First NWHL All-Star Game Reaches Primary Goal: Fun
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Fun was the order of the day at the inaugural National Women's Hockey League All-Star Game.
Connecticut Whale defenseman Kaleigh Fratkin pulled on a chicken mask for an on-ice interview, and Whale goalie Jaimie Leonoff skated out for the skills competition with aviator shades under her mask and a policeman's hat on top. Boston Pride forward Emily Field and three teammates celebrated her first-period goal by falling backward in unison, as if hit like pins by a bowling ball.
And during a stoppage, Boston forward Hilary Knight skated across the ice and took a selfie with the crowd.
An entertaining game surrounded all the frivolity Sunday, though at first glance the score might not reflect it. Playing 4-on-4, a team captained by Buffalo Beauts defenseman Emily Pfalzer routed one captained by two-time U.S. Olympian Knight, 9-1.
Team Pfalzer earned four points before the puck even dropped for sweeping the four events in the skills competition -- shooting accuracy, fastest skater, breakaway challenge and hardest shot. Buffalo defenseman and 2014 U.S. Olympian Megan Bozek won the latter, clocking an 88-mph slap shot on the competition's final attempt.
"We definitely talked before the game about giving everybody a good show, but we wanted to play hard and we wanted to win," said Kelley Steadman of Buffalo, the game's MVP who had two goals for Team Pfalzer. "We had a good mix of having a great time but also showing what we could do."
A crowd of about 1,000 turned out at the 1,800-capacity HarborCenter, home of the NWHL's Beauts, across the street from First Niagara Center where the Buffalo Sabres play. League commissioner Dani Rylan said the city's support for the under-18 world championships last January, which drew 13,523 over six days with several sellouts, convinced the first-year professional league to choose the HarborCenter. Ticket prices were modest, $25 in advance and $30 at the door.
"It was around what we were expecting," Rylan said of the attendance.
The NWHL, based in the Northeast with four teams, began play this season as the first women's hockey league in North America to pay players. Salaries range from $10,000 to $25,000 for the season. Eight U.S. national team players jumped from the established Canadian Women's Hockey League, whose players are unpaid, to join the new league. The CWHL held its All-Star Game on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, before a crowd estimated at more than 5,000.
Perhaps inspired by the NHL's 3-on-3 format for its All-Star Game, the NWHL chose 4-on-4 for this game to allow for more creativity and scoring. Mindful of that, and with smaller rosters (12 skaters and two goalies a side), the game was shortened to two 20-minute periods.
"I'm happy it wasn't 3-on-3, because that's a lot of work," Knight said jokingly before the game.
Play proved more spirited than typical NHL All-Star Games, with actual defense and strong two-way efforts.
"We all like to have a good time, but some of us don't know how to turn the competitiveness off," Pfalzer said. "We wanted to give the crowd a good game and show the skill of every player."
Knight, the NWHL's top scorer with 11 goals and 22 points, hit a post early and missed several other good chances. Neither she nor Olympic teammate Kelli Stack, who hit two posts, figured in their team's only goal, scored by Hayley Williams of Buffalo. Knight and Pfalzer both played with GoPros atop their helmets, and neither produced a point.
The star instead was Steadman, a former Mercyhurst University standout and an assistant coach at Robert Morris. Though not one of the game's eight Olympians, Steadman is no stranger to international play, twice winning gold medals with Team USA at the International Ice Hockey Federation world championships.
She opened the scoring with a breakaway goal, sent out by Meghan Duggan. Field made it 6-0 late in the period, banging in an uncleared rebound after Team Knight goalie Leonoff stopped attempts by Connecticut's Shiann Darkangelo and Gigi Marvin of Boston.
Williams scored early in the second period for Team Knight, but Darkangelo, Buffalo's Devin Skeats and Steadman answered for Team Pfalzer within a five-minute, 25-second span late in the second period. Field finished with a goal and three assists, Darkangelo a goal and two assists, and Marvin three assists. Afterward, the players signed autographs at tables in the stands.
"I was having a blast out there with Bree obviously and a couple of other players," said Steadman, referring to Team Knight goalie and Beauts teammate Brianne McLaughlin, who playfully tried putting Steadman in a headlock during a stoppage.
"Everyone was talking between whistles and all that stuff," Steadman said. "I think everybody wanted to have a great time, and we did."