NWHL star hopes for com­bined league

Two women’s pro hockey leagues com­pete for fans

The Day - - SUMMARY - By TERESA M. WALKER AP Sports Writer

Nashville, Tenn. — On a day the NWHL wanted to keep the fo­cus on its All-Star cel­e­bra­tions and a record crowd for a pro­fes­sional women's hockey game in the United States, Lee Steck­lein couldn't help but look be­yond to what the fu­ture could be.

One com­bined league for women to hone their games and play against the world's best. Not just at world cham­pi­onships or ev­ery four years at the Win­ter Olympics.

"We have so much tal­ent, I think it'd be re­ally fun if we got to play each other all the time," Steck­lein said.

The NWHL All-Star game fea­tured 11 women who com­peted in the 2018 Win­ter Olympics, in­clud­ing Cana­dian goalie Shan­non Sz­aba­dos who cap­tained the win­ning team. But Marie-Philip Poulin and Hi­lary Knight, who left the NWHL, are among the stars cur­rently play­ing with the CWHL.

Steck­lein and other mem­bers of the U.S. team will see Canada's best start­ing Tues­day in a three-game "Ri­valry Series" start­ing in London, On­tario, and end­ing in a week in Detroit. Play­ing each other more of­ten would be much more fun, and likely more prof­itable. A com­bined league also is ex­pected to be more at­trac­tive to the NHL with Com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman mak­ing clear the league's in­ter­est.

"It's some­where we hope it goes some­day, but who knows?" said Steck­lein, who re­cently signed her own en­dorse­ment deal with Bauer. "As long as we con­tinue to grow, giv­ing more women the op­por­tu­nity to play af­ter col­lege be­cause we want to keep get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter. We don't want to have your ca­reers end at 24, so even hav­ing this op­por­tu­nity is great but def­i­nitely want a next level."

Dani Ry­lan founded the NWHL in 2015 af­ter split­ting off from the CWHL, which is in its 12th sea­son, and has six teams with four in Canada, one in the U.S. and another in China. Ry­lan told The As­so­ci­ated Press last Oc­to­ber that one league was in­evitable, but ques­tions about a merger weren't al­lowed dur­ing the NWHL All-Star week­end.

Then Steck­lein was asked how she would like to see the sport grow.

"We know we're role mod­els to a lot of young girls," Steck­lein said.

The NWHL had 6,120 fans for the game at Bridge­stone Arena, the home of the NHL's Preda­tors. The game fol­lowed Nashville's 5-4 over­time loss to St. Louis with fans al­lowed to stick around for the women, and the re­sult was a record crowd that was good.

Goalie Katie Burt stopped Gigi Marvin in the shootout for a 3-2 win for Team Sz­aba­dos over Team Steck­lein.

Sz­aba­dos thanked the fans who stayed to the end.

"You made this a spe­cial event for us," Sz­aba­dos said.

The NWHL women did their best to make an im­pres­sion.

Ken­dall Coyne-Schofield skated a lap of 13.9 sec­onds that was even faster than her 14.3-sec­ond time Jan. 26 as part of the NHL All-Star Game's skills com­pe­ti­tion, and the All-Star from the Min­nesota White­caps was the first to point out the NWHL course was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent.

"To see the im­pact that it's had on our sport, the per­cep­tions people have had that have changed, the amount of young people that have picked up the sport of hockey, the im­pact has been tremen­dous," Coyne-Schofield said. "I'll skate 14 sec­onds in a cir­cle ev­ery sin­gle day if it's go­ing to im­pact this many people and grow the sport like it has."

MARK HUMPHREY/AP PHOTO

Team Steck­lein for­ward Al­lie Thun­strom (9) shoots against Team Sz­aba­dos goalie Shan­non Sz­aba­dos in the NWHL All-Star Game on Sun­day at Nashville, Tenn.

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