The CWHL is no more and the NWHL’s once-proposed Canadian expansion won’t be happening this season, but in little more than three weeks’ time, many of the premier players in women’s hockey will be hitting the ice in Toronto.
On Wednesday, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced the Dream Gap Tour, an exhibition series that will see some of the women’s game’s best and brightest square off in weekend showcases across North America. The series, which will feature Olympians such as Marie-Philip Poulin, Hilary Knight and Noora Raty, along with a host of other national team standouts, will kick off on Friday, Sept. 20 in Toronto and run through to Sunday, Sept. 22. The next stop will be Hudson, N.H., from Oct. 4-6, with Chicago playing host to the PWHPA from Oct. 18-20. In addition, an exhibition against Boston College is slated for Sept. 21 and the PWHPA will ice a team against the San Jose Sharks’ alumni at the SAP Center on Sept. 22, the same day the Sharks will be hosting their Fan Fest.
The announcement, said PWHPA board member and former CWHL Players’ Association co-chair Liz Knox, has been a long time coming.
“This summer has really shown me how much work goes into organizing any sort of format, whether it's a tournament or a league,” she said. “A lot if it was balancing ideas and working with the Board. We all come from different backgrounds, so some of the girls are with the national team, others have played pro the last few years, so it's working out what makes sense and what encapsulates what we want this year and how we want to showcase our talent.”
Though the exact format of the weekends will vary depending on the host city, the plan for the Toronto showcase is for the three-day series to feature four games, though Knox clarified it’s not so much a tournament as it is putting quality teams and quality talent together to square off against one another. And while the players have been divided into “training regions,” said Knox, don’t simply expect this to be a reunion of old CWHL squads.
“Some of the regions, like the two (Greater Toronto Area) regions, we have 50 players in our market total,” Knox explained. “We have enough for two teams, so that works out perfectly. Montreal is very much the same. They've had enough for a team for the past 12-plus years. So, they will have a team. Then other regions, especially in the United States, it's a little more sporadic – nine players here, 12 players here. At some of those showcases, it'll be more of a mix of the players, more collaborating efforts to make sure we have four solid teams and competitive teams.”
In some instances, that will mean dream combinations. Last season in the CWHL, Les Canadiennes de Montreal iced a roster that featured Poulin and Knight, a pairing of one of the top Canadian women’s players in national team history with one of the game’s icons in the United States. That’s exactly the kind of dream-team duo fans could see at these showcases, not to mention a few emerging talents who will be able to step into the spotlight while skating alongside top national team players.
“You take a player like Victoria Bach, who I had the pleasure of playing with last year, and she's a young star. She's going to shine no matter where she plays,” Knox said. “Why not put her on a line with somebody who's really going to amplify her talent? (The showcase's will feature) national team prospects and girls that are on the radar, but also some girls that may not be and maybe they get an opportunity to play with some of those bigger players and make the most of it.”
As much as the tour is about the on-ice product, though, the PWHPA is hoping to use the weekends to connect with the community. The release noted that youth clinics will be part of each weekend, and Knox said giving young players the chance to get up close and personal was important. “A lot of these girls are their idols, their dream players,” she said. “So give them the chance to meet them and get on the ice with them and interact with them off the ice, and also make those connections with their parents.”
Despite naming the host cities for the tour, no venues were announced, but Knox assured those are coming. She said the tight schedule the PWHPA is facing has made locking down sites “tough terrain for us to navigate,” but said the initial target is a building in the 1,000-1,200-seat range, big enough to accommodate fans new and old while also creating a quality atmosphere.
“But the plan – a little spoiler alert – is later in the season to have that grow a little bit,” Knox said. “Start with some humble beginnings and hopefully generate the buzz that we want.”
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