From little girls to grown men, they packed the stands and they packed them tight.
The overflow pressed up against the glass to experience the rarest of treats. The biggest names in women’s hockey had arrived at the sold-out Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees over the weekend as the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association’s Dream Gap Tour made a pit stop just outside Philadelphia.
Four exhibition games over two days gave fans a chance to see women’s hockey heroes Amanda Kessel, Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson, Monique Lamoureux-Morando, Brianne Jenner, Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Natalie Spooner and Sarah Nurse, among others.
“We want to hit markets where women’s hockey isn’t always there,” said Canadian Olympic silver medalist and NCAA champion Renata Fast. “We want to gain more exposure and get our message out on what we’re trying to achieve, but the end goal is to have a real professional league that we can play in. In the meantime, this is a great way to get out and show our talent to a bunch of different markets that don’t see women’s hockey and continue to grow a fan base.”
The future of professional women’s hockey has been murky with the recent disbanding of the 12-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League after a dozen years of operation. For the last five years, it had run simultaneously with the National Women’s Hockey League, which now has five teams.
Neither league had provided health insurance or livable wages to players. And after the CWHL folded, more than 200 players released a joint statement, announcing their tough stance to not play in any professional league in North America for the 2019-20 season.
The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association was then created as an association to push for financial infrastructure, health insurance and training programs for young female athletes.
Players have taken to the road as part of the Dream Gap Tour to show hockey fans what they’ve been missing.
“We love coming out and doing this,” said Sarah Nurse, who formerly played for the Toronto Furies of the CWHL. “Bringing hockey to places where women hockey doesn’t happen all the time is something that we really want to do and I think it’s something that’s really really important.”
Nurse was a captain of one of the four teams over the weekend. Team Nurse competed against Team (Blayre) Turnbull in one semifinal match on Saturday, while Team (Megan) Keller took on Team (Brianna) Decker in the other.
Team Turnball eventually won the whole thing by defeating Team Keller, 4-3, in overtime in the championship game on Sunday. It wrapped up two high-octane days of best-on-best competition.
“We don’t get to play that many games in the season, so when we do, we want to put on a great show,” said Natalie Spooner, a Canadian Olympic gold medalist, who also played for the Furies. “Especially being here and seeing those little girls in the stands and seeing all the fans we have, we want to showcase the talent that we have, so we’re going to bring it and try to show our best selves.”
The pace was fast, and the skill level was off the charts.
“You look at the rosters at this (event) and it’s phenomenal, and so was the pace of play you saw today,” said Brianne Jenner, who played for the Calgary Inferno. “We’re all competitors and we’re all athletes and as much as we love engaging with the fans, we also like getting out there and competing. When you have players like this on a weekend here, it’s pretty exciting.”
The Flyers Skate Zone fit the bill to host such a showcase because of the area’s lack of a women’s professional team. The tour’s next stop is in Arizona next week.
Spooner believes the next great player could come from one of those cities if given exposure to the game.
“Hopefully, we’re inspiring one of those little girls to either play hockey or pursue hockey,” Spooner said. “Hopefully, if these girls get to meet one of us or get to see one of us and say, ‘Wow, they’re a real person and I can be like that, and I can do that.’ I think that’s pretty cool.”