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Women’s hockey outgrowing its dependence on the men’s game – Boston Herald

 


It would be discrediting her Olympic accomplishments to say the biggest stage Kendall Coyne Schofield has competed on was the 2019 NHL All-Star Skills competition — but it might have had the most impact.

Coyne, invited late to replace Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, finished seventh in the fastest skater contest, circling the rink in 14.3 seconds. That was good enough to beat Arizona’s Clayton Keller, widely regarded as an NHL speedster.

And, for her, it was slow: The 26-year-old gold medalist and multi-time world champion skated a 14.2 right off the plane the day before. Edmonton’s Connor McDavid won his third straight title in 13.4 seconds — less than a second faster.

“I knew this was a moment that was going to break a lot of barriers and a moment that would change the perception of our game and show support of our game,” Coyne said. “It was so exciting.

“It just shows the top players, man or woman, belong.”

United States’ Kendall Coyne skates during the Skills Competition, part of the NHL All-Star weekend, in San Jose, Calif., Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

*****

Playing at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center, home of the NHL’s Sabres, on Dec. 29, Coyne’s goal with time waning gave her expansion Minnesota Whitecaps a win over the Beauts, the 2017 champions in the National Women’s Hockey League.

The 26-year-old speedster was the last player to leave the arena. Her performance that night had cast a much larger shadow than her 5-foot, 2-inch frame. She was the second-shortest player on the ice — nearly a foot shorter than the average NHL player (6-foot-1) — but the style of the women’s game hasn’t held her back. She is one of the brightest stars.

Coyne; NU senior wins fine ‘consolation’ prize in Kazmaier Award.

“My goal was to go to the Olympics since I was seven,” she said. “We want to continue to fight to grow the game. If (the NWHL) was available when I was a kid, I would have aspired to be a part of it. When I was a little girl all I knew was the NHL, and you wanted to win the Stanley Cup. Then I saw a gold medal and I knew I wanted to win one of those.”

The teams played again the next day at HarborCenter, the Sabres’ practice facility and the Beauts’ regular home rink. But playing where the men’s team plays added an extra level of validation in the eyes of hockey world, seen mostly through the male gaze.

Just like when Coyne competed with the boys.

She skated alongside NHL players in the summer-time Chicago Professional Hockey League last summer. A non-checking league, Coyne held her own with four goals and six assists in eight games.

“She’s a good player,” said Buffalo defenseman Jake McCabe, who played with Coyne. “She’s super fast and skilled and can make a lot of creative passes. She’s tough to play against and fun to play with. She’s got really good vision and makes a lot of good passes. She’s a little bit smaller, but with her vision she makes up for it.”

Without the checking, Coyne’s skills shined. The Northeastern alumna is one of the fastest skaters in women’s hockey and an elite scorer.

“She can skate with the boys,” said Brennan Kapchek, one of her teammates and a forward at American International College. “I vividly remember her backchecking and stealing the puck from an AHL player, then going on a breakaway. She can skate just about as fast as anybody in the league. She can pass like a pro, and she thinks the game as pros do. She was just as competitive as every other player out there.”

Said Bruins forward Joakim Nordstrom, of Sweden: “We had a girl on our team until we were 10 years old. “Then once I started playing juniors, at practices, we had two or three women’s hockey players at our practices. They were really good.”

BOSTON, MA. – FEBRUARY 2: Boston Pride’s Kaleigh Fratkin (13) looks to pass as her team looks on from the bench during the second period of their NWHL game against the Connecticut Whale at Warrior Ice Arena on February 2, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Mary Schwalm/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Two-way player

Defender Kaleigh Fratkin of the Boston Pride has played in both the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and National Women’s Hockey League, but considered going overseas to play with men after her playing days at Boston University.

“I was fortunate enough to grow up where hockey was really strong,” said the native of British Columbia, Canada. “Girls hockey wasn’t strong, but boys was. I played five games of Junior B hockey. That was going up against guys who were 200 pounds. It’s not some finesse game. It’s a lot of hitting. You have to rely on some other skills I didn’t rely on with girls hockey.”

Until the CWHL (founded in 2007) and NWHL (2015) existed, mixed-gender play was the norm. Without professional women’s hockey to shoot for, girls had no choice but to play on boys teams. As they got older, they had the option to play in college, then a narrow crack at making an Olympic squad.

At 6 years old, Fratkin was enrolled to play with girls 14 and 15 years old while playing with boys her age. Once she got older and started playing elite girls hockey, she had the skills she learned from the boys game, which was sometimes to her detriment.

