After twenty-seven minutes over two periods of play, the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League and Les Canadiennes of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League concluded the first Women’s Winter Classic with a 1-1 tie at Gillette Stadium on Thursday afternoon. The stands were nearly empty at the game’s 2:00PM start, but attendees for the alumni game began to trickle in and fill the stands while the players were on the ice. The game play was fast and chippy, with frequent turnover and without stoppage. Despite a sobering pause to remove fallen Pride player Denna Laing that ran out the clock on the first period and truncated the second, the game felt over almost as soon as it began. NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan described the game as “an unbelievable milestone for women’s hockey to have the opportunity to be on such a grand stage”; CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress called it a “showcase.” As an exhibition game, the Women’s Winter Classic left me wanting more. As the start of negotiations between the two leagues? For both the teams and the leagues involved, that’s a very promising opening.
While the Montreal-Boston animosity on which both cities thrive is the heart of the men’s game today, it followed neither NWHL nor CWHL players off the ice. “All these ladies have played with or against one another, whether it’s the Olympics, college—players on both teams from [Boston University], from Harvard, [Boston College], Wisconsin,” said Pride coach Bobby Jay. “They’ve all played each other.” Les Canadiennes’ Marie-Philip Poulin, who graduated from BU this spring, enjoyed playing against her Terriers teammates Shannon Doyle and Kaleigh Fratkin, both on loan to the Pride from the Connecticut Whale. Several members of the Boston Pride’s roster are former players for the CWHL’s Boston Blades, including Blake Bolden, who scored the Pride’s lone goal today and led the Blades to the Clarkson Cup in March of this year. (Les Canadiennes, then the Montreal Stars, lost to the Blades in the Clarkson Cup final.) “I was just really excited to get a chance to play against them again,” said Bolden.
For the players, an outdoor game is a callback to childhood, to the origin of what drew them to play hockey. Kelly Cooke spoke eloquently of her childhood rink at Philips Academy on Boston.com yesterday. Poulin, who took home Olympic gold from Sochi and Vancouver, said that compared to international play, the outdoor game was “a little more exciting.” “I didn’t get enough. It was so amazing, I could do this for the rest of my life,” said Bolden. Her Pride teammate Marissa Gedman agreed, “I really didn’t want to get off the ice.” Prior to the game, a member of the press questioned Rylan about the outdoor game’s impact for upcoming players like Gedman, as opposed to a veteran like Les Canadiennes’ Chu. “I wouldn’t even discount how Julie Chu and the players who’ve played on the Olympic stage feel, too, because the Olympics happen once every four years, and that was the whole point of starting this league, providing a stage and platform for them to shine between Olympic years,” said Rylan. “This is just another one of those platforms, and fortunately it’s 2015-16, so a non-Winter-Olympic year. So I think that it’s going to be huge for the Julie Chus of the world and also the Marissa Gedmans. They’re all on cloud nine.”
Another person on cloud nine was Cassie Campbell, the Vice-Chair of the CWHL board, who spoke to her own league’s focus on that same Olympic gap. “How do we bottle that Olympic movement in the other three years? How do we get that excitement?” Campbell said. “We do that with parity. You watch our leagues play—
you can’t bottle the Canada-US emotion, but you can bottle the caliber of play. We’ve got that now in our leagues, and it’s come a long way.” That caliber of play was evident out on the ice today, for all twenty-seven minutes the players got to shine.
Let’s talk about those twenty-seven minutes. Originally, the Women’s Winter Classic was intended to be two fifteen-minute periods with no stoppage of play, starting at 2:00pm and wrapping up well before the commencement of the Alumni Game at 3:30pm. According to Andress, that time was deliberately chosen to draw the attention of people as they came in to find their seats for the alumni game. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to draw the fans in for the women’s game, but people are going to come in early to see the alumni game, therefore coming in early for the alumni game, they get the opportunity to see the women’s game and go, ‘Oh, what’s that?'” she said. “Too early, you get no fans.” Ice quality was also a concern.
That same concern arose when Boston Pride forward Denna Laing fell on the ice behind Les Canadiennes’ net and didn’t get up. Play stopped while the clock on the first period ran out. Ultimately, Laing was removed from the ice on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she remains overnight with her family. While speculation that ice quality was the culprit began immediately—apparently some of the mens’ players had complained earlier in the day during practice—ultimately the answer given by Coach Jay was that Laing had stepped on a dropped stick and lost her footing. The clock for the second period was shortened from 15:00 to 12:00, but play resumed as soon as the ice was cleared. Kim Deschenes of Les Canadiennes had scored the first goal just a minute before Laing went down; Bolden tied it up for the Pride with just minutes to go in the period. The clock ran out, and that was it: the first Women’s Winter Classic was done.
The Women’s Winter Classic wasn’t shown on television or streamed, although it was watched by some via Periscope; it’s hard to judge just how many people it reached. Ultimately, its impact is likely to be greater backstage. Three NHL teams already partner with their CWHL counterparts; this is the NWHL’s first official connection to the men’s league. The NWHL and CWHL worked together to pull off this event. Additionally, despite the very short notice that prevented the attendance of many people who provide regular coverage of women’s hockey, there was a broad range of media in attendance at the Women’s Winter Classic. Many had questions about collaboration between the two leagues or a possible merger, which were met by polite demurrals by all parties.
For the CWHL and NWHL, the Winter Classic isn’t a merger, or a marriage, and maybe not even a true meeting of the minds. “It’s a first step,” as Rylan said. The three-month lead-up to the Women’s Winter Classic was frantic and fraught, as Patrick Burke related earlier this week in conversation with Jen Neale of Puck Daddy. Planning an event on a scale like this requires immense amount of logistical footwork, which is ambitious even before taking into account that two leagues with a short yet contentious relationship have to coordinate and cooperate. Yet, cooperate they did, negotiating teams, rosters, and the myriad of compromises necessary to get the game underway for New Year’s Eve. Andress and Rylan even posed for a photo together in front of the Women’s Winter Classic step and repeat. Did they seem particularly comfortable with each other? Well… that’s hard to say. Lines of communication, however, are open.
And, for now, the score between the two leagues is a tie.