With the world championship just two months away, a pro tour will play its second event of the year this weekend through a partnership with the Blackhawks.
When the United States women’s hockey team won Olympic gold for the first time in 20 years in 2018, the star forward Hilary Knight believed the moment would be a steppingstone to greater visibility for the sport and for more players to have the opportunity to earn a living playing professional hockey.
“It’s easier to have conversations when you’re winning,” Knight said. “I think the future in the U.S. is extremely bright for the sport. By winning, it helps us continue to break down the barriers that we faced for many years.”
Those barriers have included an inability to earn a living wage in professional leagues and a fight to have one with Team U.S.A., or to receive the type of support that elite-level athletes need. And while the U.S. women’s team is ranked first in the world and took home a fifth consecutive world championship gold medal in 2019, the challenges have persisted at both the international and professional levels.
In May 2019, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League ceased operations after 12 years. Six months later, an 2019 international tournament was canceled by the host Swedish Ice Hockey Association amid a dispute with its players over issues including wages.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the cancellation of the 2020 world championship. The only international competition in the 2019-20 season was a five-game series between Canada and the United States.
Since then, female players have gotten creative to keep training. After more than a year of individual and small group workouts, video training sessions, and skates and scrimmages that often included men, Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield and 32 other top players finally hit the ice last weekend for their first competitive games against women since February 2020. It was an important step for a group looking to bolster its professional circuit and play games before upcoming international competitions.
The two-day showcase was part of the 2021 Dream Gap Tour organized by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, an organization that was formed after the demise of the Canadian league. Made up of several top players from the United States, Canada and Europe, the association hopes to give a voice to players who want a professional North American women’s hockey league that pays a living wage and provides support to the athletes. Some formerly played in the National Women’s Hockey League, which is in its sixth year.
In 2019-20, the first Dream Gap Tour touched down in six cities for games and on-ice clinics. A planned trip to Japan in February 2020 was canceled because of coronavirus concerns.
The 2020-21 season saw the P.W.H.P. A. receive new sponsorships. But health and safety concerns prevented the association from staging a tour event until recently.
Abby Roque, a 23-year-old playing in her first pro game, had four points last Saturday at a rink in New Jersey before Brianna Decker had her own four-point game the next day at Madison Square Garden.
This weekend, the same two teams, representing training hubs based in Minnesota and New Hampshire, will face off again this weekend in Chicago. Saturday’s game at the United Center, scheduled to be broadcast on NBC Sports, will feature an all-female announcing team.
Amanda Kessel, Decker’s teammate, said the players had to shake off rust during the event. Some of the athletes had been playing and practicing against male players, including at a two-week event in Florida against college-aged men.
“It felt so good to be back,” goaltender Alex Cavallini said. “It’s been over a year since I’ve played a full women’s game.”
Additional Dream Gap Tour events are expected, but scheduling has been a challenge.
In Canada, the association is running training hubs in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. And like the Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced a partnership in early February. But so far, health restrictions have prevented the organization of an event in Canada.
“This year, we aren’t able to cross borders,” Jayna Hefford, the retired four-time Canadian gold medalist who is now the association’s operations consultant, said.
Hefford did not rule out the possibility of a cross-border event happening later this year.
“It was pretty easy to get up for this weekend because we’ve been waiting a long time to play a hockey game,” Coyne Schofield said on Sunday. “And I don’t want to forget that we do have 75 players in Canada that couldn’t be here this weekend. I know with them, this would have been even bigger.”
Hefford said after the Rangers, Blackhawks and Maple Leafs got on board with the association, other N.H.L. teams also expressed interest in hosting games, but the uncertain timing of the 2021 world championship impacted scheduling decisions.
The event was originally scheduled for April in Nova Scotia. On Thursday, the International Ice Hockey Federation announced that it would be pushed back to May.
After the Nova Scotia health authorities increased their province’s Covid-19 restrictions last week, Hockey Canada had to alter its 35-player camp running through Sunday. No more than 25 participants will be allowed on the ice at a time. The camp is only the second time the Canadian players have been on the ice together this year.
The players are preparing for both the world championship and the 2022 Games in Beijing, which are now less than a year away. Over the next 11 months, athletes and their governing bodies need a training plan.
“It definitely approaches a lot faster than you think,” Knight said. “When you’re four years out, you have a little bit more runway to take off. Now, it’s almost like you’re at the end of the runway. You get to fly.
For Coyne Schofield, that preparation means balancing hockey training with other commitments — working as an N.H.L. analyst for NBC Sports, and as a player development coach and youth hockey growth specialist with the Blackhawks.
“It hasn’t been challenging,” she said, “because I have the respect and I have the blessing of the Chicago Blackhawks and NBC Sports to make sure I’m training and I’m preparing full time to be the best hockey player I can be.
“It’s a balance,” she continued. “But for me, whatever I’m doing in that moment, I’m 110 percent all in.”
It’s been a long wait, but now with tentative dates for the world championship and the potential for more Dream Gap Tour showcase games, the P.W.H.P.A. athletes are finally getting the opportunity they’ve sought — to draw attention to their sport and play competitive games that will help prepare them for 2022.