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What the PWHL's 1st year means to dozens of trailblazers

Julian Catalfo / theScore

Purple banners hanging from the rafters at PWHL games bear the slogan "Ice Time Earned." In the six-team pro league, contracts and playing time are scarce goods. Talent, tenacity, and toil get rewarded.

The PWHL's emergence in 2024 changed women's hockey. Elite players from around the world united to attract unparalleled financial backing, attention, and fan support. Record crowds filled home venues and select NHL arenas to see Olympic stars, plus a wave of young phenoms, shine on a new stage. Some alumni of the defunct Premier Hockey Federation and Canadian Women's Hockey League played long enough to experience the breakthrough.

In recent weeks, theScore invited dozens of women's hockey figures - players, coaches, team executives, retired legends, broadcasters, agents, and fans - to reflect in writing on the sights and significance of the transformative first season, which produced a Boston-Minnesota championship series. Their responses convey the exhilaration that's swept the sport after decades of sacrifice, false starts, do-overs, heartbreak, and patience.

Generations of builders fought to make the PWHL possible, visible, and powerful. They earned a chance to celebrate the feat.

Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Brigitte Laganiere skates onto the ice before Montreal faced Toronto at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh Justin Berl / Getty Images

What's one thing that struck, surprised, or moved you during the inaugural PWHL season?

Gigi Marvin, PWHL Boston forward: Seeing all the attendance records smashed for women's professional hockey.

Victoria Bach, Toronto forward: Seeing sold-out venues of 19,000, 21,000 people. Seeing all the young girls and boys with signs in the stands.

Kendall Coyne Schofield, Minnesota forward: The amount of dreams that were born.

Becky Kellar, PWHL broadcaster, former Canadian Olympian: At the first game in Ottawa, the fans booed Marie-Philip Poulin. She was no longer the captain of Canada to these fans - she was the captain of Montreal and worthy of booing. My Uber driver went on a rant about how bad Toronto was playing early in the season. I'd never seen that kind of passion and knowledge from someone I met outside the rink.

Natalie Darwitz, Minnesota GM: Our home opener in Minnesota - 13,000-plus fans in the State of Hockey - set the attendance record at the time and set the table for what was to come. It was a special, emotional moment that was about more than just the moment. It was decades of past pioneers and generations paving the way.

Daniele Sauvageau, Montreal GM: I'm struck every time I see that fans don't want to leave after a game. It's like when you have visitors over for dinner and they just won't leave, but in a good way.

Amanda Boulier, Montreal defender: The game at the Bell Centre was like nothing I ever could have imagined. The atmosphere was so electric and I'm so grateful to have experienced that.

The 21,105-person crowd at the Bell Centre set a new attendance record for women's hockey Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images

Erica Howe, Toronto goalie: I played in the CWHL and Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, so I was wary about how the PWHL was going to be received. I remember thinking: What makes this league different from the others? That was blown out the window when tickets went on sale. Immediately, the support from fans, sponsors, and staff was different. There's never been a league like this before.

Brittany Howard, Toronto forward: The immediate sellout of all Toronto home games was truly surprising and a clear testament to the incredible support for women's hockey. The fact that people were immediately reaching out to secure a ticket, with the limited availability, was a remarkable indication of the enthusiasm for the PWHL. A moment that deeply moved me was the roaring cheers of a sellout crowd during the game at Scotiabank Arena.

Rebecca Johnston, former Canadian Olympian: I've always believed in the women's game, but it's incredible to see that so many other people feel the same way. I get goosebumps thinking back to playing in front of a sold-out arena with the Canadian national team. Now, women get to experience that feeling on a regular basis.

Karell Emard, agent, retired player: The confirmation that we'd been right for years in saying that all women's hockey needed was visibility and investment in the promotional part of it. We knew the product we had was the absolute best and that fans, companies, and broadcasters would get on board if they had a chance to see it.

Brant Feldman, agent: 'If you build it, they will come.' - "Field of Dreams." This underrated concept has been seen by the founders of the PWHL, who committed real resources to starting off on the right foot. The PWHL built a connection with their markets by hammering home each team's affiliation with the region or city. This created more attachment to what this product is: the best players with a compelling physical element and rules like the jailbreak and the 3-2-1-0 point structure. They are trying innovative things that they own themselves.

Danielle Goyette, Hall of Fame player: The physicality and how the players are able to adapt to that style is not something we've seen at this level. It's making it really exciting to watch. Also, how the league didn't start with too many teams. Six is a great start and allows opportunity to grow as more players are available for when they want to expand.

