The National Women’s Hockey League All-Star game is coming to Pittsburgh. The game and the preceding skills competition will be held at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Twp this Saturday and Sunday as the nation’s top professional women’s hockey league showcases its talent.
The two-year-old league doesn’t have a team in Pittsburgh — the closest is 200 miles north in Buffalo, New York. So the Steel City isn’t exactly an obvious location for the game. But the league doesn’t plan on being a four-team circuit for very, having already announced intentions to expand for the 2018-19 season.
So with that in mind, commissioner Dani Rylan sought out an area outside the league’s footprint as a gauge of the level of interest in women’s hockey. Besides Buffalo, the league’s other teams are in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
“It’s been interesting to think about going outside of our markets because a year and a half ago, there were no markets, so it’s kind of the same research that went into picking our original four,” Rylan said. “What does the youth hockey scene look like in the city? Is it close to our existing markers geographical and then is there a facility that will work for our fanbase?”
In Pittsburgh, Rylan found all of those things with a growing youth hockey scene with dedicated girls teams, including the Penguins Elite teams whose home ice the NWHL All-Stars will be playing on. There’s also the facility itself as a draw, which has now hosted two USHL showcases and a US National Sled Hockey team training camp in addition to its regular duties as the home ice of the Penguins Elite teams and the Penguins practice facility.
“We’ve been looking into different markets for quite a bit and we started to put out some feelers,” Rylan said. “It quickly became very obvious that Pittsburgh was not only a great hockey town, but a town that was going to embrace women’s hockey, as well.”
A big part of the hockey scene in Pittsburgh involves the Penguins, who not only have their own team and it’s over-400-game sellout streak, but also host the Three Rivers Classic college hockey tournament annually, they’ve hosted the Frozen Four once and are bidding to host it again, and have also bid to host the IIHF World Junior Championships. PPG Paints Arena also held an exhibition in the run-up to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. It’s clear that the Penguins are trying to be a driving force when it comes to growing the game in Pittsburgh at all levels, so it’s no surprise that they’ve jumped in with both feet in helping the NWHL with this project.
“The Penguins involvement with it was a huge bonus,” Rylan said. “They’ve been all on board in helping us with this All-Star game. Top to bottom, the organization has been incredibly receptive.”
“We’re excited to have the National Women’s Hockey League bring its showcase event to the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex,” Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse said in a press release. “Women’s hockey is growing rapidly both in Pittsburgh and across the world, and this will give our fans the chance to see some of the most talented players in North America and create new role models for aspiring players in the Pittsburgh area.”
There’s an extra connection for the Penguins, as well, as New York Riveters forward Amanda Kessel, sister of Penguins winger Phil Kessel, is one of the two team captains for the All-Star game. The other captain is Buffalo Beauts winger Kelley Steadman, who is an assistant coach with the Robert Morris women’s team during the week and played her collegiate hockey at Mercyhurst. Steadman is joined on her team by fellow Beaut and former Robert Morris goaltender Brianne McLaughlin, giving that squad a pair of Pittsburgh connections.
“I think that Pittsburgh is very excited to see them play in Pittsburgh,” Rylan said.
The skills competition will take place Saturday at 4 p.m. and the All-Star game proper will take place Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are available at NWHL.zone