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NHL All-Star Skills Competition a breakthrough for Renata Fast

Carrying on the trailblazing path of legendary Canadian blueliners such as Geraldine Heaney, Therese Brisson, Cheryl Pounder, Becky Kellar, Carla McLeod and Meaghan Mikkelson, the highly talented Renata Fast represents the new generation of defensive wizards with the Maple Leaf adorned on their jersey. Building on a lasting legacy, Fast, who boasts over 40 combined appearances with Canada’s national team at the U22-Developmental and Senior levels, earned her first international gold at the 2015 Nations Cup.

Enjoying a budding professional hockey sojourn, Fast is currently among the core players of a Furies roster looking to propel the club back into the Clarkson Cup conversation. With an already polished career that includes an NCAA Frozen Four championship, plus a podium finish at the 2018 Winter Games, the month of January 2019 may have represented the most cherished time for Fast.

Part of a gregarious group of female hockey heroines that graced NHL ice on two separate occasions within a week’s span, it also complemented another major league experience. Back on March 30, 2018, Laura Fortino, Sarah Nurse, Natalie Spooner and Laura Stacey, all players raised in the Greater Toronto Area who skated for Canada at the Games, joined Fast. Guests of the Toronto Blue Jays, they gathered near the pitcher’s mound at Rogers Centre for a pregame first pitch ceremony prior to the Jays taking the mound against the visiting New York Yankees.

Raised in Burlington, the 24-year-old Fast has already become a local legend, simultaneously emerging as one of the game’s most likeable players. Gaining the opportunity to participate in the fourth CWHL All-Star Game at Scotiabank Arena, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the second All-Star appearance of her career, Fast already holds a unique connection to the fabled franchise. Tom Fergus, who played for the club from 1985-91 (serving as an alternate captain for multiple seasons), and also participated in numerous Hockey Helps the Homeless events, served as one of Fast’s coaches in minor hockey.

In addition, Fast’s return to the lore of the All-Star Game also involved a local element, subsequently resulting in a very heartfelt element. Along with fellow All-Star (and Furies defense partner) Mellissa Channell, the two returned to their roots, simultaneously resulting in reflection and stimulation, past and present in a fascinating grip with the hope of auspicious prospects.

Mainway Arena, site of where both starred for the PWHL’s Burlington Jr. Barracudas, saw Fast record 84 appearances for the club, including playoffs. Speaking to a group of young female players, the chance for them to access two of the Furies’ brightest stars also involved the allocation of Adidas Gift Bags plus tickets to the All-Star Game itself. Such graciousness allowed this tremendous defensive duo a proud opportunity to give back to the community that fostered their love of hockey. Certainly, the reciprocation of such admiration saw the elated youngsters in the stands gained the chance to see their heroines grace NHL ice, augmenting their own ambitions.

Skating for Team Purple, Fast was among nine women on the roster that had competed in women’s ice hockey at the 2018 Winter Games. Adding sheen to her All-Star experience was the fact Channell also donned the Purple apparel, partaking in the chance to be defensive partners for one period of play. While such distinguished company supplied Fast with an opportunity to reunite with seven other competitors from the Canadian contingent, there was also a unique situation. Standing between the pipes for Purple was American-born goaltender Alex Rigsby, marking the first time in Fast’s career that they called each other teammates.

Such an encounter would serve to foreshadow Fast’s second experience on NHL ice. Part of another celebrated gathering of players, fellow CWHL All-Stars Brianna Decker and Rebecca Johnston, both forwards with the Calgary Inferno joined her. Along with the likes of Kendall Coyne, who calls the Minnesota Whitecaps of the NWHL her team, Fast would share the ice with them at San Jose’s SAP Centre for the NHL All-Star Skills competition.

As a side note, Coyne would also grace the frozen perimeter of NHL ice for a second time following San Jose. Of note, she would participate in an All-Star event featuring women competing in the NWHL. Hosted at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, home of the 2017 Western Conference champion Nashville Predators, Coyne was part of a historic event that saw the event draw 6,120 fans, a record attendance for a US professional women’s ice hockey game, adding to the already rapid momentum that the game has benefitted from.

With unprecedented opportunities in place for women to compete on NHL ice, whether it be All-Star Games, Clarkson Cup championships, or IIHF championships, to achieve such a feat twice in a month, in two different events no less, currently represents one of the rarest of feats in the female game.

“Being invited to San Jose for the NHL All-Star Skills was unexpected. I was surprised and honored when I got the phone call but immediately agreed, as I knew this was an amazing opportunity. Once I got off the phone, I began thinking and started to feel nervous imagining myself performing a skill in front of the best players in the NHL. The next couple of days I could not get it off my mind that I was asked to join the NHL down in San Jose to help promote the women’s game at the All-Star weekend. All in all, I knew this was going to spark positive attention towards women’s hockey and women in sport altogether.”

Although the Canadian and American women may be rivals for international play, domestically, they both share the same goal of growing the game, a captivating collaboration. With Decker hailing from Wisconsin, while Coyne was raised in the state of Illinois, it allowed Fast an opportunity to feel a sense of unity alongside these traditional American rivals, shedding rivalry aside in favor of friendship.