Darnell Nurse, NHL player, cousin of Toronto's Sarah Nurse: Sarah Nurse, first and foremost. No bias there. Just how involved she was in not only playing the game, but helping that league come together.

Fans cheer Toronto's Sarah Nurse during warmups Mark Blinch / Getty Images

Howie Draper, New York's first head coach: The fan support was certainly a pleasant surprise. As was the media attention. The two contributed to the other to create a movement that is real.

Pascal Daoust, New York GM: Seeing everyone come together to build something special - to create opportunities, heroes, and a bright future while honoring the past - showcased our ability to be dream builders. On an individual note, there's no denying that the inaugural game, marked by a victory for PWHL New York, will forever be a part of the team's legacy. It was a moment witnessed by the hockey world with awe, emotion, and pride.

Mary-Kay Messier, Bauer Hockey VP of marketing: I was moved by the emotions that came to life on the ice, in the stands, and around the world. It was surreal to see the realization of what so many have worked toward for years, decades, lifetimes. Many players sacrificed prime years of their careers and stood unified through painstaking challenges and uncertainty. When the PWHL launched, it was powerful to see the players who compete fiercely against each other connected by a bond that played out in small moments: hugs at puck drop and postgame, smiles and conversations on faceoffs. The feeling of triumph between them and shared with the fans was palpable.

Marty Walsh, NHLPA executive director, former Boston mayor: Every hockey fan knew these women were talented players. Now they finally have the long-deserved support they worked for years to get. It's been touching to see the support from fans, including NHL players.

PWHL players pose together on the ice before their practice as part of 2024 NHL All-Star Weekend in Toronto Andrea Cardin / National Hockey League / Getty

Crystal Sorem, hockey content creator, former Ohio State player: I love the NHL teams supporting the women's teams. The jersey switches. Attending their games. Bringing the women's teams to games. Having the NHL All-Star festivities include the women's teams.

Spencer Gillis, agent: How the PWHL has encouraged access - in particular, seeing the TV rights shared in Canada by TSN, Sportsnet, and CBC, and the games streamed on YouTube. This was organized in short order, and the result is as great as it can be. It extends into PWHL-led social content about the players. As a result, athletes are recognized on the streets of their cities. I believe encouraging access is a major component of being able to sell out NHL arenas.

Jillian Dempsey, Montreal forward, PHF career scoring leader: The tremendous support - numerous posters and jerseys - I had from friends, family, and PHF Boston Pride fans when I played in Lowell in February was the best moment of this season. To finally play near home again was a great feeling.

Carla MacLeod, Ottawa head coach: The incredible investment by the fans, particularly in Ottawa - how this community has shown up is electric. I smile ear-to-ear when I see our jerseys out in the community at random locations.

Troy Ryan, Toronto head coach: I'm very proud of the connections that our athletes and staff have made with our fan base. It feels authentic because our athletes are accessible and approachable, and they care.

Susan Cohig, NHL executive VP of club business affairs: Seeing the excitement of young girls engaging with their favorite players, knowing each one can see themselves in these remarkable athletes, is an incredible feeling that never gets old.

Phoebe Balshin, Dulcedo senior athlete manager: Watching young girls meet their role models, hearing from parents that they now have something they can work toward, and understanding the impact this league will have on the next generation was surreal. It was incredible to see how many people showed up to the Scotiabank Arena game. The atmosphere felt so much more incredible than any Maple Leafs game I've been to there - the fans were involved the whole game and you could barely hear yourself think.

Ottawa celebrates a regular season win over Toronto in March 2024 Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

Daryl Watts, Ottawa forward: The things that struck me most were the media attention and dedication from fans. Many arenas pretty much sell out every game. In Ottawa, the atmosphere is electric with 9,000 fans.

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada: Standing in the crowd at an Ottawa-Boston game, it wasn't lost on me how clearly the PWHL embodied the idea of: If you can see it, you can be it. I think most of the crowd that night thought just how long overdue this league is. The PWHL has brought hundreds of thousands of fans together, setting records and selling out stadiums, all for the love of the game.

Debbie Harrison, Toronto superfan: I loved every minute of every game I was able to attend in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa. The respect players have for each other sets such a wonderful example to young players hoping to play professional hockey one day.

Fran Rider, Canadian women's hockey builder: A true highlight, for me, of attending games in person and watching on TV is the powerful, positive, celebratory atmosphere in the stands. Fans leave feeling energized as they feel - rightly so - part of the movement to recognize a major step forward for women’s hockey and sports.

