For all the talk of women’s professional hockey being fragmented, it sure is making historical inroads at an unprecedented pace.
Just ask Hockey Hall of Famer and NHL Seattle pro scout Cammi Granato. This Friday, she’ll coach in an Elite Women’s 3-on-3 matchup at the NHL All-Star Game Skills event in St. Louis pitting U.S. national team members against Canada. Meanwhile, Snohomish product Lexi Bender is seeing more “money going into in my pocket’’ than ever before playing in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) for a record-setting Boston Pride squad and just got named to her second All-Star Game in that circuit.
So, while the national team stars in Friday’s NHL skills event are boycotting the NWHL this season — pushing instead for a unified pro league — it doesn’t appear to be harming women’s hockey overall from a profile perspective.
“The magnitude of this is huge,’’ Granato said of Friday’s 20-minute game, in which she’ll coach a nine-member U.S. team that includes Olympians Kasey Bellamy, Brianna Decker, Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson and Hilary Knight. “I mean, having the women be a part of it is putting it on the same platform (as men). Which is a perfect way to showcase the sport and say there is a sort of equality there.’’
In addition, fans can vote on the four above-mentioned U.S. players and four preselected Canadian members and pick one from each to go head-to-head with NHL men in a newly-added Gatorade Shooting Stars event right after the 3-on-3 game.
Granato as a player took part in a U.S.-Canada women’s hockey exhibition as part of the NHL’s 1998 all-star festivities in Vancouver and ahead of the 2004 American Hockey League All-Star Game in Denver. Last year, U.S. national team member Kendall Coyne Schofield became the first woman to participate in the NHL skills event and finished seventh in the fastest skater competition.
But those showcases were never as directly intertwined as Friday’s will be.
Pride defenseman Bender, 26, who has three goals, nine assists and an eighth-ranked plus/minus of 19, agrees the 3-on-3 game is great for women’s hockey despite she and other NWHL pros not participating. Instead, she this week played a holiday Monday matinee for the Pride, which improved to a perfect 19-0 with a 5-3 win over the Metropolitan Riveters.
“I think it’s great,’’ she said of the NHL all-star involvement. “I think the exposure will be awesome. I’m very excited to watch it myself. I think that the girls they chose are going to be phenomenal ambassadors of the sport, obviously. I just think it’s great, the recognition by the NHL of the women’s game that’s been evolving over the years.’’
Bender’s own All-Star Game — a 4-on-4 event — takes place next month in Boston and features eight members of the record-setting Pride. A late goal Monday helped them extend their single-season NWHL win streak record to 19, with a showdown looming against defending champion Minnesota in a pair of road games this weekend.
It’s been a strong year exposure-wise for the five-team NWHL, which in September received its first-ever media rights fee through a three-year livestreaming partnership with Amazon-owned Twitch to show games online. A month into the season, NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan said the deal was “exceeding expectations’’ 949,065 total viewers taking in October games, averaging 67,790 per contest.
While that’s down from the last year’s 70,000 per game average over a full season streaming on YouTube and Twitter, Rylan noted the higher figure included playoff and All-Star Games that spiked viewership. This season’s Pride home opener against Buffalo drew a league-high 145,1672 viewers.
The league in April also agreed to split sponsorship revenue 50-50 with players; a deal Bender said has paid off big for her and teammates as she navigates law school and her pro career. The Pride was sold in September to a private ownership group, Cannon Capital, which has seen added investment on the marketing side pay off with capacity crowds of 1,000-plus at recent games.
There had been concerns for the NWHL’s future after some 200 players opted to boycott this season. The collapse last spring of the rival Canadian Women’s Hockey League increased cries for a unified circuit — many wanting it under the NHL’s umbrella — with better pay and working conditions.
But the NWHL in September announced a new round of venture capital financing it said will sustain its operations several more years.
“I have a ton of respect for the league’s leadership,’’ Bender said. “I think I was one of the players that recognized that it’s a slow burn at first. You’re trying to get people excited and I think that once you start getting people jumping on, it will start snowballing.’’
The NHL has remained neutral about forming a women’s league, saying it won’t as long as the NWHL remains operational. But its all-star inclusion of players boycotting that circuit has sent mixed signals.
Those boycotting players formed a Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWPHA) union and have been training on their own and playing in barnstorming exhibitions.
Granato feels the PWPHA-NWHL split is part of a growth process for the women’s game, adding TV viewers Friday will see “the top players in the world of women’s hockey ’’ in the 3-on-3 event. And whether short-term, or further down the road, she feels the bigger end goal of a unified women’s pro league giving all the chance to play for a living will happen.
“I think the game, it’s the best time it’s ever been as far as growth,’’ she said. “I think sometimes you take a few steps back before you go forward.’’