The first phone call went unanswered. So did the second.
Then, a text: “Hey, it’s Burkie, I need you to pick up the phone.”
It’s the morning of the 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition in San Jose, and Patrick Burke is trying to get ahold of Kendall Coyne Schofield. He’s got good news.
Burke’s phone rang almost immediately.
“I hope you got a good night’s sleep last night,” he told Coyne Schofield, “because the NHL would like to invite you to participate in the Fastest Skater Competition.”
The rest is, quite literally, history. That evening, Coyne Schofield became the first woman to ever compete at an NHL All-Star Skills Competition.
By now, you’ve seen the video. (And if you haven’t, what on Earth are you waiting for?)
“I can’t believe it’s almost been a year since that moment,” Coyne Schofield told Sportsnet earlier this month, reflecting on the historic moment that took place on Jan. 25, 2019. “A lot has happened, a lot has changed.”
Her time of 14.346 saw her finish less than a second behind three-time champ Connor McDavid (13.378), and just ahead of Clayton Keller for seventh place overall. But Coyne Schofield’s feat that night was much more than a fast lap around the rink.
It took 14.346 seconds for the Team USA star to thrust the women’s game onto hockey’s biggest stage, and she’s been leading the charge to keep them there ever since.
“I was fortunate to be the one that skated in that moment but there’s so many players and people behind the scenes that made that moment possible,” she said. “You know, you have one chance, you have one moment, and you have to nail it – and I’m so glad that I was able to do so for the women’s hockey community.”
Less than 24 hours before the 2019 All-Star events kicked off, Coyne Schofield had just touched down in San Jose from her home base in Chicago and was headed straight from the airport to SAP Center to participate in a dry run of the skills competition on the eve of the main event. The Olympic gold medallist and five-time world champion with Team USA was one of four women on-hand for All-Star Weekend to demonstrate the skills events and she was, fittingly, in a rush to get to the rink.
Burke, who runs the skills competition alongside NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer, had asked the 27-year-old Team USA captain and noted speedster to arrive early enough to test out the fastest-lap event.
“I know these players quite well and one of the things I knew was that Kendall Coyne Schofield is one of the fastest people on the planet. I think her first three steps put a lot of our NHLers to shame,” said Burke, who is quick to credit Susan Cohig, executive vice present of NHL club business affairs and league leader in the NHL’s women’s hockey initiatives, with the idea of bringing in Coyne Schofield, Brianna Decker, Rebecca Johnston and Renata Fast for the event.
“I asked Kendall to make sure she was there a little bit early for when we were testing fastest skater and asked her to hop in because, after years of telling people that Kendall is fast enough to do fastest skater, I had the opportunity the get her timed in a way that no one could argue with,” he explained.
So, fresh off the plane and with almost no warmup, Coyne Schofield stepped up to the starting line and put up a time of 14.226 – a time, Burke told her, that would’ve placed her in the middle of the pack based on last year’s competition results.
Coyne Schofield thought that was cool, but didn’t think anything further of it. Her story of that Thursday evening is a short one:
“The night progressed, and I went to my room and went to sleep,” she said.
Little did she know, a plan was already being set in motion.
An injury to Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnnon left Burke and Mayer one competitor short for the Fastest Skater event.
“I mentioned that Kendall’s time would’ve put her right in the mix, she’s going to be there, she’s a U.S. Olympian, and she’s a great representative of the sport. Why don’t we throw her in the mix?” Burke explained.
Mayer was immediately onboard, and 20 minutes later the two executives approached NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: “We have an idea,” they told him, “and we need your approval.”
With Coyne Schofield’s timed rehearsal at the ready, Burke and Mayer got Bettman’s blessing almost immediately. Burke’s next call was to the NHLPA.
“To their credit as well, the answer was an immediate, ‘Absolutely – this’ll be fun,’” said Burke.
“Really, it was once we had the official time that she was fast enough to do it, the approvals came rolling through pretty quickly – commissioner Bettman, the NHLPA, the other players involved, were all saying that they thought it was a great idea,” Burke explained. “So the next morning, we had formal approvals in place with everybody and once I got the go-ahead, I was the one who got to call Kendall and let her know that she’d been invited to participate.
“So, I called her. Twice.”
As Coyne Schofield strode up to the starting line that night, crowd buzzing and NHLers leaning over the boards, she knew what was at stake. And in 14.346 seconds, she did far more than simply drop a few jaws and write her name into hockey’s history books — she ushered in a new way of looking at women in her sport. [sidebar]
“I think so many people saw that skate and realized that girls and women belong in the sport of ice hockey. Talent sees talent, and the faces of the players on the bench that night said it all: they recognized me as a hockey player and they recognized the other players that were on the ice as hockey players – not as female hockey players – and that’s the one narrative that we’re constantly trying to break with ‘girls hockey’ and ‘women’s hockey.’ Like, we play hockey,” said Coyne Schofield.
To Burke, it was the ultimate clutch performance.
“She’s kicking the night off, she’s the only woman skating in this event, and you know – and whether she admits it or not, she knows – that if she does anything wrong here, all the sexist idiots out there who are saying women don’t belong on this stage are going to jump up. It’s not going to be that, ‘Oh, Kendall Coyne had a bad lap,’ it’s going to be, ‘women don’t belong on this ice,’” said Burke.
“And she didn’t just do okay … In that moment, to rise to the occasion and put up the time she did, with all that pressure, with all that attention, it’s the single most clutch performance that I’ve ever seen from an athlete in my life.”
In the year since her All-Star moment, Coyne Schofield has continued to work tirelessly to keep women in hockey’s spotlight.
“We need to continue building a platform like we had in that NHL All-Star Weekend. I’ve been skating like that my whole life, and it just took an amazing platform to be able to showcase that,” said Coyne Schofield, who also has a longstanding relationship with her hometown NHL club, the Chicago Blackhawks. That partnership has resulted in the forming of an all-girls developmental program and several other initiatives.
The Team USA captain, whose playing resume also includes an Olympic gold medal and five world championships, has become a leading voice of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association – a group of more than 200 elite women’s hockey players taking a stand for the future of the game and raising awareness about the need for a sustainable, long-term, professional women’s hockey league.
Her powerful voice can also be heard on San Jose Sharks broadcasts — the club contacted her over the summer to bring her onboard as a colour analyst, a role she’s embraced while still making her playing career a priority.
Kendall Coyne Schofield (@KendallCoyne) with the bounce!
— NHL (@NHL) January 10, 2020
“If we can build a platform for women’s hockey that is big enough and people can see us do what we do every day, it won’t be a shock that, you know, I can skate alongside the men,” she said.
That stage is being set again this weekend as 20 of North America’s top women’s hockey players hit the all-star ice for a three-on-three game between Canada and the USA on Friday as part of this year’s All-Star Skills Competition in St. Louis – another initiative headed up by Cohig, and a direct result of Coyne Schofield’s accomplishment one year ago in San Jose.
— NHL (@NHL) January 16, 2020
“That wouldn’t happen if Kendall doesn’t nail it last year,” said Burke.
Just like last year, the hockey world will be watching – and Coyne Schofield will no doubt be ready to answer the call once again.