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NHL players, coaches react to PWHL’s headline-grabbing start: 'It’s about time'

Montreal Montreal celebrate - The Canadian Press

Don Granato is a big believer in the talent of women’s hockey players — he's had an up-close view for years.

"It's pure entertainment if you love the sport of hockey,” Granato said.

The Buffalo Sabres head coach — and brother of women’s hockey great Cammi Granato — has enjoyed following the women’s game for decades.

With the Professional Women’s Hockey League’s inaugural season underway, Granato is happy more people are finally getting to see what he already knows.

“It's impressive as you knew it was going to be from the standpoint of the talent and the skill, the hockey sense,” Granato said. “I commend everybody that has put the work in and puts the work in to get this product out in front of people so they understand how talented those athletes are.

“It's about time, really.”

The launch of the women's hockey league is making believers of fans. The PWHL has been setting records and grabbing headlines since the season opened Jan. 1.

In its first week, the league broke the attendance mark for a women’s professional hockey game twice — first with 8,318 fans at TD Place Arena in Ottawa on Jan. 2, then with 13,316 people at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., this past Saturday.

The league’s first game between New York and Toronto at Mattamy Athletic Centre on New Year’s Day reached 2.9 million Canadian viewers while being broadcast simultaneously on CBC, Sportsnet and TSN.

Some of those fans tuning in are NHL players themselves.

“I’ve been watching their games," Montreal Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki told reporters while sporting a PWHL-branded hat. "Got to know a couple of them over the last few years, so it’s been fun to watch them.”

"It's been great that it's been on TV,” said Habs defenceman Mike Matheson, whose wife, Emily Pfalzer Matheson, won Olympic gold with the U.S. in 2018. “Last night after dinner, we put it on and it's been great to watch."

The Canadiens — who rolled in practice on Tuesday with PWHL Montreal jerseys — are especially keen to support the league with Marie Philip-Poulin doubling as the team's player development consultant while captaining Montreal's PWHL outfit.

“I think it’s important,” Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis told reporters. “It’s Montreal’s team, it’s a new league. I think the league’s had a great start on the support side of things, and that’s what we’re going to do in Montreal too.”

On the ice, the game is physical. PWHL officials appear to be putting the whistles away as players throw their weight around along the boards.

“It’s nice to see, I know they really fought for that," Suzuki said. "The (players) are so strong and I think it definitely adds to the game."

"It seems like they're letting them play a little bit more, which is probably what everybody wants,” Nashville Predators defenceman Ryan McDonagh said. “When you're playing a physical game you're gonna run into each other at times, I think that'll be fun to see if that continues to stick."

The increased physicality is one of several rules the league is experimenting with.

The PWHL adopted a 3-2-1 point system — three points for a regulation win, two points for an overtime win, one point for an overtime loss and zero for a regulation loss.

A team can also “kill” a penalty by scoring a short-handed goal to end the opposing team’s power play.

Some NHLers are curious to see how these rules play out and believe there should be an open discussion about whether the NHL follows suit.

"The difficulty of winning in regulation, especially down the stretch. You think about playoff hockey, how hard it is to win in regulation … The fact that you're able to beat a team in regulation should have maybe a little bit more value," McDonagh said.

Asked about the penalty kill, he added: “It might entice teams to be a little more aggressive on the short-handed side, too, and produce more goals there. So it's definitely something that's never popped in my head but I could see it being a good thing to create more offence."

New York Rangers centre Vincent Trocheck, like McDonagh, has a daughter. They hope the league is here to stay so future generations can dream of women's pro hockey.

Though there have been women’s leagues before it, the PWHL shows signs of staying power thanks to deep-pocketed investors and an eight-year collective bargaining agreement between the league and players’ union.

"The WNBA has their league and hopefully we can grow ours into something that's similar and as big,” Trocheck said. “I have a daughter, I'm not sure if she's gonna go the hockey route, but if she does I'd like her to have an avenue that she can do it for a living if she really wanted to."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2024.