If we see a gaggle of elite hockey players come out of the Pacific Northwest in eight to 10 years’ time, astute observers may point back to this weekend as the launch point for that trend.
When it comes to growing the game of hockey and leaving a long-lasting impact, especially on the women’s side, Sunday’s Canada-U.S. Rivalry Series event at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle couldn’t have gone much better.
First, Team USA’s Hilary Knight was honored before the opening puck drop. She was playing her first national team game on American soil since becoming the highest-scoring player in women’s World Championship history in Denmark this summer, where she passed Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser with her 87th career point.
Congratulated on the ice by USA Hockey officials as well as her parents and brother, Knight was presented with a gold stick to mark her achievement.
“I think that’s the most nerve-wracking stuff, all the off-ice things,” said the 33-year-old, whose trophy case includes eight World Championship gold medals along with a gold from the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“The on-ice stuff is sort of easy when you get to go out there and play with your team and you know someone’s got your back,” she said.
She did make the on-ice stuff look easy on Sunday, picking up two goals and an assist in Team USA’s 4-2 win over Canada.
Knight drew the second assist on Savannah Harmon’s icebreaking goal, which came just 40 seconds into the first period. At 5:44 of the second period, she beat Canada’s Ann-Renee Desbiens on a breakaway during 4-on-4 action for what proved to be the game-winner, then added an insurance tally on the power play in the third.
The win improved Team USA to 3-0 in the 2022-23 Rivalry Series, following a 4-3 shootout win in Kelowna, B.C. last Tuesday and a 2-1 victory in Kamloops, B.C. on Thursday.
It’s the first time the U.S. women have won three games in a row against Canada since 2019, and it came in front of a record-setting crowd of 14,551 fans at Climate Pledge Arena. It was the most fans ever to watch the U.S. women’s national team play live on American soil. The old record of 13,320 was set at Honda Center in Anaheim in the final game of the last Rivalry Series, on Feb. 8, 2020.
“What an exciting game,” said U.S. coach John Wroblewski. “I thought that Canada really brought it. They didn’t want to see three games in the loss column. But our crowd — right there, the whole time. It felt great to be American today, and I think that there’s going to be a lot of young girls in Seattle that want to be Hilary Knight or Kendall Coyne after that game.”
Making her second start of the series, U.S. goaltender Nicole Hensley turned aside 22 Canadian shots to secure the win. After the game, the 28-year-old recalled the moment when women’s hockey became a tangible reality for her as a young girl, more than two decades ago.
“In 2002, right before the Salt Lake Olympics, Team USA came to Colorado, where I’m from, and played Team China,” she said. “I remember getting autographs after the game — I still have that flag, it’s got Cammi (Granato)’s autograph on it.
“That was the first time I’d ever seen women playing. I played in an association where I was the only girl, growing up. Immediately, I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ We know how powerful that is, because we lived it as kids. So we’re happy to have the opportunity to give back.”
During their three-day mini-camp in Seattle before heading north and after their return on Friday, the U.S. players packed their days with appearances and engagements, even including a post-game autograph session at Climate Pledge Arena just like the one that made such a big impression on seven-year-old Hensley.
“We spent a lot of time with the girls in clinics this weekend, doing a lot of community outreach,” Hensley said. “We’re obviously excited to just be able to be here and be the role models for those young girls, and boys as well. I’ve never had so many people at our practices, so that was pretty exciting. Hopefully, it was a really inspiring week for all of them. Can’t wait to see the hockey players that come out of this area.”
The games in Kelowna and Kamloops were played in smaller markets, in junior hockey arenas. They also drew well, but every successful alliance with an NHL team in an NHL venue teases the possibility that a sustainable women’s pro league could succeed within a similar structure.
“I think it’s a great test event, right?” Knight said. “I think you demonstrate that if the women at the elite level are coming to play in your city, people are going to show up. We saw that tonight.”
As the two sides build toward the games that matter at next spring’s World Championship, they’ll get another chance to test that concept next month. The Rivalry Series resumes on Dec. 15 at The Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nev., the nine-month-old, 5,567-seat home of the AHL’s Henderson Silver Knights. Four days later, the puck will drop for Game 5 at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles with a chance to set another attendance record.
“Phenomenal opportunity,” said Knight. “Not much lead time to sell that, so that’s the only drawback that would maybe have a hand in it. But we had a phenomenal crowd turnout in Anaheim years ago. We’re looking forward to the same support, and the L.A. Kings are going to have a huge hand in that.
“We’re really excited to get to L.A.”