The NHL’s inclusion of Canadian players Rebecca Johnson and Renata Fast and Americans Kendall Coyne Schofield and Brianna Decker alongside the league’s stars made hockey headlines in San Jose, Calif., this past weekend.
Coyne Schofield, the first woman to compete in the skills event, injected heat into the speed event throwing down a fast lap for the men to beat.
A social media campaign demanded Decker be paid winner’s prize money with the argument she was faster demonstrating the passing drill than the men were competing in it.
Johnston, from Sudbury, Ont., held her own demonstrating the tricky puck control drill that gave Vancouver Canucks centre Elias Pettersson trouble.
“Performance sent a message,” former Canadian women’s team captain Cassie Campbell-Pascall told The Canadian Press on Monday. “That to me was what was so powerful.
“What they showed is what we’ve known all along is that they’re skilled, fast, strong and dedicated. For whatever reason, a lot of people were still shocked.
“Where the proof in the pudding will be is if people who were shocked start showing up and watching these women play on a regular basis.”
For the NHL players, Friday’s skills competition may have been a made-for-television event with little on the line other than ego and prize money.
But it was an extraordinary opportunity for women to prove a point about their game similar to Billie Jean King in tennis or Annika Sorenstam in golf, said Campbell-Pascall.
“Do you remember watching Annika Sorenstam when she played against the men and she hit this beautiful drive on the first tee?” she asked.
“If they don’t perform in that moment, it sets us back 20 years. It’s awful to say that, but that’s the reality women’s sports is in.”
“I think we grew our sport this weekend immensely,” said Decker, a teammate of Johnston’s with the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno.
The NHL invited Coyne Schofield into the fastest skater event when Colorado’s Nathan McKinnon pulled out with an injury.
The first skater to go, her lap of 14.346 seconds was faster than Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes (14.526) and just over a second back of winner Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (13.378).
Dallas Stars defenceman Miro Heiskanen fell, but was given a do-over for a time of 13.914.
Johnston watched Coyne Schofield’s lap from the players’ bench and saw eyebrows go up.
“I think she definitely put the pressure on them for sure,” Johnston said.
Even though she demonstrated the puck control drill and didn’t compete in it, Johnston felt the weight of the moment with the television cameras following her and the eyes of the NHL’s top players on her.
“Oh my god, I felt so much pressure,” the three-time Olympian said. “I didn’t want to screw up too badly and make us look bad.
“The most intimidating thing was the best hockey players in the world are there watching you. They’re all one knee on the ice just staring at me.”
The NHL didn’t post an official time for her or Decker, whose demo for the premier passer drill didn’t even make it on television.
But nothing happens in a vacuum in the age of mobile phones. A video and a stated time of one minute six seconds sparked a #PayDecker social medal campaign contending Decker was faster than winner Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers (1:09).
Sportsnet’s Elliot Friedman later reported the NHL had clocked Decker at 1:12 or 1:13, but the digital debate was in full swing at that point.
The spotlight stayed on the women after the skills competition as Adidas announced endorsement deals with the four women, the NHL committed a $25,000 donation per player to a charity of her choice and the hockey equipment company CCM waded in with a $25,000 bonus for Decker.
“Between the three different things that happened this weekend, none of it was expected and it did feel like a huge, huge step for our sport,” Decker said.
Among the immediate ripples created Friday:
— Female hockey is trending in a quiet week in the NHL schedule, and also in a non-Olympic year when the profile of the female game drops.
— Other stars of the women’s game have emerged to join well-known names Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight.
— Coyne Schofield, Decker, Johnston and Fast brought attention to February’s three-game series between Canada and the U.S. starting Feb. 12 in London, Ont., then Toronto on Feb. 14 and Feb. 17 in Detroit.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press