The record crowd at Friday’s Toronto-Montreal Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) game at Scotiabank Arena demonstrates that women are “finally” getting the support they deserve, with more young girls showing interest in joining the sport, according to the director of girl’s hockey at the Ontario Hockey Academy.
Kayla Lascelle said administrators “have definitely seen a complete increase in applicants” at the Cornwall, Ont., academy, which consists of five boys teams and three girls teams. The academy has been in existence since 2008.
“We are getting applicants from not only Canada and the U.S., but we have a lot of top athletes from Czech Republic, Slovakia, Israel, Mexico, Australia to name a few,” Lascelle told CBC Toronto.
“They’re coming to us to get more of a well-rounded foundation of hockey, where in some countries they don’t have access to a rink or to personal training, physical training, stuff like that, and they’re looking to play in Canada and in Ontario specifically.”
The PWHL was formed in June, when a group led by Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter and Billie Jean King bought the Premier Hockey Federation with plans to fold it and begin a new league with members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, which included most of the top players.
It has six franchise locations — Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, New York, Boston and Minnesota — with its inaugural season starting last month.
Lascelle said girls looking to move forward in the game usually get into “playing university hockey.” She said now, they also have “the PWHL option.”
“They’re looking to kind of come be exposed to this type of environment, the speed, the type of hockey it is and then further their games in the future,” she said.
The PWHL’s first game at Scotiabank Arena set a league and women’s hockey attendance record with a crowd of 19,285.
The crowd surpassed the previous mark of 18,013 from Canada’s game against Finland at the 2013 women’s world championship in Ottawa. The previous professional women’s hockey record was 13,316 from a Montreal-Minnesota game at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on Jan. 6.
Lascelle said the PWHL is also “another tool” that’s available to those coaching young girls in the game.
“It’s a lot more fun to watch … I’m now turning on the TV as kind of males do and guys do to watch the NHL [National Hockey League]. I’m watching the schedule for the PWHL, I’m making sure I’m watching those games, which I didn’t have that kind of initiative to do with the NHL,” Lascelle said.
“Some of the mentors and coaches in the PWHL, I’ve been lucky enough to coach alongside as well, so seeing them achieve their goals as well as coaches — and my being a coach myself — has been awesome.”
While women are playing hockey, they “play a different game,” Lascelle said. As the PWHL develops, Lascelle said “girls are a little bit more invested into watching certain hockey players,” adding this will help to “drive their own talent [and] way of playing.”
‘A great moment for girl’s in hockey’
Will Short, president of the Burlington Girls Hockey Club (BGHC), has seen increased interest and growth in girl’s hockey, too. Friday’s game in particular was “a great moment for women’s hockey,” adding it’s important for girls watching to see themselves represented in the sport.
“I think it’s incredibly important for especially the girls in the organization to be able to look, and they don’t just have to watch men playing hockey or men playing basketball,” Short said, nodding to women athletes like Serena Williams, Caitlin Clark, Renata Fast and Natalie Spooner.
“They were sort of the groundbreakers for all of these girls coming up because they had to go through what was a far more difficult time breaking through into a women’s professional league or a women’s professional stage and now here they are, and these girls will benefit from that.”
BGHC has launched a new initiative for the 2023-24 season focused on growing the game of hockey for young female athletes in Burlington.
According to BGHC, girls are under-represented in sport, and the organization wants to support more girls to enjoy the benefits of hockey and have them continue playing this sport for years to come.
“It’s just so important to be able to provide those opportunities for athletes, especially female athletes, so that they can have the opportunity to play and can have the opportunity to achieve [their] goals,” Short said.
With the PWHL getting a lot of attention right now, Short is hoping the interest does not fade away.
“I just hope that it continues to get the support it needs. Obviously you need strong sponsors, you need strong viewership, you need people to come out and I think Friday night was a great example of where this league is and where girl’s hockey is in Ontario,” he said.
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