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Women’s hockey three-on-three could be best part of NHL All-Star Game

Diana C. Nearhos | Women’s hockey is at a crossroads as players try to figure out what kind of professional league they want.
United States' Kendall Coyne skates during the Skills Competition, part of the NHL All-Star weekend, in San Jose, Calif., Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. [BEN MARGOT | AP]

The most heated, most fun rivalry in hockey is coming to the NHL. And, no, it’s not Calgary and Edmonton’s Battle of Alberta.

The NHL is bringing 10 women from both the United States and Canada’s national programs to play a 20-minute three-on-three game as part of the All-Star Game skills competition.

The trend started at the 2018 event in Tampa, when members of Team USA, which was training in Wesley Chapel, demonstrated skills events.

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The best moment of last year’s NHL all-star weekend was when Kendall Coyne Schofield took off on a lap of the rink in 14.346 seconds. I’d wager that the best part of this year’s festivities will be the women’s USA-Canada three-on-three.

Three-on-three overtimes are fun for their speed and skill, which is what the women’s game is all about. Add in one of the fiercest rivalries in sports (anyone remember the three brawls leading up to the Sochi Olympics?), and this is going to be fun.

For hockey fans, this is a definite win. For women’s hockey, it’s more complicated though.

Playing a game, even three-on-three, in front of a NHL audience is great for exposure, but there is a larger question around what it does for women’s hockey.

The sport is at something of a crossroads. This year, after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded, almost 200 players boycotted the National Women’s Hockey League to create the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. The PWHPA has hosted its own games and showcases.

The argument is over what kind of league is best for women’s hockey, and it’s come to a head again over this NHL all-star appearance.

The NWHL pays its players, but not a living wage; most of its players also work other jobs and some fly in just for the weekend games. Some of its players say the PWHPA members could be working toward sponsorships and marketing to grow the league. Others in the sport say they shouldn’t have to.

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Where is the NHL in all of this? It’s both in the middle and nowhere. Last year, commissioner Gary Bettman said the NHL contributed financially to both leagues but wasn’t going to choose between them.

Much of the PHWPA would like to see the NHL create a women’s league, like the NBA created the WNBA. The other side says the women should run their own league, like the NWHL is trying to do.

It would be great to see the NHL step up as a bigger partner, and it would strengthen their weakly-supported #hockeyisforeveryone campaign. BUT (all caps) the men shouldn’t step in and “solve the problem” for the women.

Women’s hockey needs to pick its direction, then the NHL should figure out how to best support that initiative. Whatever that means, it should be more than just providing exposure once a year.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.

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