The level of participation among these four fantastic skaters marked a radical departure from the past involvement of women in hockey at NHL All-Star Weekend. Traditionally, past NHL All-Star weekends saw competitors from both the Canadian and US teams appear as guests at Fan Fest events, engaged in meet and greets with fans, also attending the Skills Competition.

With the likes of Coyne, Decker, Fast and Johnston actually participating at this year’s Skills Competition, this marked a game-changing momentum for the growth of the women’s game. Unifying hockey in a rather unique fashion, while providing a current generation of young female players with a group of empowering role models, duplicating what Manon Rheaume meant to so many girls who took stick in hand during the 1990s.

“Playing in these amazing facilities is special for us but it is also important for the growth of our game. Playing under the lights of these NHL arenas, I think, inspires the next generation. We talk a lot about growing the game and a big part of that starts with inspiring the youth and showing them what is possible.

Seeing the women play in the rink where they normally watch the NHL guys allows young girls to envision themselves more easily playing at a high level and aspire to get there one day. Over the last 25 years, women’s hockey has had tremendous growth and has been gaining recognition. This (past) weekend, the NHL showed their support and I believe it pushed our sport forward in a positive direction.”

Such involvement also helped to modernize the game by a quantum leap in comparing it to other sports and their All-Star events. Past NBA All-Star Skills Competitions featured the 2Ball Competition, featuring both NBA and WNBA players, with Cynthia Cooper of the now defunct Houston Comets and Clyde Drexler of the Houston Rockets as the first champions of the event. In addition, Cooper, a four-time WNBA champion, served as a judge for the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Competition, the signature event of NBA All-Star Weekend. Coincidentally, that event was won by Vince Carter, becoming the first member of the Toronto Raptors (also under the umbrella of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment) to win the event.

Even professional football has made tremendous strides recently, recognizing the growing impact of women in its game. The week leading up to the NFL’s 2017 AFC-NFC Pro Bowl in Orlando involved the Wide World of Sports venue hosting the Women’s World Football Games. In addition, participants from the Games gained invitations to the NFL Careers in Football Forum, geared towards career opportunities for women in the gridiron game.

Fast left her mark on this remarkable time for women in sport, gliding on the frozen surface at SAP Center alongside the aforementioned Coyne, Decker and Johnston, all decked out in their national team jerseys, as a well-deserved round of applause enveloped the surroundings. Such praise was a harbinger of things to come, prologue for a fascinating narrative in which the happenings embodied the essence of parity.

Decker actually gained the fastest time in the Premier Passing Challenge event, spawning a movement on social media with the hashtag #PayDecker. Coyne was involved in the Fastest Skater Competition while Fast demonstrated her abilities in the Accuracy Shooting competition. Fellow Canadian, Johnston landed on the cover of the Calgary Sun, having participated in the Puck Control.

Adding a remarkable relevance to the presence of Fast et al was the fact that the NHL made a very generous announcement, awarding donations of $25,000 to each player’s charity of their choosing. Absorbing the nuances of the event and the chance to be part of such an influential chapter in the female game, forwarding the admirable commendable cause of sporting equality, fostering the feeling of both belonging and acceptance, one destined to stand in perpetuity as one of the most revered hallmarks of Fast’s athletic endeavors.

“The weekend as a whole was exceptional. We were treated so well and really felt the support from the fans, the players and the whole NHL staff. I think my favourite moment was when the four of us women skated on the ice for the NHL Skills Competition in our country’s uniform and as the crowd slowly noticed us, the cheers began to pick up. That was a special moment.

Altogether, Rebecca, Brianna, Kendall and I were honored to represent the women’s game, which is filled with so much talent. We shared a special weekend together, one that none of us will ever forget.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Photo credits:

All images obtained from Twitter and https://www.facebook.com/Renata-Fast-1602185836556508/

References:

https://canadafootballchat.com/lisa-gomes-representing-new-generation-of-canadian-female-football-heroes/

https://cdn.agilitycms.com/hockey-canada/Team-Canada/Women/National/2018-19/downloads/2018-NWT-4NC-Media-Guide.pdf

http://www.espn.com/espnw/voices/article/18566892/voices-nfl-women-careers-football-forum

http://www.espn.com/nba/allstar2014/story/_/page/dunk-2000/oral-history-2000-nba-slam-dunk-contest

https://www.gettyimages.ca/detail/news-photo/natalie-spooner-of-the-canadians-womens-olympic-hockey-team-news-photo/940275598

https://www.nhl.com/news/2019-sap-nhl-all-star-skills-competitors-set/c-304216586

http://www.thecwhl.com/cwhl-announces-second-round-of-all-star-players

https://www.thespec.com/sports-story/9150168-how-burlington-s-renata-fast-ended-up-being-part-of-the-nhl-s-all-star-weekend/

She Got Game: My Personal Odyssey, by Cynthia Cooper, Warner Books Inc., New York, NY, 1999, ISBN 978-0-446-55488-6


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