The NHL's best and worst this week: On women's hockey at the All-Star Game

The NHL has invited some of the top women’s hockey players to participate at All-Star Weekend for the third straight year. In a new wrinkle, the league created an event just for the women; the NHL is expected to announce that this year’s All-Star festivities Jan. 24-25 in St. Louis will include a three-on-three women’s scrimmage — potentially pitting USA vs. Canada.

Just like any time the NHL gets involved with women’s hockey, the reaction is going to be mixed. Some people are going to applaud the NHL for using one of its marquee events to help promote the women’s game. By inviting women to lace up their skates in St. Louis and compete, the NHL is sharing access to its audience, its broadcast partner, NBC, and the media there to cover it.

The NHL also is giving women a more expanded role at All-Star Weekend. In 2018, the NHL simply invited a handful of players — including Team USA’s Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Hannah Brandt and Amanda Kessel — to demonstrate drills for the skills competition. It also was out of convenience; the All-Star Game was in Tampa, Florida, and the U.S. women’s national team training camp for the PyeongChang Olympics was nearby. In 2019, the NHL flew four women’s players out to San Jose, California, to demonstrate the drills again, including Americans and Canadians this time. The league took it a step further by having Kendall Coyne Schofield participate in the fastest skater competition, after she did so well in testing, and her blazing performance created a viral moment.

“Obviously I was a little nervous,” Coyne Schofield said afterward. “But I knew it was a moment that was going to break a lot of barriers and a moment that would change the perception of our game.”

Some will accuse the NHL of tokenism. All of the women selected to play are part of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, a group of around 200 players boycotting professional hockey this season, while waiting for a more sustainable pro league. And they recently have called on the NHL to help, perhaps by creating a WNHL and a relationship similar to what the NBA and WNBA have. (At the ESPNW summit in October, John Langel, an attorney from Ballard Spahr who has been advising the PWHPA, said: “For the women’s team league to survive, they need the established identity that hits the ground running and knows how to run the sport. And we’ve not been secretive about it. We think the one viable option is the WNHL. And that’s what we’re moving towards.”)

The NHL, for its part, says it will not create a league as long as a current option exists. And since the NWHL is still functioning — and by some measures, seeing growth this season — the NHL isn’t getting involved. So the NHL is not going to help with what the women really want — a professional league — but they will hand-pick events in which they can include women.

Moreover, the NHL surely will see criticism for not including any NWHL players. The NHL has said it doesn’t want to choose sides between the NWHL and PHWPA, but they are only inviting players from one side to participate. (Counterpoint: The NHL is trying to invite the most talented players. All of the players it invited are Olympians. It isn’t the NHL’s fault that the Olympians aren’t playing in the NWHL).

And one last critique for the NHL: By creating the 3-on-3 tournament this year, it is shying away from what got so much attention last year — women competing alongside the men. Coyne Schofield’s fastest skater lap wasn’t the only big moment. Brianna Decker did so well demonstrating in the passing challenge, fans stormed to social media and demanded that she should in fact collect the $25,000 in NHL prize money, not the men’s players who mostly fumbled through it. Decker appeared to record a time of 1 minute, 6 seconds in the demo, which beat the eight NHL player participants, including winner Leon Draisaitl (1:09) The hashtag #PayDecker soon trended on Twitter. The NHL didn’t relent — and said, in fact, the tape showed that Decker’s time wouldn’t have won — but the equipment manufacturer CCM decided to pay Decker itself (and in turn, generated a ton of positive public relations).

I’ve talked to some of the women’s players (nobody wanted to go on the record, as the NHL has not officially announced this year’s plans). The players are grateful for the opportunity and look forward to collaborating with the NHL. At previous events to which they’ve been invited, they say the NHL has treated them very well and showed great hospitality, as well as inclusivity. The 3-on-3 tournament, I think, is actually even more beneficial for promoting the women’s game, considering we actually get to see them play their game. USA versus Canada in women’s hockey is one of the best rivalries in all of sports — who doesn’t want to see it in a fast-paced three-on-three format? NHL All Star weekend is inherently about entertainment, and is only going to add to the entertainment value, not subtract from it. I’ve also talked to NHL players who are attending All-Star Weekend. They don’t mind sharing the stage with women’s players at all; they see it as a way to grow the game, period. Patrick Kane, for example, says he has always enjoyed chances to talk shop and trade notes with women’s players, and All-Star Weekend is a good opportunity for that.

Here’s my take: Let’s give kudos to the NHL for being open-minded and opening the door for women’s players in the event. But that’s just it, the NHL opened the door. The women’s players should be recognized for walking through that door and proving themselves. And if you are impressed by what you see, don’t wait around for the NHL to do more. Find other ways to support these players and women’s hockey.

Jump ahead:
What we liked this week | What we didn’t like
Three stars of the week | Biggest games coming up

Emptying the notebook

Rumor is there could be a new skill introduced to spice up the All-Star skills competition. Expect an announcement on Wednesday.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly came on the ESPN On Ice podcast this week and said there is “a concern” from the league about players skipping the All-Star Game becoming a trend, especially in light of Alex Ovechkin opting out for the second straight year. I think it was interesting to hear Daly say he was OK with Ovechkin sitting out last year and was “the first to defend” him but that he wasn’t happy about it becoming a regular occurrence. Ovechkin isn’t the only player voluntarily missing the festivities in St. Louis. Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury also declined his invite. It was a tough first half of the season for Fleury, who was away from the team for seven days after his father died. “Don’t get me wrong. I like going; I think it’s a lot of fun,” Fleury said. “I love to hang out with the players there. It’s a huge honor to be a part of it. I’m sorry to the fans I disappointed for not going. I thought about it. Mentally, physically it was just the right thing.”

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