Scoggins: PWHL Minnesota’s home opener delivered on all fronts

A baby girl was born nearly 23 years ago in a St. Paul hospital. A pediatrician examined the baby after a Caesarean section that day and put my wife and me at ease with positive news of a healthy newborn.

As luck would have it, the doctor's practice was based at our suburban clinic. She became a beloved pediatrician to our three kids over the years. A parent's dream.

The doctor knew my job as a sportswriter, so at every checkup and sick kid visit, we'd talk hockey. The doctor would give updates about her niece's hockey career, starting as a youth player and continuing all the way through high school. Every visit, we'd chat about what was happening with her niece's path in the sport.

We lost connection as the kids grew older and our doctor shifted into a new leadership role.

A special event on Saturday spurred a call to Florida where Dr. Hilary Stecklein now lives.

Her niece, Lee Stecklein, now age 29, played in a professional women's hockey game in an NHL arena in front of 13,000 fans.

"A thrill," Dr. Stecklein said over the phone.

A thrill that feels like a seminal moment for women's hockey.

Lee Stecklein helped lead Team Minnesota to a 3-0 victory over Montreal in the home debut of the Professional Women's Hockey League at Xcel Energy Center.

The game doubled as a celebration of a new door opening for women's sports and the promise of where this might lead. The new league has deep-pocket funding, the best players in the world and experienced leadership in management.

Many of the record crowd of 13,316 were young girls decked out in their hometown association's jerseys. Those girls started chants of "Minn-E-Sota" and danced to music during stoppages.

The best part?

The product on the ice delivered. It was fast, physical, entertaining hockey being played by elite talent in a league that gives indications of being a credible, sustainable operation.

This is how a sport grows.

"It's obviously something that people have been trying to do for a really long time in so many different ways," Lee Stecklein said. "For it all to come together like this, it feels right. It feels like we're all building toward something more and continuing to get better hockey."

Stecklein went from Roseville to becoming one of the most decorated players in the history of her sport. She has played hockey and won at the highest levels across the globe, in the Olympics and world championships. She viewed Saturday's game and the official launch of the PWHL in six markets this past week as a significant marker in the overall growth of the game.

"You constantly want to be showing the world exactly what we can do," she said in a quiet moment outside the victorious locker room.

PWHL board member Stan Kasten described it as "proof of concept." The supportive reaction from fans here in Minnesota and other markets has provided a gust of wind at the league's back. If the product is top notch and supported in the right way, fans will pay attention.

"Women's hockey works," Kasten said.

Stecklein's parents, Robb and Linda, already knew that, having followed their daughter around the world for international competitions. Their hockey family got to experience another pinch-me moment.

"Even though she's done some really great stuff, this is a new chapter for women and girls playing hockey," Linda said on the arena concourse before the game. "It's what they've been fighting for, and she gets to actually partake in it."

The show didn't disappoint. Team Minnesota battled nervousness in the first period, then turned the arena into a party behind Grace Zumwinkle's hat trick and goalie Maddie Rooney's thievery in net.

The crowd had a blast. Especially all those little girls who jumped and danced and screamed.

"We want to just keep showing them exactly what future they could have," Stecklein said. "We want to provide that dream for girls and have them see it."

They saw it and loved it.