Gina Kingsbury, Toronto GM: I always knew people were passionate about the women's game. This season, seeing the emotion in people who waited a long time to follow a women's professional team, and the sense of excitement in our younger fans who now see the possibilities in front of them, has been special.

Cheryl Pounder, TSN broadcaster, former Canadian Olympian: Everything has "struck" me this season. During the first draft, I looked around at former teammates who came to witness it live. They've always been there - playing, working, watching, and waiting. On Jan. 1, I wore some emotion on the broadcast. It engulfed me. The fandom and energy were infectious. My daughters were present, believing, laughing, and buying the popcorn. Pinch me. For the "Battle on Bay," I was fortunate to be between the benches. I received a text from my husband, with our daughters' teams in the upper bowl: "Can you believe this, Cheryl? Did you ever imagine this day?"

Julie Chu, former U.S. Olympian, Concordia University head coach: I didn't realize I would feel so invested in the league's success. I feel a lot of pride for what's happened over this inaugural season and what will continue to be built.

Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, Canadian Women and Sport CEO: The PWHL created something truly special. You could almost hear the paradigm shift as they filled arena after arena, week after week. It validated what champions of women's sport have been saying for years: that women's sport matters, that Canadians do care about it, that it's exciting and fun, and with that comes a great business opportunity. As fantastic as the PWHL is straight out of the gate, it's clearly loaded with potential for even more.

Decades from now, how will you remember the season or the years of buildup to it?

Johnston: I'll remember the years of sacrifice we had to go through to create a sustainable league. I'll remember how girls had to have full-time jobs to keep playing the sport they loved. I'll remember how women's hockey was rarely on TV unless it was the Worlds or Olympics. The most important thing is that girls now can see their role models on TV and strive to be just like their favorite female hockey players.

Balshin: I'll remember the resilience of all the players in the lead-up to this league and the dedication they've all had since the launch.

Gillis: Chaos with direction.

Emard: The first step into breaking the baseline of what women's hockey players had to accept for years knowing they were worth so much more. I will always see it as the first step toward establishing the new standard for women's hockey players and what a professional league should look like.

Rider: I'll remember the excitement of the current players, the adulation in the eyes of the future stars who happily show their signs, and the number of players from previous decades who attend games with excitement and a happy tear in their eye.

Lynn Olson, American women's hockey builder: Wonderful to finally see the women receiving a paycheck for their dedicated work. The time and effort of the countless pioneers who continued to strive for a favorable outcome for future players was admirable. Mission accomplished!

Christine Simpson, Sportsnet broadcaster: Decades from now, I imagine I'll remember how quickly the league went from 0 to 60. From that first game, to attendance records being broken, to quickly selling out NHL arenas, to being a big part of the NHL All-Star game in Toronto. These women are already superstars with legions of fans. And I can't wait to see some of the little girls in the stands this season lacing them up for a PWHL team in the future.

Fans show their appreciation with homemade signs at Toronto's Mattamy Athletic Centre Maryam Majd / Getty Images

Cohig: The resiliency and unwavering commitment of the players as they fought for years to build a sustainable professional league. In the decades ahead, people will remember players like Kendall Coyne Schofield, Hilary Knight, Marie-Philip Poulin, Sarah Nurse, and many others as pioneers instrumental in building the PWHL.

Brad Frost, University of Minnesota head coach: For years, women have been striving to be part of a league that pays a livable wage, has great competition, and is sustainable. While it all came together very quickly, the success has been something that will be very memorable.

Nurse: Every time a PWHL game is on TV, the stands are packed. The level of play is so high. It's been fun to watch. Really excited to see how it continues to grow.

Leslie: It feels weird to think about the impact we'll have on the game in 10 years. It's hard to put into words, but I feel so proud to have been part of the inaugural season. Each game I try to think about all the trailblazers before me who didn't have the opportunity to play professionally, and it's important to recognize everything they did to get us where we are. This league is also for them.

Harrison: I will remember the year with a profound sense of appreciation to all of the past players who stepped up to offer their skills in so many areas to ensure the league started with a strong foundation. I will also be forever grateful that a team was located in a city where I could attend games regularly, and with ticket prices I could afford. Perhaps the biggest impression was from the players themselves: Always excited to play, always available to meet and chat with fans, and always sincerely thanking fans for their support.

Howard: Decades from now, I'll remember the first season and the years of buildup to it as a pivotal moment in the history of women's hockey. The years of grinding at odd practice hours while working a full-time teaching job, finally culminating in having a hockey schedule to train with proper structure and resources, was a significant milestone.

