Existential smiles and young hope were aplenty in the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex as the NWHL All Star Weekend rolled into Pittsburgh. The sophomore league finds its way to the Steel City for the first time with a sold out Sunday crowd in their pocket and a jam packed weekend to showcase the best women’s hockey talent in the world. Fans from all over the northeast donning their favourite team sweaters packed the arena for the two day event.
The two teams were hand picked in early January to determine the players donning the black and gold jerseys the following month. A culmination of fan vote, head coach picks from around the league, and a draft with the two all star captains came together to build the rosters of Team Steadman and Team Kessel. “Picking those teams is nerve-wracking. The NHL, people are voted in and you pick from a pool but with this you straight up have to pick people and they know if you didn’t pick them,” captain Amanda Kessel, sister of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel, said laughingly prior to the start of the skills competition on Saturday.
The all star weekend kicked off Saturday morning as the all stars took to the ice with hopeful young girls eager for the chance to skate with their favourite players. “The kids were awesome this morning,” Boston Pride forward Zoe Hickel resounded. “It’s fun to work with those guys and to get to know some of the local community too.” The sold out clinic brought local girls of all ages on to the ice with their professional counterparts to work on all areas of their game. “Its pretty special for them to have it right here in their hometown where they play their hockey. To be able to see the best hockey players in the world,” Pittsburgh native Brianne Mclaughlin added.
The skills competition is one of the most fun-filled and smile ridden times during the course of the hockey season and the NWHL’s was no exception to the rule. Team Steadman and Team Kessel faced off in a five discipline, head to head competition with the winner taking home yearly bragging rights and the potential for a goal differential to start Sunday’s game. Fastest skater / fastest goalie, shooting accuracy, hardest shot, shootout challenge, and the fan-voted breakaway challenge for the player with the best shootout move given two attempts pitted the players against each other.
Fans yelled and cheered as the two world class teams went back and forth in the various skills tests. The building erupting as Buffalo Beauts player Kelley Steadman, captain to her all star team, edged out Boston Pride and Team Kessel forward Hilary Knight in the shooting accuracy by one tenth of a second. It was no quieter when Pride forward Blake Bolden added a tally for team Steadman in the hardest shot competition, letting go an 87 MPH slap shot that came just shy of Megan Bozek’s mark of 88 MPH the previous year. She imparted some wisdom for slapshot perfection to the younger players, “just use your whole body. My teammates laugh and say I have a really hard shot and I use every ounce of what I have going. That really helps.” Team Kessel would take the victory in the skills competition after a fan vote in the breakaway challenge broke the 2-2 tie. Kessel’s squad started Sunday’s game with a one goal advantage.
Saturday’s crowd returned in full force Sunday with not a single seat to be had in the building. Fans lined the edges of the rink, eager to see the NWHL’s best square off in a 4 on 4, 25 minute halves format with no doubts in their mind about the excitement of the game to follow. Captain Steadman spoke highly of the competitiveness expected in the game, “This year it’ll definitely be a little more cut throat. We’re obviously going to go out and have a ton of fun but both teams want to win this year.”
Team Steadman wasted no time voiding Team Kessel of the one goal advantage. Alex Carpenter connected with Brianna Decker on a back door pass to knot the game up at three a piece only 1 minute and 19 seconds into the contest. The two teams exchanged blows the entire game, never allowing more than a 2 goal lead separate the two. Fans kept the building loud with dueling Kessel and Steadman chants. “I honestly heard more Steady’s I think,” Kessel said with a laugh. “When I’m in a game I tend not to hear the crowd but I did hear the Steady’s.” Steadman weighed in on the atmosphere of the weekend as well. “I heard a couple Kessel’s and I think my dad started the Steady one. The atmosphere was great, the fans have been so awesome the last two days”
The entire contest stayed action packed with regular goals being exchanged throughout the game. Amanda Kessel secured a hattrick late with an empty net goal. Buffalo Beauts favourite and first NWHL transgendered player Harrison Browne netted 2 goals. “Harrison has done really well this year with all of the attention he’s gotten,” Steadman quipped. “It was great to see him get a couple goals and it was just great to have some Beauts out there.” Team Kessel took the victory 11-10 with Hilary Knight padding the game winning goal, finding the top corner with 3:49 left in the affair.
The completion of the 2017 NWHL All Star Weekend left players and fans alike abound with hope. Stuck in the wake of early season financial struggles, a shortened schedule, and uncertainty day to day, the players return to their respectives cities awash in reminders that the game they play will continue to grow despite the hardships they faced in the former part of the season. Fans were given the opportunity to see the fantastic hockey that could potentially be arriving in cities like Pittsburgh in the very near future. And hopeful young girls were shown the opportunities they have to look forward to with a continuing work ethic and immeasurable dedication.
The NWHL returns to action this weekend as the Buffalo Beauts take on the Boston Pride and the Connecticut Whale face off against the New York Riveters. The Boston Pride sit atop the standings, undefeated, with 24 points. The New York Riveters are in a tight race for second with the Buffalo Beauts. The Riveters stand with 15 points and 4 games left in the season. The Buffalo Beauts are just behind in third place with 11 points and 2 games in hand on the Riveters. The Connecticut Whale round out the bottom of the standings with 8 points on the season. The NWHL standings and schedule can be found on the league website: nwhl.zone.