Bryanna McDermott | Asst. Photo Editor
Following back-to-back Stanley Cup victories for the Penguins, Pittsburgh may soon be welcoming another professional hockey franchise.
Reports surfaced recently claiming that the National Women’s Hockey League, or NWHL, is preparing to add two expansion franchises to the league for the 2018-19 season, according to Sporting News. Many believe Pittsburgh is one of several frontrunning locations for potential expansion.
For any Pittsburgh-area hockey fan, this needs to happen, and it needs our support.
Pittsburgh is traditionally a great sports town, and has been a major advocate of women’s ice hockey, making the city a perfect spot for a new team.
Last season’s NWHL All-Star Weekend was held at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, the Penguins’ practice facility in Cranberry Township, on Feb. 11-12, 2017. A skills competition was held on Saturday, Feb. 11, and the league’s All-Star Game sold-out the next day on Sunday, Feb. 12.
This season, the facility will host a regular-season NWHL game, and the Penguins will host the “NHL Youth Cup for Girls” for a second-consecutive year at the Cranberry Township rink. The Youth Cup for Girls is an annual large-scale girls’ hockey tournament to be played in January 2018.
The interest in women’s ice hockey has escalated within our society over the past quarter-century, and especially in Pittsburgh’s region.
According to USA Hockey, there were only 6,336 female member participants in 1991-92. In 2015-16, that numbered stood at a staggering 73,076.
Furthermore, there are 1,234 registered female USA Hockey participants in Western Pennsylvania alone. That’s a strong number, totaling more than Ohio, Virginia and nearly a dozen other states.
Nobody can truly understand the growth of women’s hockey in the area better than members of the Pittsburgh Puffins, a recreational women’s ice hockey team that plays its home contests at Frozen Pond Arena in Valencia, PA, and competes in the Mid-Atlantic Women’s Hockey League, or MAWHL.
“The NWHL has brought women’s hockey to the forefront and shows girls — and parents — that there is a great future for women in hockey,” Susan Sobona, a 51-year-old right wing for the Puffins, said.
“Remember, I played in the 70’s and 80’s when girls ‘didn’t play hockey,’ and it wasn’t an Olympic sport.”
26-year-old goalie Anna Brewton voiced similar sentiments.
“It’s developed a lot in the past few years,” Brewton said of women’s hockey. “There are more and more women playing now than ever [before]. The girls’ programs have also exploded in the last decade, so I know the women’s scene will only continue to grow when these young ladies grow up and continue to play.
“It was also encouraging to see the NWHL All-Star Game sell-out — A big sign that women’s hockey will stay as a big market here in Pittsburgh.”
While the Penguins won their second-consecutive NHL championship this past spring, the Puffins claimed their own championship title in the MAWHL’s D-League.
If the NWHL chooses to expand to Pittsburgh, there would be no shortage of capable players willing to help fill the roster, and a pronounced local interest would fill the bleachers for games.
“The Puffins would love it,” forward Charlene Bidula said about the possibility of a Pittsburgh NWHL team. “We play hockey because we love the game, and we would definitely support a professional women’s hockey team in the city.
“A few of us traveled to Buffalo a couple of years ago to see the Buffalo Beauts play the New York Riveters. We are excited that we can finally witness a professional women’s hockey league in the USA.”
Penguins right wing Phil Kessel’s sister, Amanda Kessel, is a forward for the New York Riveters. A University of Minnesota alum, her $26,000 contract that she signed with the Riveters on May 1, 2016, is the most lucrative NWHL contract to date.
Whether or not Pittsburgh does receive an NWHL expansion team in 2018, the passion shown for a growing women’s hockey industry across the region is heartwarming for a hockey enthusiast like myself, especially after speaking with the ladies from the Puffins.
“I think, psychologically, ice hockey is a happy outlet that serves as a counterbalance to the many jobs or academic tracks that, by and large, require a lot of sitting and thinking,” Sarah Lim, a 30-year-old center for the Puffins said.
“When you are out on the ice, nothing else matters for the next hour but that small rubber puck,” Lim continued. “You become a reasonably safely-padded wrecking ball that is allowed to rush around, fall, or just straight-up get scrappy with another player. There is nothing else like it.”