The first thing I noticed when I walked into the ACC was all the girls in hockey jerseys milling around. I’ve been to a few CWHL games, and local girls’ teams are usually a fixture in the stands, but based on the names on some of these jerseys, many of these girls had travelled to get here. There were a lot of Leafs jerseys around (can’t be helped, it’s probably a local Toronto bylaw that there must be a certain amount of Leafs jerseys in view at all times), but it was also good to see how many of the men in attendance were wearing women’s team jerseys, whether from the CWHL, youth teams, or Team Canada.
The arena was lightly buzzing, with people selling programs and merchandise, and many of the concession stands open. It clearly wasn’t the ACC operating at its full game-day level, but there was enough happening around us that it was definitely a few levels above what people are used to for CWHL games.
I was there with two friends of mine who’ve been hockey fans for about as long as I have (a couple of years, none of us come from countries where hockey is much of a presence) and my roommate, whose total exposure to hockey prior to this had been the movie Goon and once sitting next to me during a Penguins/Flyers game where I spent two hours yelling at the TV. The first thing I had to do once we found our seats was quickly explain not only the difference between the men’s and women’s games, but the difference between regular-season games and All-Star games. Behind me, a father was carefully explaining the physical features of the rink to his daughter who appeared to be about four years old.
We were in the bottom of the upper bowl, because when it had switched to a ticketed event the entire lower bowl was booked off. I presume that had been block-booked by various groups, or set aside for them to book in future. The lower bowl wasn’t quite full (I’d estimate about three-quarters of the way there) but parts of the GTA still hadn’t been fully cleared from a large snowfall a few days earlier, so I don’t know if those seats had been booked by people who couldn’t make it, or if they were always going to be empty.
The teams were announced in suitably dramatic fashion. Julie Chu was the sixth player to skate out for Team Red, fist-bumping all her teammates before taking her place and sparking a trend for all the players behind her. Team White were already standing on the blue line when they were announced, smiling into the camera as their names were called.
The game was good. It had the fast pace that I love about women’s hockey, and it feels kind of patronising to say that they all looked like they were having fun, but it’s true. Because the game was being broadcast, there were now TV timeouts, and the players all milled around chatting to each other and laughing. In the second period, Sami-Jo Small and Genevieve Lacasse of Team White cleared the creases of both goalies and dumped the ice shavings over Tessa Bonhomme as she was sitting at the Team Red bench. In the stands, they had set up the usual trivia games to keep the crowd entertained, another thing that made this feel more like an event then a regular women’s game sized up to a bigger location. These games were all blatantly fixed in favour of the young girls participating, though some of them still managed to nearly lose. (They also showed Poulin’s winning goal from the 2014 Olympics at one point, which probably wasn’t entirely kind to the several members of Team USA in attendance, though they were all in the locker room at that point.)
I had joked earlier that because it was an exhibition game, Tessa Bonhomme probably wouldn’t try to kill anyone, which turned out to only be marginally true, as at one point she threw her glove at Natalie Spooner to try to prevent a scoring chance — Spooner scored anyway. But in general the game was very much a classic exhibition game. Lots of speed, lots of fancy moments, and by the end, a decent amount of goals. Team White carried a 2-0 lead until near the end, but three goals from Red meant they had to pull their goalie near the end, though Lacasse left her stick, glove, and blocker in the crease to try to prevent an empty netter.
As far as I know, only the in-arena audience got to see the mini skills competition, which took the form of a five-round fastest skater contest, and a shootout that combined elements of the NHL All-Star game’s elimination shootout and breakaway challenge. Some rounds were a straightforward shootout attempt, others featured Hilary Knight abandoning her stick and glove for a tiny stick (a la Corey Perry), another Team White player skating with two sticks, and Natalie Spooner swapping out her helmet for a vintage 80s one. At one point all three Team White goalies were squashed into the net, and Julie Chu skated in to play defense against another Team White player. When Caroline Ouellette had a chance to win it for Team White, two Team Red goalies and half of Team Red’s sticks blocked her way. When it came down to the last two shots, Lacasse went as the last shooter from Team White, and in the end I’m not sure even the commentator knew exactly which team had won.
We waited outside to meet up with another friend who’d been sitting in a different section, but it wasn’t long before we were hustled outside by arena staff who had to turn everything over for that night’s Leafs game, another reminder that right now, women’s hockey is just something that has to squeeze itself in alongside the NHL.
But there was a lot of energy in the arena, a lot of people in the audience who love women’s hockey and want it to be successful, so I’m hoping the All-Star game becomes an annual thing, and the league is able to get more exposure and build on that. I’ll be doing my part by dragging my roommate to as many Furies games as I can manage.