Catching lightning in a bottle, the PWHL’s opening week proved to be an unprecedented success. With the first three days of the New Year featuring a series of historic and highly entertaining matches, the enthusiasm emanating from the capacity crowds added to a strong sense of momentum.
Beginning in Toronto, it was only fitting that one of the great shrines of hockey served as host venue for the New Year’s Day matchup. Taking place at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, located inside the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens, New York provided the opposition on a notable day.
With both clubs boasting very sharp jersey colour schemes, there was no shortage of star power on either roster. From the outset, both captains brought Olympic pedigree, as Toronto’s Blayre Turnbull and New York’s Micah Zandee-Hart participated in the ceremonial faceoff, featuring Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford plus female sports legend Billie Jean King.
Adding to the prestige of the league’s opener, CBC Television, along with TSN and SportsNet broadcast the event. Bringing strong production values, there was a beautiful Hockey Night in Canada feel to the programming, with Andi Petrillo bringing a major league feeling in her on-air role. Emerging as the highest rated sporting event on Canadian TV for New Year’s Day, the numbers added to the feeling of momentum.
Certainly, a key theme encompassing the Opening Game involved “firsts”, as there was a sense of anticipation over key metrics such as first goal and eventually, first win. New York enjoyed the opportunity to make history on multiple occasions.
Starting with Ella Shelton placing her name on the scoresheet at the 10:43 mark of the first period, placing the puck past Kristen Campbell for the league’s first goal, Alex Carpenter earned the assist. Shelton’s epic goal resulted in history twice. As New York prevailed in a 4-0 final, said goal also stood as the game-winning tally.
Worth noting, the other New York skaters that scored in the PWHL Opening Game included Carpenter, becoming the first player to enjoy a multi-point performance, Jillian Saulnier and Kayla Vespa. Carpenter’s goal assisted by Paetyn Levis and Chloé Aurard, both making their professional debut. Aurard is the first player born in France to play in the PWHL. Worth noting, Virginie Bouetz-Andrieu, former member of the French national team played for the former Montreal Stars in the CWHL.
Other notable firsts saw Carpenter win the first face-off, while Shelton took the first shot, the two forever intertwined in PWHL lore. Toronto’s Rebecca Leslie suffered the first penalty, as she was called for slashing. Although Toronto was held scoreless, a January 5 rematch at Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport, CT, saw the double blue emerge victorious. Natalie Spooner scored Toronto’s first ever goal, simultaneously becoming the first parent in league play to score a goal, while Emma Maltais enjoyed the game winning goal, also the first in league play scored shorthanded
Akin to Shelton, star goaltender Corinne Schroeder also shone brilliantly during the magic of Opening Day, celebrating a pair of historic achievements. In addition to the prestige of winning the league’s first-ever game, her 29-save effort resulted in the first-ever shutout. Taking into account that the Toronto offense featured the aforementioned Maltais and Spooner, along with Brittany Howard and Sarah Nurse, keeping such stellar forwards off the scoresheet saw Schroeder provide a world-class performance. Coincidentally, her professional debut last season, competing with the Boston Pride, also resulted in a shutout.
Worth noting, Schroeder showed a touch of class, recognizing what the Pride meant to her pro career. The defunct club’s popular Tiger logo adorned her goalie mask, paying homage to a legendary team that enjoyed three Isobel Cup championships.
Additionally, her new goalie pads and gloves made a sensation on social media. Featuring New York’s neat color scheme, visions of the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and Empire State Building resulted in a stunning motif. Certainly, the chance to display such visually appealing equipment in a highly meaningful game added to the feeling of celebration. Fittingly recognized as the First Star of the Game, Schroeder was joined by Second Star Alex Carpenter and Third Star Ella Shelton.
The following day, Canada’s Capital played host to the PWHL’s second game, adding to the sizzle. Considering that Ottawa enjoyed standing as host city for the inaugural IIHF Women’s World Championships, and the city where Jayna Hefford made her 200th appearance for Team Canada on January 1, 2010, a place in the PWHL’s Original Six adds to its legacy as a celebrated hub for the female game.
Building on the momentum from the New Year’s Day event, Ottawa’s hockey fans set a Canadian attendance record. With 8,318 fans on-hand, it marked a record crowd for a professional women’s ice hockey game. The previous records included 7765 for Sweden’s 2022 SDHL championship final between Brynas and Lulea, while the 2017 CWHL All-Star Game attracted 8122 enthusiasts to the Air Canada Centre.
Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe and Shelley Coolidge, a long-time local fixture in university hockey took to centre ice for the ceremonial faceoff. Having coached both, the Ottawa Gee-Gees and the Carleton Ravens, Coolidge, originally from Saskatchewan, also served as President of the U Sports Women’s Hockey Coaching Association. Currently holding the position of Interim Sports Director for Ringette Canada, her presence at centre ice provided a sense of full circle.
Mirroring the captains from the opening game, an Olympic presence was prevalent in Ottawa. The ceremonial faceoff saw long-time teammates in Canada’s colors, Marie-Philip Poulin and Brianne Jenner serve as captains for their respective teams. Hugging after the puck drop, it set a tone of sportsmanship and mutual respect.
