This is evidenced perhaps most recently by announcements that the PWHPA has partnered with three Original Six NHL teams, the New York Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Rangers are lined up to host the first games of the 2021 Secret Dream Gap Tour on 27 & 28 February. Featuring the PWHPA’s Minnesota Region and New Hampshire Region teams, the second game will mark the first time a women’s professional game has been played at the storied Madison Square Garden.
The Dream Gap Tour will then continue with the Blackhawks hosting games on 6-7 March at the United Center and Fifth Third Arena respectively.
The Maple Leafs will also likely host a future Dream Gap Tour game once COVID-19 precautions allow for it in addition to supporting the PWHPA in the areas of marketing and sponsorship consultation.
“The momentum that women’s hockey has right now, I think there’s a lot of interest in it,” said Brianne Jenner, Olympic gold and silver medallist and six-time IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship medallist with Team Canada. “People want to see women’s hockey on TV, they want to see events. Obviously COVID has thrown a bit of a wrench in our plans this year, as it has in every professional league, but we’re pretty excited about some of the steps that we’ve taken and the new partners that we’ve brought on board.”
Coming off of a highly successful inaugural Dream Gap Tour last season, the PWHPA announced a number of significant partnerships in late 2020 as well, including a historic $1 million commitment from Secret Deodorant and team-specific partnerships for the teams representing different regions of North America.
New to the 2020/21 season is the PWHPA’s regional training hubs located in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Minnesota and New Hampshire. Because of varying local COVID-19 regulations, ice accessibility has varied amongst the regions.
Players from the American regional hubs prepared for the upcoming games in New York by playing a series of games in the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL)’s “Hub City Tampa”. Meanwhile, teams such as Jenner’s Toronto Region group have had sporadic practices throughout the fall and winter as the city of Toronto has gone in and out of lockdown.
Regardless of whether or not they have been able to get out on the ice, excitement has been brewing amongst the PWHPA’s 125 athletes about the future of the sport.
“Being able to come together with the American players, European players, and have one voice has been something that has been really special,” said Jenner, who is a PWHPA Board Member Player Representative.
“I think that’s what is at the heart of the PWHPA, and what’s exciting is, this is the voice of the players. We want to see significant improvement, and we want to build something that’s going to be sustainable... so to be able to work towards that with my peers is an honour, and it’s a responsibility that none of the board members take lightly.”
Along with playing in future Secret Dream Gap Tour showcases, many of the PWHPA’s players are also looking forward to the opportunity to represent their country at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, which is set to take place in spring in Halifax and Truro in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
Preparation scenarios have varied for each of the 10 countries slated to compete (United States, Canada, Finland, Russia, Switzerland, Japan, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark and Hungary). Host nation Canada, for instance, held a “bubble” camp with 35 players at the end of January, the first time the group had been on the ice together since the spring of 2020.
“It was a blast to be honest,” said Jenner. “It looked very different from a typical camp for us. Most of the time we were alone in our hotel rooms and had Zoom meetings and things like that, but the opportunities that we did have at the rink, the practices we had and the games we had, were just phenomenal.”
As Team Canada athletes have spent much of the past several months preparing for the Women’s Worlds and the 2022 Olympics off-ice and in isolation, there has been a heavy focus on mindset and mental perseverance.
“Mindset and mental skills work has been a huge part of what we’ve been able to actually do this year,” said Jenner. “Obviously this year has taught us, and has taught everyone, how to be adaptable and how to be resilient with challenges, so I think that’s our mindset moving forward.”
Despite the relative unknowns of what the next few months will look like, there is a lot to look forward to for women’s hockey.
“I’m just really excited about where our sport is at,” said Jenner. “It’s a year of frustrations and difficulties, but at the same time, it’s really exciting to see where the level of play is.”