ST. LOUIS — It was women first during NHL All-Star weekend at the Enterprise Center.
But Friday wasn’t Kendall Coyne Schofield’s first trip to such festivities.
The U.S. Olympian participated in the All-Star skills competition’s fastest-skater event at last year’s game in San Jose, besting one NHL player by finishing in 14.346 seconds. She returned this year with a few of her friends — and on-ice rivals — for a three-on-three game between some of the best players from the United States and Canada.
Canada won 2-1.
Women’s professional hockey has been without a stable home since the Canadian Women’s Hockey League ceased operations in May because of funding issues, leaving the National Women’s Hockey League as the only option in North America.
Many CWHL players boycotted the NWHL in part because of the league’s sudden salary cuts in 2016. Could the NHL step in, similar to the NBA and WNBA, and provide financial assistance for a more stable professional women’s league?
SKILLS COMPETITION: The good, bad from Friday’s events in St. Louis
“It’s a step in the right direction that the NHL is supporting women’s hockey and they’re helping us get the exposure we need,” said Rebecca Johnston, second overall pick in the 2012 CWHL draft and a three-time Olympian who scored for Canada on Friday night. “I think the partnership is there. It’s not something you can build overnight. So for us, it’s just being patient, trying to continue to grow the game, getting as much exposure as we can and keep working at that.”
The three-on-three women’s matchup took place during Friday’s skills competition and offered what Coyne Schofield, Brianna Decker, Marie-Philip Poulin and Johnston described as much-needed attention for the women’s game.
Both women’s teams donned sweaters with the NHL logo on the front and joined the NHL All-Stars on the ice during team introductions.
Poulin and the USA goal scorer Hilary Knight also took part in the shooting stars competition Friday.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on SportsNet’s “Prime Time Sports” last April that he didn’t think the league had “a responsibility to fund the business of other leagues” and that the current model for women’s professional hockey wasn’t “sustainable in the long term.”
Still, he said the NHL is happy to help showcase some of the best women’s players in the world.
“I’m thrilled we have an opportunity for the women’s game to be demonstrated the way it will tonight,” Bettman said Friday. “They’re excited to be here and we’re excited to have them. The fact we can shine, using our light, a brighter light on the women’s game is a positive for them, for the game and for young girls watching and aspiring to the same thing.”
Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky gave the women’s teams a shoutout before the skills competition began.
“You’re going to see 20 great women’s hockey players,” Gretzky said.
Twenty women who are eager for their game to be showcased and grateful the NHL provided the stage.
“When you watch the women’s game, there’s perceptions maybe it’s slower, not as physical,” Coyne Schofield said. “(That we’re) not as talented, not as big. We’ve heard it all our whole life. But I would say we’re equally as entertaining.”
Paul Skrbina covers the Nashville Predators and the NHL for The Tennessean. Reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PaulSkrbina.