Top women's players, proud of PWHL's encouraging launch, get stage of their own at NHL All-Star week

Hockey: PWHL-Boston at Montreal
Hockey: PWHL-Boston at Montreal

Alina Muller has already accomplished plenty in the 10 years since scoring Switzerland’s bronze-clinching goal to become, at 15, the youngest women’s hockey player to win a medal at a Winter Olympics.

Another first comes Thursday when she takes part in the Professional Women’s Hockey League’s 3-on-3 showcase game as part of the NHL’s All-Star weekend festivities in Toronto.

For Muller, who plays for Boston in the first season of the PWHL, it’s her first time competing in an NHL arena.

“Super, super excited for this moment,” she said. “This is another big stage and, yeah, it’ll be really cool to be at the same place with the best of men’s hockey.”

Women have participated in past NHL All-Star events — Kendall Coyne Schofield’s blazing effort in 2019’s fastest skater competition caught everyone’s attention — but it was previously limited to U.S. and Canadian national team players. This week marks the first time the league can boast bringing together the world’s top pros — men and women — under one roof.

NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said the league has liked to use All-Star Weekend as a way to lean into women’s hockey.

“Their interest to have events around our signature events, like our outdoor games and All-Star, it became sort of a no-brainer to do something and make it the anchor of our Thursday night,” Mayer said. “It’s great, and we want to continue to do it and give them our sort of forum, as well.”

It is a big stage and a welcome one for the PWHL, a six-team league now a month into its inaugural season. It is averaging nearly 5,000 fans per outing, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attending Ottawa’s home game against Boston last week.

Muller, who spent her college career at Northeastern, is the PWHL’s only non-North American player competing in the two-team, 24-player event. It’s a distinction that emphasizes how far the PWHL still needs to grow and the untapped talent available in Europe and Asia.

“I try to represent Europe and Switzerland to the best of my ability,” said Mueller, who was tied early this week with American Alex Carpenter as the PWHL’s leading scorer with nine points. “And I’m super excited to see what five to 10 years from now can bring and how much better women’s hockey gets all over the world.”

What’s striking is the depth of talent on hand.

Muller is on Team King — named after league co-founder Billie Jean King — that features U.S. stars Hilary Knight and Coyne Schofield, and Canada’s national team captain, Marie-Philip Poulin.

Team Kloss — named for King’s spouse and PWHL advisory board member Ilana Kloss — features Carpenter, No. 1 draft pick Taylor Heise and Canadian stars such as Sarah Nurse and Brianne Jenner.

“I looked at my roster yesterday and I was like: ‘Is this karma? Like I must have done something right in life,’” said Team King coach and former Canadian national team player Cassie Campbell-Pascall. “And then I look at the other roster and I’m like, ‘Wow!’ ... You look at it and there’s 24 players, and there’s probably another five or six that were left at home.”

What’s also significant for Campbell-Pascall is the chance to coach against a former rival, U.S. national team star Meghan Duggan. It was her and Duggan’s generation that in the early 2000s sparked the vision of a professional league.

“I think all of us that have played this sport always envisioned this,” said Campbell-Pascall, who left broadcasting to become a PWHL special adviser.

“It’s just we didn’t have a lot of people around us that believed,” she added. “I think we’ve exceeded our expectations, but at the same time, these were the expectations we had all along.”

Toronto’s Renata Fast will enjoy her second NHL All-Star appearance after representing Canada in a 3-on-3 game against the United States in St. Louis in 2020. What stands out this time for the 29-year-old is the ability to call herself a true professional.

“This is unique because we’ve worked so hard collectively to build this league. And now we’re being given an additional platform to showcase what work we’ve done,” Fast said. “We get to bring our game to the NHL market on their biggest weekend of the season with all their stars. And we’re also in front of the hockey hotbed of the world, so no better place.”

Scotiabank Arena’s 19,000-seat capacity represents a major step up for Fast. Her PWHL Toronto team plays at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, the reconverted site of the old Maple Leaf Gardens, with a seating capacity of 2,500.

With Toronto’s home games all sold out, the PWHL last week said Toronto’s home game against Montreal on Feb. 16 will be played at Scotiabank.

Minnesota goalie Nicole Hensley and her teammates enjoy the benefits of playing in the league’s only NHL facility, the Wild’s Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The team set a pro women’s hockey attendance record with 13,316 turning out for its home-opening 3-0 win over Montreal. Attendance has dropped since, though Minnesota still leads the league with a total attendance of 30,975 through four home games.

“It just shows what we’ve been saying all along is that there’s a market for this,” Hensley said. “And if we can build a sustainable league, people want to come. People want to see it. I think that’s just the start.”

The U.S. national team member is bracing for what’s in store, knowing 3-on-3 events generally place an emphasis on a fast-paced offensive style of play.

“It’s definitely not made for goalies,” Hensley said, laughing. “But I think at the end of the day, if players are making plays and goalies are making plays, that’s what’s best for the game and for the fans.”