "It feels good to be back," she said.

No kidding.

And while Poulin’s layoff was longer than your usual off-season because of a knee injury that prematurely ended her CWHL season and kept her out of world championships (except for a brief appearance), the "good to be back" sentiment is one echoed by many of her fellow Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) members this weekend.

Because after making a lot of noise off the ice with their #ForTheGame movement and a pledge to sit out this season of pro hockey in North America as they push for a sustainable professional league, members of the PWHPA made their first noise on the ice with the debut stop on the Dream Gap Tour, featuring 80 of the best female players on the planet in a four-game series. And despite the fact there was no trophy or championship title or money on the line, these games didn’t have an All-Star Game, laid-back showcase feel.

"That was fast," said a wide-eyed Jess Jones, whose Team Jenner earned a loss Sunday. (All PWHPA teams are named after players). "Took a while to get the legs going."

Players were shaking some rust off after lengthy layoffs, though many participated in training camps with their national teams recently. But the intensity was definitely there. Case in point: Lauren Gabel held Brigitte Lacquette’s stick in Sunday morning’s game, and Lacquette — who is on the national team with Gabel, the Patty Kazmaier winner from last year — responded by punching Gabel in the mask. Both players earned a minor for that one.

"Whoo," Natalie Spooner said, with a smile. "It was intense out there." Her Team Knox dropped a close one in a shootout to Team Johnston, and namesake Rebecca Johnston scored the shootout winner.

The next time most of these players will be back in action on the Dream Gap Tour is in two weeks, in Hudson, New Hampshire.

"Every game we play, we don’t have that many, so we do want to push the pace, make sure we’re still training at that high level," Spooner said. "I think the games are going to be great and fast. Even though you’re not playing for a cup in the end, you’re playing for pride."

And, really, for a future. The PWHPA, which is about 160 players strong, is trying to sell a product in hopes that somebody out there will start a viable professional women’s league in North America, that’ll make playing pro women’s hockey a job and not a hobby. (All members of the PWHPA have chosen to sit out the upcoming season in the NWHL, which they believe isn’t the answer.)

That sustainable league won’t pop up overnight, players know. But their hope is traction is gained in this gap year, and that the next generation will benefit from their work. There were plenty of signs of that next generation in the crowd on Sunday, which numbered about 1,000 people. One little girl held up a literal sign that said: "Thank you 4 standing up for me."

"We didn’t expect anything, didn’t know what to expect from fans," Poulin said. "But obviously they came out there, there were so many people in the stands, little girls, little boys cheering us on. It just reminded us why we’re doing this.

"This is why, this is the reason. We want to build this for them."

As Team USA star Hilary Knight put it, seeing those kids with signs — knowing they’re aware of what some of the best female hockey players on the planet are fighting for — "kind of tears at the heart-strings."

Knight, who played for the victorious Team Poulin, is part of the leadership group that rallied players to join the PWHPA. Her first thought after this weekend’s showcase, the first of three that’ve so far been scheduled: "Relief," she said.

"First events are the hardest ones. You don’t really know what to expect, but you see little things — we’re going to tweak it and make it better for the fans and the players as we go along."

Jones, who played in the CWHL last season, says the level of play will only continue to improve. "I think there’s a lot to look forward to," she said. "We had obviously a good turnout with the fans here and I think it’s only going to get better from here."

Jones has had a range of experience, having played pro overseas and in both the CWHL (which folded in May) and the NWHL. She said the group of women leading this movement — like Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford and former CWHL GM Chelsea Purcell and the recently-retired Liz Knox — made it an easy decision to join the #ForTheGame movement.

"They’re in it for the right reasons," Jones said, of the leadership group. "They’re for growing the game and for the kids. It’s just a great group to be a part of, to be a part of history. It just felt like in my head it was the right decision."

Jones isn’t sure when her next game will be — she’s not on the roster for the next stop, in New Hampshire. But because she’s training in the Toronto area, along with another team, the plan is for regular exhibition games, so players can stay sharp.

Poulin, who now has two games under her belt since February, will be playing in both upcoming showcases in October. She’ll be practicing three times a week until then — twice with her PWHPA team, plus a skills session with Hockey Canada.

"Obviously it’s a different year this year, it’s not going to be a routine we’re used to where we’re playing every weekend," Poulin said. "But I think that we’re aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Right now, it’s the first step in the right direction."

Then the author of two Olympic gold medal-winning goals got up and walked out of that little room in Westwood Arena. It was time to sign autographs.

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