Last weekend, the National Hockey League celebrated its 100th birthday as the professional hockey world descended on Los Angeles for the All-Star Game. But while it’s not as old, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is getting the chance to showcase its top talent right in our own backyard.
The NWHL All-Star weekend takes place Feb. 11 and 12 at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, in Cranberry Township. On Sat., Feb. 11, there will be a skills competition, followed by the game on Sunday.
While the NWHL All-Star festivities won’t have all the pageantry of the NHL — the league is just two seasons old — the league’s best players will be there to show off their skills. Pittsburghers might even recognize a couple of players, including the two team captains, Kelley Steadman and Amanda Kessel.
Steadman is the reigning NWHL All-Star MVP and a two-time gold medalist at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships with Team USA. When she isn’t playing forward for the Buffalo Beauts, Steadman directs hockey operations at Robert Morris University.
Kessel has a couple of connections to Pittsburgh, primarily her brother Phil, a key cog on the Penguins’ 2016 Stanley Cup championship team. Kessel is happy to have his sister and the NWHL in town, and says that bringing the women’s game to Pittsburgh is a nice opportunity for the sport. However, he won’t be here to watch his younger sister captain her team, as the Pens will be in Phoenix.
“It always seems like I’m working,” the elder Kessel jokes when asked about the last time he saw Amanda play. And play she can. A silver medalist with Team USA at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Kessel won a gold medal alongside Steadman in the 2013 IIHF World Championships, and a national championship as a member of the Minnesota Golden Gophers that same year. She’s also received countless individual honors as a collegiate player. Her hockey career was in doubt after she missed two years with lingering concussion symptoms following Sochi. Fortunately, she found relief and recovery right here in Pittsburgh.
Kessel was treated by UPMC’s Dr. Michael Collins, one of the country’s top experts on concussions, and was able to return to the game she loves. Now, after becoming the NWHL’s highest-paid player before this season, she will headline the All-Star Game. The New York Riveters forward can’t wait to showcase the nuances of women’s hockey for the region.
“Fans will get to see how really skilled the girls are up close,” Amanda Kessel says. “Everyone playing in this game has a ton of skill. That’s what’s so great about the women’s game in general — you’re able to see that without all of the hitting.
“We want people to come out and watch and see that for themselves that it’s really an entertaining and a great product.”
Exposure is a challenge for the four-team NWHL. Based in New York, Boston, Buffalo and Hartford, the league lacks backing from corresponding NHL franchises, as the WNBA did in its formative years from the NBA. Twenty years later, women are still getting paid to play basketball. Kessel isn’t sure her league will have the same longevity.
“I wish I could say that I was sure,” she says. “I think the hope is that we could be something similar to the WNBA, but we don’t have that same backing at this point.”
The league is a startup, so investors don’t see the league as profitable, but it could be, says Kessel. “Once both leagues [NWHL and Canadian Women’s Hockey League] join and get support from the NHL, that’s when it can really take off,” she says.
Pittsburgh is a prime market for a women’s hockey exhibition. The Penguins ardently support youth hockey for girls through the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Amateur Hockey organization. Since 2005, the girls’ game has flourished in Western Pennsylvania, with registered participation increasing 82 percent.
“Our goal has been to grow our footprint outside of our markets so the elite athletes of the NWHL can demonstrate their amazing talents before new crowds,” commissioner Dani Rylan said in a press release announcing the game in December. “Since we started the league last year, we have received a lot of support from women’s hockey fans in Pittsburgh, so taking our All-Star Game there was a natural choice and we’re thrilled about it.”
Amanda Kessel says that if she knows anything about Pittsburgh, it’s that the fans sure love their teams. “I think the one thing that I learned is how passionate everyone there is about sports,” she says. “I was able to experience that, and that’s what I’ve loved about it so far.”