Boston and Minnesota face off in the first PWHL game for both teams on Jan. 3, 2024 Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

Dempsey: I absolutely loved and enjoyed my time playing for the Boston Pride. So those years of "buildup" to this league were memorable and some of my favorite seasons. I'll remember this season because it was filled with drastic, unexpected changes in my life and career.

Walsh: I think I'll remember how much these women advocated for a sustainable professional league. It was through years of hard work on their part, and the future of women's hockey will be better for it. The fact they were the first professional women's sports league in North America to have a collective bargaining agreement in place before their inaugural game is really admirable.

Kingsbury: At the league level, the amount of work that went into building this from scratch has been a collective effort and a process of selflessness and eagerness.

Zandee-Hart: I'll remember the hard work and dedication of myself and my teammates leading up to the league's beginning. Before this season, women stayed in the game simply because they loved it and wanted to leave it in a better place. Our player board didn't settle for anything less than professional when building this new league, all while still training and working jobs on the side. When you get a group of people in the fight for the right reasons, that's a very special thing to be a part of.

Ryan: I never want to take opportunities and experiences like this for granted because I know the decades of hard work so many pioneers put into this game to make the PWHL possible. The work each of us do daily is building on the foundation provided by so many great hockey people and leaders.

Minnesota forward Kendall Coyne Schofield scores a goal on New York goalie Corinne Schroeder Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

Feldman: The most important story that folks will point to in 10-25 years is something that has no parallel: the Canadian and U.S. national teams working together for their ultimate goal. I get that the PWHPA was made of more than just the CANWNT and the USWNT, and don't want to discount that at all. But these rivals worked together and gave up 1-4 of their best years to get to a place where they wouldn't settle for scraps.

Draper: I'll remember having a profound feeling that we're all playing a part in making history.

Mike Hirshfeld, Ottawa GM: The hard work of so many passionate individuals to launch a league in such a short period of time.

Coyne Schofield: It's been a momentous, historical, and inspiring first season, and it's only going to keep getting better.

Packer: I think the more time that passes, the more surreal it'll all feel. This season is truly a testament to decades of work by players, executives, and investors to forge a sustainable path forward for future stars of the game. It's been incredible to be part of the build, and I'll remember the diligent dreamers who worked tirelessly to give women's hockey the place in history and the future it deserves.

Olivia Chow, Toronto mayor: It's pretty special to have memories of the Toronto team's inaugural season, and to witness its popularity grow and grow. I'll always remember dropping the puck in front of thousands of excited women's hockey fans.

Virtue: Decades from now, I'll remember the generations of girls flocking to arenas in North America donning jerseys, carrying signs, and finally seeing the representation of limitless dreams and fulfilled ambition.

Fans celebrate the first New York goal against Montreal at UBS Arena on Jan. 10, 2024 Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

Sorem: What's made this season really stand out is the emotion. I've personally cried 15 times, from the silliest reasons to the biggest moments. The fans have been all-in, from the creative signs to the arena sellouts. The younger generation has been inspired and has dreams they can now make reality. The girls who've stopped playing have gotten to watch their friends and old teammates change the game forever.

Marvin: With a lot of joy and appreciation.

Daoust: I'll always remember a time where challenges, including the constraint of time itself, seemed daunting. However, amidst it all, there was a remarkable blend of dreams, courage, and a bit of audacity, all fueled by a well-crafted plan and the support of dedicated leaders rallying behind a common purpose. The outcome we achieved wasn't just the sum of our efforts. It was something exponentially greater.

Messier: I'll remember the launch of the PWHL as a watershed moment for women's hockey, and the potential broader implications for women in society. Transformational moments in sports have the power to transform society, much beyond the fields and arenas where games are played. As massive as this moment is, I believe it'll prove to be even bigger.

Pounder: Proud. Excited. I'm not jealous, surprisingly. I'm grateful. I'm thankful for having an opportunity to play the game I loved. My mother didn't have the opportunity I had. The past is a conduit to our future if we reflect, learn, and grow. I remember a quote on the wall at my first World Championship: "You have to have the heart to climb the mountain if you want to see the other side." Thank you to everyone past and present for inspiring a future generation. We can talk about the game again - the real "why" the dream started in the first place.

Savannah Harmon, Ottawa defender: There aren't a lot of words to describe the opening games. The years it's taken to get to this point, all the work done to get this incredible league started, I'm just incredibly honored and proud to be part of it.

Darwitz: It was a season that forever changed the landscape of not only women's hockey, but women's sports.

Nick Faris and Jolene Latimer are feature writers at theScore.

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