TORONTO — Two-time Olympic gold medallist Meaghan Mikkelson woke up in her Toronto hotel on Sunday to evidence that the Unifor Women's Hockey Showcase is already fulfilling its purpose.
"We were having breakfast and we popped on the TV and highlights from our game were on," Mikkelson said. "To see stuff like that and on social media, that's what we're trying to accomplish."
The two-day event at Westwood Arena was one of three announced stops on the Dream Gap Tour, a showcase featuring stars from the newly formed Professional Women's Hockey Players Association.
Fans packed the west-end arena, filling the 700-seat venue to watch 80 players play in four exhibition games on Saturday and Sunday.
Players said they were thrilled with the level of support received during the weekend event.
"The fact that our games are streamed and tickets were selling out is huge," said Sarah Nurse, who played with the now-defunct Canadian Women's Hockey League's Toronto Furies last season. "In a couple of years in the CWHL we never had that."
"I think the fact there's been momentum and things have picked up so much, it's been incredible and I definitely see this as a real leap forward."
The PWHPA assembled in May following the demise of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, which folded in April after 12 years of operation.
Although there had been initial reports of the rival National Women's Hockey League expanding into Canada in 2019-20, those plans were quickly dashed when 200 women's hockey players signed up for the PHWPA in May.
The main mission for the association, as stated on the organization's website, is "to promote, advance, and support a single, viable professional women's ice hockey league in North America that showcases the greatest product of women's professional ice hockey in the world."
It also meant no league to play in for 2019-20, with hopes that sponsorship and awareness will create a better solution for its members in future years.
"I've played in the CWHL basically since there was a team in Calgary and I don't think we were moving forward in the way we wanted to," Mikkelson said. "I think we all knew it was time and we'd all have to sacrifice a little bit this year that we're holding ourselves accountable and training."
Players in the PHWPA practise twice a week in one of eight locations in Canada and the United States. The four hubs — two in Toronto, one in Montreal and one in Calgary — represent the areas that the CWHL used to serve.
The Unifor Women's Hockey Showcase, the first of three planned, was the first chance for the PWHPA to see if the mission is working.
"To see the little girls in the stands here with those signs and knowing we're doing this for them it feels great to be a part of it," Mikkelson said.
The PHWPA attracted several corporate sponsors who footed the bill to fly in players for the event. Players were provided food and lodging along with custom jerseys and matching tracksuit gear.
"Just the sponsors that are on board you can see that they want to be behind us and support is growing," said Rebecca Johnston, who scored a shootout-winner for her team in an exhibition game on Sunday.
The association announced title sponsors Dunkin' and Magellan Corporation for showcase events in Hudson, New Hampshire and Chicago next month. More stops in Canada are planned for some time in the new year.
"People are understanding our purpose that we need something better for our game for the next generation," PHWPA operations consultant Jayna Hefford said. "These women have courageously stepped up and made a bold statement but they're also playing for that next generation of young girls."
A single-league solution for women's hockey has long been the goal. The shutdown of the CWHL left the NWHL open to claim that spot. But it was clear that players weren't willing to have it for any cost.
Players want to make a livable way so they can focus on playing hockey and growing the game.
"Girls have full-time jobs and are still training and trying to put the best product on the ice," Spooner said. "If we had no actual job and we can fully concentrate on training and playing hockey and making sure we were the strongest and healthiest players we could be."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2019.
David Alter, The Canadian Press