Between the pipes, Emerance Maschmeyer and Ann-Renee Desbiens added to the Olympic theme, as both were teammates for Canada’s gold medal entry at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. The 7:52 mark of the first period saw Maschmeyer involved in a highly dramatic moment. With Poulin awarded a penalty shot, another historic first, the Ottawa faithful actually booed the legendary forward.
Nearly four minutes later, Ottawa fans were disgruntled again. Former PHF MVP Mikyla Grant-Mentis thought she had the first goal in Ottawa franchise history but was called off. Before the period expired, both teams found the back of the net.
Hayley Scamurra capitalized on a power play opportunity at 16:23 to provide Ottawa with the 1-0 advantage. Former Yale. Bulldogs captain Claire Dalton emerged as the unlikely heroine for Montreal, scoring the franchise’s first goal, achieved in her professional debut, respectively.
The third period saw Ottawa reclaim the lead as Czech superstar Katerina Mrazova pounce oon a rebound, becoming the first European player to score in the league. Coincidentally, she was also the first European to win the Clarkson Cup. Mrazova was one of four members of the Czech national team skating in Ottawa. Calling Aneta Tejralova a teammate, the Montreal roster featured Dominika Lásková and Tereza Vanišová.
Certainly, Ottawa’s roster consists of a strong international component. In addition to Mrazova and Tejralova, German goaltender Sandra Abstreiter serves as the backup to Maschmeyer. In addition, Akane Shiga, a member of Japan’s roster at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games enjoyed her debut in the North American ranks. Of significance, Japanese ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi made an admirable show of support, in attendance for the event, along with U.S. ambassador David Cohen.
With third generation star Laura Stacey tying the game, overtime added to the emotion of such an historic game, brought a dramatic element to the unfolding theme of history in such a meaningful week. Just 64 seconds into the extra frame, a very familiar face to Montreal hockey fans recorded the league’s first overtime goal.
One of the most decorated women’s stars of the 2010s, a jubilant Ann-Sophie Bettez added to her exceptional legacy with the overtime winner, allowing Montreal bragging rights as Desbiens made 26 saves in the win. Among a very rare group to have played for three different professional clubs in Montreal, highlighted by the Stars/Canadiennes, enjoying a scoring championship and the Clarkson Cup, Bettez also starred for the expansion Force last season in the PHF. Along with this season’s entry in the PWHL, Bettez is one of the city’s beacons for women’s ice hockey.
January 3 saw the first All-American match in PWHL play as Boston, decked out in green jerseys, hosted Minnesota. With over 4000 fans in attendance at Paul Tsongas Memorial Center in Lowell, Massachusetts, recently retired Bruins great Patrice Bergeron took to center ice for the ceremonial faceoff. With captains Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne-Schofield all smiles, both were teammates on three US Olympic teams (2014, 2018, 2022).
Living up to her billing as the first pick overall in the 2023 PWHL Draft, Taylor Heise recorded the game’s opening goal, firing the puck over Aerin Frankel’s right shoulder. Said goal not only represented the Minnesota franchise’s first-ever goal, but the first scored on US soil. Before the period expired, Sophia Kunin provided Minnesota with a two-goal advantage.
Skating in her first professional game, Vermont Catamounts all-time great Theresa Schafzahl, spoiled Nicole Hensley’s bid for a shutout, logging Boston’s first goal at the 7:59 mark. Other Boston players making their pro debut included 2023 Patty Kazmaier Award winner Sophie Jaques. In addition to Jaques, the game featured an astounding four other Kazmaier Award winners, including Jamie Lee Rattray (2014), Kendall Coyne Schofield (2016), Loren Gabel (2019) and Aerin Frankel (2021).
Also making her professional debut, Grace Zumwinkle added her name to the scoresheet in the second period, allowing Minnesota to regain their two-goal advantage. As a side note, other Minnesota players making their debut included Brooke Bryant, Natalie Buchbinder and Maggie Flaherty.
Afterwards, more than 25 minutes passed without a goal, Rooney frustrating a high powered Boston offense that outshot Minnesota in every period.
Capitalizing on a power play opportunity with less than three minutes in the third period, alternate captain and former Boston College captain Megan Keller found the back of the net, trimming the Minnesota lead. Although Boston outshot Minnesota by a convincing mark of 13-2 in the third period, Hensley shone brilliantly, denying the home team an opportunity to prevail in their debut while becoming the first goaltender in league play to record more than 30 saves in a game.
Along with Toronto’s Friday night win versus New York, the home team lost the first four games in league history. Yet, the final scores were inconsequential. From the impressive fan turnout, to the media attention, the PWHL passed the test of their opening week with flying colors.
Experiencing an unprecedented level of success, professional women’s ice hockey in North America may finally be able to turn the page on the dysfunction, conflict and financial woes that hampered its growth over the past two decades. While the priority for the PWHL is to keep fans in the seats, with all due respect, the introduction of names and logos will prove critical in growing the fan base while keeping the existing base more engaged. Undeniably, an important first step has already taken place, with relevance and acceptance of the new league just as impressive as the quality of play marking Opening Week as a seminal moment in this year’s sporting calendar.