Women’s hockey stars ‘excited’ to display talent at Dream Gap Tour

Canada's Renata Fast smiles after demonstrating the accuracy shooting event during the skills competition, part of the NHL hockey All-Star weekend, in San Jose, Calif., Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Renata Fast says there hasn’t been any trash talk, at least “not that I know of” — but there’s still time for that, folks.

Stop 1 of the Dream Gap Tour is hitting Toronto this weekend, and it’ll see 82 of the best female hockey players in the world compete in a four-team, four-game showcase on Sept. 21 and 22 at Westwood Arena.

Among the Olympic and world champions in attendance: Marie-Philip Poulin, Hilary Knight, Natalie Spooner, Sarah Nurse, Rebecca Johnston, Brianne Jenner, Fast and many more.

The event is the first in a series of showcases the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) will be putting on over the course of this season, following the pledge of some 170 players to sit out this season of professional hockey in North America because they want a league that pays a living wage. As Fast, a veteran defenceman with Team Canada, puts it, “We’re really fighting for hockey to be more than just a hobby.”

Here are four things you should know about the PWHPA’s debut showcase, courtesy of Fast, an Olympic silver medallist who grew up in Burlington, Ont. — about a 40-minute drive from Westwood Arena, where all the action will happen. The 24-year-old played at Westwood as a kid (her mom had to remind her; Fast doesn’t remember).

1. Look out for team Knox

That’s the team Fast is on, so obviously she points this out with complete impartiality. There’s also Team Jenner, Team Johnston and Team Poulin. And though the weekend is set up for four games over two days and no final, per se, there’s been talk of a champion being named when the weekend is said and done. And Fast likes Team Knox’s chances.

All the teams are set up based on geography, so Team Knox is made up largely of Toronto Furies players from last season in the now-defunct CWHL, which ceased operations on May 1.

“We have some firepower up front with the duo of Spooner and Nurse, and then Loren Gabel is also on our team,” Fast says. “This is her first year out of university and she’s the Patty Kazmaier award winner down in the States [for the top player in NCAA hockey], so we’re lucky to have her. We have our returning solid D corps with Mellissa Channell and Emma Greco, Jordan Hampton. We were spoiled last year with the Toronto Furies with our goaltending, so we have Elaine Chuli on our team.

“Really, top to bottom we have some depth and we’ve all played together. I think we have a really good chance this weekend.”

2. No money in their pockets, but all expenses paid

Players aren’t making any money for playing in this weekend showcase, but everything else is covered. Flights, hotels, food — it sounds a lot like what a college player would experience, and that’s thanks to various sponsors and supporters.

One of the biggest supporters is Unifor, the title sponsor for this weekend’s showcase. Unifor is covering two practices a week for each team in each Canadian market, and they’re also covering game-day ice. “Their biggest message was, these are the top female hockey players and they were shocked that we had nowhere to practise,” Fast says. “They couldn’t believe that, so they’ve been so generous in providing us with ice time.”

PWHPA players were practising in their markets as big groups, but team practices began earlier this week, once Canadian national team players got back from a training camp in Halifax. Players will also all have health insurance covered for these events thanks to Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, and Fast says even players who aren’t on national teams will get that health insurance paid for.

Bauer is providing pants, gloves, helmets and facemasks. Adidas has given players running shoes and other swag, including track suits. “It’s more than we’ve received in the CWHL, so we’re all pretty excited to get the support we’ve been getting from these companies,” Fast says. On Friday, the NHLPA announced its partnership with the PWHPA.

And on Saturday night, another sponsor, Budweiser, will be putting on a Dream Gap Tour kick-off party for players in downtown Toronto. “That’ll be fun,” Fast says, but she swears they won’t be moving slowly in their Sunday games because of a little too much Bud. “I think we’ll all be shutting it down pretty early on Saturday,” she says, laughing, “but it’ll be good to get together as a group.”

3. How to catch the action

You have options. If you can attend live, tickets are $15 per game or $40 for a weekend pass.

All games will be live-streamed at on the PWHPA website and on CBC.

4. A long time coming

“Excited” is an understatement. Players are jacked up about getting this #ForTheGame movement started, at least when it comes to actual play.

The women who joined the #ForTheGame movement and the PWHPA have essentially been working toward this moment ever since May 1, when the CWHL officially shuttered its doors. Many players decided they wouldn’t play in the NWHL — which opens its season Oct. 5 — and instead decided to build toward a league they feel will provide them with the opportunity to make hockey a career. This weekend is the first step in showcasing what these players have to offer.

“They’re going to be fast-paced games, there’s going to be an opportunity for fans to meet some of these players,” Fast says. “And I just think it’s also such an exciting time in women’s hockey and women’s sport altogether, and for people to learn and to support and understand a little bit more what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s a huge opportunity.”

In other words, though there may be no money on the line, you’re going to be seeing these players at their best. It’s a showcase — players like Fast want to sell fans and potential sponsors on their product.

And the excitement is even higher considering how long it’s been since many of these players participated in a meaningful and competitive, professional-level game. Fast had to think back, and decided it was world championships — six months ago. “A long time ago,” she says. “That’s why we’re so eager to play in the games this weekend.

“We’re all really excited to kick off the dream tour — the Dream Gap Tour — finally,” she adds. “I think there’s been a lot of anticipation around what this year’s going to look like, and it’s exciting to bring the first showcase here in Toronto where there’s so many of us players that are from the area.

“I’m excited to display the talent we have within the players’ association and I think there’s going to be a really good turnout from fans and minor hockey teams in the area, so we’re really looking forward to it. We can’t wait to get going.”

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