ST. LOUIS — We had no Saturday Headlines segment as the NHL took a weekend to let its hair down.
But there was no missing the fact that 20 women became headliners at Enterprise Center during the league’s all-star weekend. Playing in sweaters carrying the league’s crest, a group of players largely without any club team affiliation during this gap year following the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League electrified a sellout crowd during Friday’s skills competition.
It left an awfully big elephant in the room: when might we see the creation of an NHL-backed professional league for women?
That issue was even addressed in general terms by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman when he met with the 20 female players in the dressing room before their “Elite Women’s 3-on-3” event. While Bettman’s message was not completely unlike others they’ve heard before, he stressed how far they’ve already come — mentioning the laughable debate during the 2010 Vancouver Games about whether women’s hockey was competitive enough to even remain in the Olympics — and highlighted why everyone needs to be patient.
This is no small undertaking, should the NHL ever commit to making the leap. How many teams should there be and where would they play? How much money will it cost to get a new league established?
And Bettman emphasized to the players at all-star weekend how critical it is to get this right. That if something was started and quickly failed it would set the movement back a couple decades.
Still, it was hard not to see how everything played out in St. Louis and believe that it’s a matter of “when” not “if.” That the number of reasons for the NHL to do it outweigh the challenges.
“I think we’re all hopeful,” Canadian player Rebecca Johnston said.
This current group of female players might not be around when it eventually happens, but they deserve credit for their role in moving the puck forward. They put on a fantastic show and boosted the NHL’s all-star weekend with their presence.
ALL STAR THOUGHTS
The one thing I try and keep in mind during all-star weekend is that it’s not truly meant for a hockey fan of my vintage.
Chances are if you’re reading this, the same applies to you.
There’s still appeal in a fun-loving NHL event for younger fans who vociferously consume content online. These players are cool and get to show a different side of their personalities than you normally see during the season.
I’d expect more tweaks and changes to emphasize the fun. There will be a shift to international teams next season, as Bettman hinted at during his all-star press conference, but you can also expect the league to play up a beach theme with the game being held at BB&T Center in South Florida.
The NHL will go out of its way to make this something the players don’t want to miss.
George Parros, the NHL’s senior vice-president of player safety, will attend both Edmonton-Calgary games in the coming days just to keep an eye on things. The league is obviously hoping to keep the temperature in check on a rivalry that heated up considerably earlier this month when Oilers winger Zack Kassian reacted to a couple hits from Matthew Tkachuk by going after the Calgary agitator.
(Kassian, coincidentally, sees his two-game suspension expire just in time to play in Wednesday’s return meeting at Rogers Place).
Tkachuk faced plenty of questions on the topic throughout all-star weekend, but chose not to fan any flames. Oilers captain Connor McDavid said, “Whatever’s going on will be settled … definitely not at the all-star game.”
Any lingering bad feelings seemed to be set aside during a light-hearted weekend, but Leon Draisaitl left St. Louis with a sense of anticipation about what’s to come.
“It’ll be fun. It’s always fun games against them, for sure,” he said. “Obviously, whatever is going on there, it’s going to be a pretty fun games to be part of.”
Unless something changes between now and a three-day meeting of general managers in early March, there’s no reason to expect the NHL to look at extending the length of 3-on-3 overtime in order to reduce the number of shootouts.
Several players have come out in support of a longer overtime period as a way to reduce the importance of the tiebreaker — the ECHL has been testing out a seven-minute OT, for example — but the appetite for change is not nearly as strong among those responsible for NHL rule changes, according to sources.
At this point, the only area where it’s believed a change will be considered at the March meeting is in the interpretation of offside. Some GMs want the blue-line to be converted to a plane for the purpose of reviews, which would remove the requirement that a player must have his skate on the ice while crossing to be considered onside.
Elias Pettersson hit a wall in the final quarter of his rookie year, putting up two goals and 14 points in 22 games to close out the Vancouver Canucks season.
Now older, stronger and wiser, he’s ready to make a late surge as a sophomore.
“I feel much better in my conditioning stuff,” Pettersson said. “I feel stronger, I feel faster, I feel like I have more energy and don’t get tired as much as last year.”
There should be some added enthusiasm found in a playoff push, too.
The Canucks hit the all-star break sitting atop the tightly packed Pacific Division and will at minimum fulfill their goal of playing meaningful games down the stretch. Pettersson has seen a lot of internal growth, year over year.
“We’re a little older group, a bit wiser group, we are more guys that can make plays and all that,” Pettersson said. “Our ‘D’ core is stronger, both of our goalies playing good.
“I feel like every aspect of our team is better.”
Whatever you or I might think of the NHL’s current divisional playoff format — I’d personally love to see a return to the more balanced No. 1 versus No. 8 conference alignment — there is no desire for change at the senior levels of the league. Don’t expect any serious talk about the creation of extra wild-card play-in games or a revamped format any time soon … Impending unrestricted free agent Chris Kreider seems completely unbothered by his uncertain future with the New York Rangers. There are no ongoing talks about a potential extension, and Kreider could well be the biggest name moved before the Feb. 24 trade deadline, but during all-star weekend he said it hasn’t been a distraction: “I’m a Ranger until they tell me I’m not a Ranger.” … Hockey is alive and well in St. Louis: Fans waited in line for five and a half hours (!) to get a picture with the Stanley Cup at the all-star fan fest on Saturday afternoon … David Pastrnak’s infectious personality helped make up for Alex Ovechkin’s absence during all-star weekend. Now the Boston Bruins winger needs 13 goals over the final 31 games to join the 50-goal club … Happy 59th birthday, Wayne Gretzky, who was feted with a surprise party after participating as an assistant coach in Saturday’s all-star game.