Top female hockey players renew their Olympic journey

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When the U.S. women’s hockey team won Olympic gold for the first time in 20 years in 2018, star striker Hilary Knight believed that this moment would be a stepping stone to better visibility for the sport and for more players to make a living playing professional hockey .

“It’s easier to have conversation when you win,” Knight said. “I think the future in the US is extremely bright for the sport. By winning, we can further reduce the obstacles we have faced for many years. “

These barriers included the inability to make a living wage in professional leagues and the struggle to have one with Team USA or get the kind of support elite athletes need. And while the U.S. women’s team ranks first in the world, taking home a fifth consecutive gold medal at the World Cup in 2019, the challenges persisted, both internationally and professionally.

In May 2019, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League ceased operations after 12 years. Half a year later, an international tournament in 2019 was canceled by the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation due to a dispute with its players over issues such as wages.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the 2020 World Cup to be canceled. The only international competition in the 2019-20 season was a five-game series between Canada and the United States.

Since then, players have got creative to keep training. After more than a year of individual and small group training, video training sessions as well as skates and scrimmages, in which men often took part, Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield and 32 other top players were finally on the ice last weekend for their first competitive games against women contested since February 2020. It was an important step for a group that wanted to strengthen their professional career and play games before professional 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 formed after the fall of the Canadian league. The association, made up of several top players from the US, Canada and Europe, hopes to give a voice to players who want a professional North American women’s hockey league that pays a living wage and supports the athletes. Some used to play in the National Women’s Hockey League, which is already in its sixth year.

In 2019-20, the first Dream Gap Tour landed in six cities for games and on-ice clinics. A planned trip to Japan in February 2020 has been canceled due to concerns about the coronavirus.

In the 2020-21 season, the PWHPA received new sponsorships. However, health and safety concerns prevented the club from hosting a touring event until recently.

Abby Roque, a 23-year-old who was playing in her first professional game, had four points at a New Jersey ice rink last Saturday before Brianna Decker had her own four-point game the next day at Madison Square Garden.

This weekend, the same two teams representing training centers in Minnesota and New Hampshire will compete again this weekend in Chicago. Saturday’s game at the United Center, which is slated to air on NBC Sports, will have an all-female announcement team.

Updated

March 5, 2021, 2:50 p.m. ET

Amanda Kessel, Decker’s teammate, said players would have to shake off rust during the event. Some of the athletes had played and trained against male players, including a two-week event in Florida against college-age men.

“It felt so good to be back,” said goalkeeper Alex Cavallini. “It’s been over a year since I’ve played an entire women’s game.”

More Dream Gap Tour events are expected, but planning has been a challenge.

In Canada, the association operates training centers in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. And like the Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced a partnership in early February. So far, however, health restrictions have prevented an event from being organized in Canada.

“We can’t go beyond limits this year,” said Jayna Hefford, the retired four-time Canadian gold medalist who is now the association’s operations advisor.

Hefford didn’t rule out the possibility of a cross-border event later this year.

“It was pretty easy to get up this weekend because we waited a long time to play a hockey game,” said Coyne Schofield on Sunday. “And I don’t want to forget that we have 75 players in Canada who couldn’t be here this weekend. I know with them that it would have been even bigger. “

Hefford said after the Rangers, Blackhawks and Maple Leafs joined the federation, other NHL teams also showed interest in hosting games, but the uncertain timing of the 2021 World Cup affected planning decisions.

The event was originally scheduled for April in Nova Scotia. The International Ice Hockey Federation announced on Thursday that it would be postponed to May.

After Nova Scotia health officials tightened their province’s Covid-19 restrictions last week, Hockey Canada had to change its 35-player camp, which runs through Sunday. No more than 25 participants may be on the ice at the same time. The camp is only the second time the Canadian players have been on the ice together this year.

Players are preparing for both the World Cup and the 2022 Beijing Games, which are now less than a year away. For the next 11 months, athletes and their governing bodies will need a training plan.

“It’s definitely approaching a lot faster than you think,” Knight said. “When you’ve been away for four years, you’ll have a little more runway to take off. Now it’s almost like you’re at the end of the runway. You can fly.

For Coyne Schofield, this preparation means balancing hockey training with other commitments – as an NHL analyst for NBC Sports and as a player development coach and youth hockey growth specialist for the Blackhawks.

“It wasn’t a challenge,” she said, “because I have the respect and blessings of the Chicago Blackhawks and NBC Sports to make sure I train and fully prepare to be the best hockey player.” I can be.

“It’s a balance,” she continued. “But for me, whatever I’m doing right now, I’m 110 percent all-in.”

It has been taking a long time, but now, with tentative dates for the World Cup and the potential for more Dream Gap Tour showcase games, PWHPA athletes are finally getting the opportunity they have been looking for – to get their sport noticed and competitive Playing games that will help prepare you for 2022.

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