Women’s Winter Classic: Exhilaration, frustration and an injury scare

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WFOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 31: Rachel Llanes #91 of the Boston Pride (NWHL) skates against the Les Canadiennes (CWHL) during the Outdoor Womens Classic at Gillette Stadium on December 31, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Winter Classic

WFOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 31: Rachel Llanes #91 of the Boston Pride (NWHL) skates against the Les Canadiennes (CWHL) during the Outdoor Womens Classic at Gillette Stadium on December 31, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It was a game that almost didn’t happen, a game whose participants weren’t firmed up until a week before the Winter Classic’s eve. A game hastily announced and publicized, a game acknowledged but not televised. A game that featured a temporary peace between to rival leagues, but one that lit a match under simmering animosity with USA Hockey for one of them.

But given the conditions, it was a well-played game by the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League and Les Canadiennes of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League: a 1-1 tie in the middle of Gillette Stadium, sandwiched between NHL team practices and an NHL alumni game. And it was an important game in the eyes of its organizers and players.

“The NHL has made a huge statement to the world that they support the women’s game,” said CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress. “We all had the same goal, which was to have women’s hockey be seen in an outdoor game for the very first time.”

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It took Andress and NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan working together to make this happen and that wasn’t always a guarantee. But they both said the women’s outdoor game in Foxborough on Thursday was a significant moment in the relationship between the established CWHL and the upstart NWHL, in its inaugural season.

“I think this was a great first step. I would say that the NHL was standing in the middle, holding our hands as we walked to Gillette, so to speak. But it was a good first step,” said Rylan.

But it wasn’t without its stumbles.

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The game began around 2 p.m., after the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens held their practices. The ice was soft. The stands were dotted with spectators, but far fewer than the crowd that would watch the alumni game later in the afternoon – a byproduct of the women’s game not getting a fraction of the promotion that the veterans’ game did, despite one ticket getting fans entry to both games.

The Boston Pride team that took the ice is not the Boston Pride team that sits second in the NWHL standings. Nine players were off attending the last day of U.S. national team development camp. Their status for the outdoor game sparked a standoff with USA Hockey, and the national program didn’t budge, leaving the Pride (and the game) without notable names like Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker.

Former U.S. Olympian Julie Chu, who plays for Les Canadiennes, said the conflict was regrettable, but that the national team commitment comes first.

“They’re also preparing for a world championship. Everyone wants to a chance to take advantage of all the opportunities put in front of them, but it’s not possible. You can’t be in two places at once. They’re doing their job as national team players in preparing for the world championships. The Boston Pride players that played today battled hard,” she said.

So the Pride drew players in from the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale, and they pulled in “practice players” from their own roster.

Deanna Laing was one of those practice players: a Massachusetts native who played at Princeton.

“No one ever thought that could be possible. The league has done such a good job getting us out there. I hope this is a stepping stone and that it just keeps going,” she told Today’s Slapshot earlier in the week.

But one wrong step by Laing cast a pall on the women’s game.

Late in the first period – the game had two 15-minute periods – Laing went to the corner and accidentally stepped on another player’s stick. She tumbled violently into the boards. Medical staff came over to tend to her. Laing was then stretchered off the ice.

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 31: Denna Laing #24 of the Boston Pride (NWHL) is taken off the ice following an injury against the Les Canadiennes (CWHL) during the Outdoor Womens Classic at Gillette Stadium on December 31, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 31: Denna Laing #24 of the Boston Pride (NWHL) is taken off the ice following an injury against the Les Canadiennes (CWHL) during the Outdoor Womens Classic at Gillette Stadium on December 31, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

She was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she was joined by her family. The NWHL said she’s under observation.

“We’re thankful we’re in Boston, and she’s getting great care, and we’re confident she’ll be fine,” said Pride coach Bobby Jay.

***

Kim Deschenes scored first for Les Canadiennes on a cross-crease pass by Noemie Marin. Blake Bolden of the Pride knotted the game on this play:

Bolden is one of several players who played in both the CWHL and the NWHL, as she used to battle Les Canadiennes as a member of the Boston Blades. 

“I was just really excited to get a chance to play against them again,” she said.

And that’s how it ended: 1-1 in regulation. No overtime or shootout for the women’s game, presumably for time constraints. (Hilarious, when one considers the 30 minutes of video packages and player introductions that preceded puck drop on the alumni game.)

Bolden was asked what she’d like to see in future outdoor games.

“A third period?” she said, with a smile. “Yeah, no ties.”

But in a way, it had to end in a tie. No one’s kung-fu was better. No league walks away with the upper hand. In the spirit of camaraderie, a game with no winner actually had two.

“I think that this was an incredible first stepping stone for all of us. Hopefully next year we’re introduced into the game. Hopefully earlier,” said Chu. “It was unreal. As we were getting ready for the game, we were just a bunch of little kids.”

That’s the kind of thing you hear from the NHL players who take part in the Winter Classic every Jan. 1.

“Pride. Joy. Happiness. It’s the same thing as with the guys, who say that every time they skate outdoors, they’re in heaven,” said Andress.

“Well, now so are we.”

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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