SAN JOSE - Some moments cannot be ignored, no matter how hard the haters may try. Without a doubt, the highlight of the 2019 NHL All-Star skills competition was Kendall Coyne’s lap in the fastest skater competition and her speed served notice that women can hang with men at the top.
The American Olympian (who was showered with the ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’ chant by the crowd upon taking her marks) and Minnesota Whitecaps left winger shot out of the gates and put up a time of 14.3 seconds, stunning the SAP Center. Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid ended up winning the competition for the third straight time and even he was impressed by Coyne’s jump.
“When she took off, I was like ‘wow,’ ” McDavid said. “I thought she might have won the way she was moving. She’s a really good skater and it’s an amazing thing for the game when you can see her participate like that in an event like this.”
Indeed, Coyne’s performance was even more important than her inclusion. She ended up beating Arizona Coyotes young gun Clayton Keller, so no one can say she was just a token entry. And it’s hard to say elite women aren’t on the same level as men when Brianna Decker unofficially won the Precision Passer competition. Decker was technically just demonstrating the gratingly-hard event (Canadians Rebecca Johnston and Renata Fast also did demos for other events), but she was timed at one minute and six seconds, which bested official winner Leon Draisaitl by three seconds.
Coyne was an official entry, however. With Nathan MacKinnon banged up, the Colorado Avalanche reached out to Coyne on Twitter the day before the competition to ask her if she’d fill in for the powerful MacKinnon. Naturally, she said yes.
“My first impression was I can do this,” Coyne said. “My speed is definitely my strength. Obviously I was a little nervous but I knew it was a moment that would break a lot of barriers and change the perception of our game, so it was so exciting.”
The day prior, Coyne had actually clocked a slightly faster time at 14.26 and as a competitor, she wanted to win. But of course there was always going to be a bigger message that went along with her effort.
The NHL has an interesting relationship with women’s hockey, as the league hasn’t really gotten involved with either the CWHL or NWHL as both circuits attempt to survive. There is a definite sense that commissioner Gary Bettman would prefer to start with a fresh slate and a new league, rather than help out two competing circuits and while several NHL teams have gotten involved with women’s franchises, they have done so on an individual basis. So including an elite woman in an actual All-Star event is certainly a positive.
“Today the NHL took that stance and made that statement,” Coyne said. “I was fortunate to be a part of a lot of people pushing for it, a lot of hard conversations that have been had and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
Because the women’s game was established so much later than the men’s game, the popularity of the former lags behind the latter. The media landscape now is also entirely different than 100 years ago when the NHL was in its infancy and it seems unfair to scorch the women’s side for not being as popular or relevant to a more mainstream audience - the women’s game is growing up under a searing spotlight that just wasn’t there for the men at the time.
For Coyne, the upcoming three-game Rivalry Series between Team USA and Team Canada in Detroit, Toronto and London is yet another opportunity for fans to see most of the best women in the world clash and those February tilts are the result of American women rebelling for better treatment.
“We took a stance two years ago and part of that stance was more programming,” Coyne said. “These three games are part of that and for USA Hockey and Hockey Canada to agree to these is super exciting.”
But for now, with a very positive and exciting spotlight on her in San Jose, Coyne had a message for everyone out there who saw her blaze around the rink in the lap of the night:
“I would say, especially to young girls and women, follow your dreams, believe in yourself and there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.”
There are many who try to put the women’s game down and say it will never be as popular as the NHL. I think they’re missing the point. Even if the NHL still dominates for generations, the women’s game is just as important to the sport. And Kendall Coyne just proved that the supposed gap in skill between men and women can no longer be used as an excuse to ignore the women. She was the first star on a night full of stars.