ST. LOUIS — Annie Pankowski got an email from the NHL asking if she’d like to be a part of its All-Star Weekend and jumped at the opportunity.
Then she found out she wouldn’t be alone.
A year after U.S. teammate Kendall Coyne Schofield grabbed the spotlight by becoming the first woman to take part in the fastest skater event, she and Pankowski will be among the 20 women’s hockey players participating in a 3-on-3 game during the NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Friday night. It’s the NHL’s biggest showcase of women’s hockey thus far, though it’s still unclear what it means for the future of the sport.
“Everything we do all the time is to build women’s hockey,” Pankowski said Thursday. “We’re excited to be here and (have this) showcase. It’s going to be great for women’s hockey in general, great for visibility.”
The NHL invited 19 players who are part of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association – and Alex Carpenter, who’s playing in China – in large part because they’re some of the top U.S. and Canadian national team players. But it has also been careful not to choose sides in the ongoing stalemate between the PWHPA and the National Women’s Hockey League, whose members pledged to boycott in an attempt to force a move toward a more sustainable league that pays players enough to make a living.
Players are being paid to be a part of All-Star festivities, and there’s hope that including them in a marquee NHL event advances women’s hockey.
“We’re honored and delighted to have them participating because I believe that our platform shines an even greater light on them,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The U.S. will face Canada in a 20-minute 3-on-3 game, and two players will join NHL counterparts in a new event shooting pucks from the stands at targets on the ice. But after the likes of Hilary Knight, Amanda Kessel and Marie-Philip Poulin leave St. Louis, the challenge continues to map out what women’s hockey will look like in the years and decades ahead.
Some in the women’s hockey community would like the NHL to start its own league, like the NBA did with the WNBA. The NHL has said repeatedly it would not interfere while a league currently exists, and officials say All-Star Weekend isn’t evidence of choosing the PWHPA over the NWHL.
“We want to continue to be at the forefront of positioning and showcasing the best and the brightest women in our sport,” NHL executive vice president Kim Davis said. “Our role is to really be that North Star to ensure that all up and down the hockey spine understands the importance of women and girls in the sport and that when ultimately decisions are made about one, two or however many leagues ultimately happen, that there’s a pipeline of talent, pipeline of girls and women in the sport so that we continue to grow that sport in a successful way.”
At the very least, women’s players see their high-profile role in All-Star Weekend as a sign that the NHL is on their side.
“That platform, I think it’s going to be huge,” Poulin said. “It’s all about women’s hockey. We want to grow it together. We want to grow all of this together.”
That could take some time. The NWHL is in the midst of its fifth season with five teams and none of the 150-plus players in the PWHPA, which is staging exhibitions around North America and attempting to raise awareness about the game.
This is another chance to do that.
“I think we’ve got to keep going,” Pankowski said. “Pick up momentum through this weekend, maybe even make it even bigger, and with this showcase, there may be more people joining in in our movement and having something set in the next couple years.”