Women’s hockey leagues embrace their small piece of NHL’s Winter Classic

In this file photo, Team Canada goalie Charline Labonte celebrates at the final whistle after women's hockey action against Team USA at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Wednesday, February 12, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. Canada defeated Team USA 3-2. .
In this file photo, Team Canada goalie Charline Labonte celebrates at the final whistle after women's hockey action against Team USA at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Wednesday, February 12, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. Canada defeated Team USA 3-2. . Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

MONTREAL – Women’s hockey has reached another milestone with its inclusion in the NHL’s annual outdoor game, albeit in a limited format.

Les Canadiennes de Montreal of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the Boston Pride of the new National Women’s Hockey League will square off in two 15-minute periods Thursday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. The NHL recently added the exhibition game to the schedule of events surrounding Friday’s Bridgestone Winter Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins.

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The shortened women’s game will be sandwiched between a Canadiens practice and a Habs-Bruins alumni game on the stadium ice Thursday afternoon. No television coverage or live online streaming is planned for the women.

“Of course we want to be on live TV and go everywhere and be seen by everyone, but we can’t ask for too much right away,” Canadiennes goaltender Charline Labonte told The Canadian Press.

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“It’s one of their biggest games of the year and to be included in that package is already is a good first step for the women’s game.”

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Those who have tickets to the alumni game can use them to attend the women’s event. With just three days to promote the women’s outdoor game, the CWHL’s commissioner hopes the word gets out and people arrive early to see it.

“You don’t want it to fail and when I say fail I mean, these wonderful women are going to skate out on the ice, and will the fans be there to see them?” Brenda Andress said. “I just want the fans
to come and see them and appreciate them.”

The seven-year-old CWHL includes the Canadiennes, Brampton Thunder, Toronto Furies, Calgary Inferno and Boston Blades. The U.S.-based NWHL began operations this season with the Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters.

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Access to the NHL’s powerful marketing and social media machine at a marquee event is most important spin-off for women’s hockey, according to NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan.

“Our imprint will be bigger than just the number of butts in seats at Gillette Stadium,” she said. “Even (Monday) on the NHL app, an alert went across everyone’s phone including my own. That
right there is a ton of exposure.”

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“Regardless of the amount of ice time that we’re given, this is still a huge opportunity and one that has already put the NWHL on someone’s map where it might not have been before.”

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The NWHL has promised to pay its players and committed to a salary cap of US$270,000 per team, while the CWHL is not yet in a position to pay player salaries.

The NHL’s senior vice-president of integrated marketing and business affairs insists it wasn’t wrangling between the rival leagues that made for Monday’s late announcement of the game, but working through a myriad of logistics and finding a time slot that fit in the schedule.

“Both leagues have been terrific and worked well with each other and the NHL,” Susan Cohig said. “We’ve been working on this for almost a month now.”

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“The priority for all the parties is could we pull off a game that would really be great for the players? Those are the logistics we’ve had to work through with respect to timing, how long the periods could be and can we get the officials? Because space is so limited a Gillette Stadium, where would they actually have locker room facilities?”

The CWHL and NWHL both have teams in the Boston area, so the NHL could have invited those clubs. But the league wanted a Montreal-Boston women’s game to parallel the Winter Classic.

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Canadian national team players and Olympians Labonte, Marie-Philip Poulin, Caroline Ouellette and Lauriane Rougeau as well as U.S. Olympian Julie Chu all play for Les Canadiennes.

The Pride will be without U.S. Olympians Hilary Knight, Kacey Bellamy, Gigi Marvin and Brianna Decker as they are attending a USA Hockey women’s camp this week.

Labonte, 33, has played hockey outside a lot in her life, but this will be her first outdoor game. The three-time Olympian from Boisbriand, Que., hoped the winter storm that swept across southern
Ontario and Quebec on Tuesday doesn’t follow Les Canadiennes to Boston.

“I’m trying to attach a winter hat to my helmet,” Labonte said. “I’ll talk to other goalies who have done it before and see what the trick is.”