NWHL All-Star captain’s hope for future? Combined league

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By Teresa M. Walker (AP Sports Writer)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — On a day the NWHL wanted to keep the focus on its All-Star celebrations and a record crowd for a professional women’s hockey game in the United States, Lee Stecklein couldn’t help but look beyond to what the future might hold.

It was a vision of one combined league, as opposed to the current reality of splitting the best women in the world between two competing North American leagues: The U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

”We have so much talent, I think it’d be really fun if we got to play each other all the time,” Stecklein said.

The NWHL All-Star game Sunday featured 11 women who competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics, including Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados who captained the winning team. But Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight, who left the NWHL, are among the stars currently playing with the CWHL.

Stecklein and other members of the U.S. team will see Canada’s best starting Tuesday in a three-game ”Rivalry Series” starting in Canada, and ending in a week in Detroit.

Playing each other more often would be much more fun, and likely more profitable. A combined league also is expected to be more attractive to the NHL with Commissioner Gary Bettman making clear the league’s interest.

”It’s somewhere we hope it goes someday, but who knows?” said Stecklein, who recently signed her own endorsement deal with Bauer. ”As long as we continue to grow, giving more women the opportunity to play after college because we want to keep getting better and better. We don’t want to have your careers end at 24, so even having this opportunity is great but definitely want a next level.”

Dani Rylan founded the NWHL in 2015 after splitting off from the CWHL, which is in its 12th season, and has six teams with four in Canada, one in the U.S. and another in China. Rylan told The Associated Press last October that one league was inevitable, but questions about a merger weren’t allowed during the NWHL All-Star weekend.

Then Stecklein was asked how she would like to see the sport grow.

”We know we’re role models to a lot of young girls,” Stecklein said.

The NWHL had 6,120 fans for the game at Bridgestone Arena, the home of the NHL’s Predators. The game followed Nashville’s 5-4 overtime loss to St. Louis with fans allowed to stick around for the women, and the result was a record crowd that was good.

Goalie Katie Burt stopped Gigi Marvin in the shootout for a 3-2 win for Team Szabados over Team Stecklein.

Szabados thanked the fans who stayed to the end.

”You made this a special event for us,” Szabados said.

The NWHL women did their best to make an impression.

Kendall Coyne Schofield skated a lap of 13.9 seconds that was even faster than her 14.3-second time Jan. 26 as part of the NHL All-Star Game’s skills competition, and the All-Star from the Minnesota Whitecaps was the first to point out the NWHL course was a little different.

”To see the impact that it’s had on our sport, the perceptions people have had that have changed, the amount of young people that have picked up the sport of hockey, the impact has been tremendous,” she said. ”I’ll skate 14 seconds in a circle every single day if it’s going to impact this many people and grow the sport like it has.”

It’s the latest step for a sport that has been abuzz for the past year since the United States ended a 20-year drought by winning Olympic gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The NWHL All-Star skills competition featured a sold-out crowd at a local rink. Bauer Hockey teamed with Play Like A Girl, a nonprofit that works to keep girls playing sports past the age of 14, for a summit that included a street hockey clinic before the All-Stars coached young girls through drills on the ice.

Allie LaCombe, a Minnesota native who played at Syracuse and professionally in Austria, now is an associate coach at Nashville Girls Hockey where the numbers have jumped over the past three years. They have three travel teams, including an under-17 team.

LaCombe has seen interest in women’s hockey jump just since Coyne-Schofield’s sizzling lap in San Jose with people asking if their daughters from ages 5 to 14 can play.

”It’s a huge thing, and our girls hopefully can be at that stage some day,” LaCombe said.

Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker

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Rise of women’s hockey gives Szabados chance to keep playing

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Having already blazed a trail in men’s professional hockey, three-time Canadian Olympic team goalie Shannon Szabados will continue her career by finally giving the women’s pro game a try.

Putting aside thoughts of retiring, Szabados cited opportunity and proximity as reasons she signed with the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League.

”Although I’ve never played in the league, or any women’s league, I know what the caliber’s like,” she said Thursday, a day after her signing was announced. ”I’m excited to see where women’s hockey has gone in the last few years and where it’s headed.”

Buffalo was an obvious choice for the 31-year-old because it’s only a three-hour drive from Ohio, where Szabados now lives with her boyfriend.

There was also the opportunity the NWHL provided in paying its players a salary since it was established four years ago. That’s something Szabados never envisioned while growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, where she had no other option but to develop her game in junior and professional male leagues.

Her signing comes four months after Szabados gave up the decisive shootout goal to Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson in the United States’ 3-2 win over Canada in the Winter Olympic gold-medal game in South Korea.

”I knew I was going to be moving back to Ohio after the Olympics, but I didn’t know what the plan was, whether it was to retire, to play, to play for fun,” Szabados said. ”But the longer it was after the Olympics, I kind of missed having skates on. And I was like, ‘I’m not ready to hang them up yet.”’

It’s not lost on her how big of an impact USA’s gold-medal win had in raising the sport’s profile across America.

”It’s been incredible,” Szabados said. ”There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

Szabados becomes one of the highest-profile players – and most notable Canadian – to join the NWHL.

She has an 8-1 career Olympics record, and won gold medals in 2010 and ’14.

Then there are her accomplishments playing against men.

In 2002, Szabados appeared in four exhibition games for the Tri-City Americans in becoming the first female to play in the Western Hockey League. In December 2015, playing for Columbus, Georgia, of the Southern Professional Hockey League, she became the first female to record a shutout in a men’s professional league game. Overall, Szabados went 20-23-6 in 51 SPHL games over four seasons.

North America has two women’s professional leagues. The NWHL was the first to pay its players a salary, and is adding a fifth team in Minnesota this year. The seven-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League has been around for more than a decade, but only recently began regularly paying its players.

Wearing a ring on her middle finger of her left hand and a gold chain around her neck with maple leafs on them, Szabados acknowledged being nervous over what the reaction she might receive in signing with a U.S.-based league.

”By no means was it a choice of one league over the other. It’s just proximity,” she said. ”My phone’s been kind of blowing up with some positive responses.”

Szabados expressed what’s become a long-held desire among women players on both sides of the border for the two leagues to settle their differences and consider merging.

She then laughed off a question about whether there’ll be any bad blood joining a Buffalo team that features several U.S. Olympians, including Emily Pfalzer, Dani Cameranesi and backup goalie Nicole Hensley.

”Maybe when they put that blue, white and red on,” she said. ”But when we’re in the Beauts’ baby blue, no.”

As for her future, Szabados has given no thought to looking ahead to the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

”Oh, that’s a long ways away,” Szabados said. ”I almost said no to the last one because it’s such a long road. I’ve learned to never say never. We’ll see. We’ll take it one year at a time.”

NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts sign Canadian Olympic goalie Szabados

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Three-time Canadian National Olympic team goaltender Shannon Szabados has agreed to sign with the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League Buffalo Beauts.

Szabados won a silver medal and was the Olympic tournament’s top goalie after allowing four goals in three games at the Winter Olympics in February. She has an 8-1 record in the winter games, and also won gold medals in 2010 and ’14.

From Edmonton, Alberta, Szabados also became the first female goalie to record a shutout in a men’s professional league. She did it playing for Columbus, Georgia, of the Southern Professional Hockey League in December 2015.

She had a 20-23-6 record in 51 SPHL games over four seasons.

The five-team NWHL enters its fourth season next fall.

The Beauts became the league’s first franchise to be privately owned after being purchased by NHL Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula last winter.