“It was more difficult to transition to girls hockey games,” she said. “I’d say hitting for me growing up with it, I learned early enough that my game had to develop around hitting hockey.”

Fratkin played with the Aldergrove Kodiaks of the PIJHL in the 2009-2010 season. Before that, she racked up seven assists as a defender on the Vancouver NW Giants midget team, a squad that included future NHLers Alex Kerfoot, Griffin Reinhart and Sam Reinhart. She also grew up playing against Brendan Gallagher and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, well-known NHL stars.

Physical battle

Unlike Coyne, Fratkin (5-foot-8, 154 pounds) played in an environment conducive to hitting. It was an art form she learned not only for her protection, but her advantage.

“I think because I learned at an early age how to hit and how to take a hit, other areas of my game developed differently because I was smaller,” she said. “I have more of a physical presence, but it’s funny because I grew up being the smallest player on the ice. I developed all these different skills and strategies protecting myself going into the corner and skills like skating to help me in boys hockey games than I ever did in girls.”

BOSTON, MA. – FEBRUARY 2: Boston Pride’s Kaleigh Fratkin (13) dumps Connecticut Whale player Katerina Mrazova along the boards during the third period of an NWHL game at Warrior Ice Arena on February 2, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Mary Schwalm/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Fratkin plays one of the most physical styles in the NWHL and is typically a leader in penalty minutes.  Learning how to not only take a hit, but dish some punishment back, would give a woman a fighting shot in men’s hockey beyond juniors.

“When watching women, you’re not looking at somebody who’s been repeatedly hit at open ice since they were 12 years old,” said Mike Boyle, a trainer who has worked with NHL teams and the women’s national team. “(Women would) have to be allowed to play with the boys all the way through. One thing that happens from an awareness standpoint, in women’s hockey you can’t anticipate an open ice hit because it’s not coming. Someone could literally get killed.”

Boyle says on skill, some of the best women in the world might compare to some Division 1 men’s college hockey players. It’s just difficult to overlook the physical aspect of the sport.

“The difference in the games, it’s one of those things that’s not sexist, but women are not as physically strong as men,” he said. “The physical demand of the NHL, it would take someone extraordinary, like a Hilary Knight type. I say might, because she’s 5-foot-10 170 pounds, but even that makes her very slight for NHL standards. She goes from power forward to really small and undersized. Getting hit by someone like Chara on a regular basis, I just don’t know if it’s realistic … The checking demand would make it extremely difficult for a female to do it.”

Pace of play

The pace of the men’s game, while not terribly different, does have some adjustments for someone who also plays the women’s game. Abby

Abby Newhook, left, of Tabor Academy, competes in a hockey game recently. Photo courtesy Tabor Academy.

Newhook, a sophomore at Tabor Academy in Marion, knows. Newhook served as the captain for the boys bantam team in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where she tallied 31 points in 38 games last season.

“I have played boys hockey all growing up until this year. It is so different than girls hockey on and off the ice,” said the 15-year-old, already committed to play women’s hockey at Boston College. “I feel like boys hockey has made me better over the years because it has challenged me and made me more physical and faster.

“Moving to the girls game, I couldn’t hit anybody, which is definitely a change because it is the whole part of the game with boys hockey,” she said. “Decision making with the puck is a lot quicker in the boys game versus the girls game. There is more time to make decisions.”

Those transitions can be just as difficult as playing.

“I stopped playing with the boys and went over to girls, but I still practiced with boys because the pace of the game was faster,” said Coyne. “But girls can grow up with girls hockey now, and we didn’t have that growing up.”

In an era in which women’s hockey is more prominent than ever, some might say the next logical step is for a woman to attempt to play — as a skater — in the NHL. But the reason that hasn’t happened may be as simple as women playing sports simply don’t need to exist in the context of men any longer.

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Manon Rheaume, in goal, watches as the puck goes into the corner during the professional debut against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 1992 at the Tampa Fairgrounds in Tampa, Florida. Rheaume is the first woman to play in one of the four major pro sports. She allowed two goals during the first period. (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove)

Tending goal

Women goalies have cracked men’s rosters, not on the regular, but more often than skaters.

Manon Rheaume was the only one to be rostered by an NHL team, in 1992 and 1993 by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Rheaume may have been a pioneer, but others have followed, and have seen extended professional playing time — including one goalie who was on the ice for the Buffalo Beauts against Kendall Coyne and the Minnesota Whitecaps in late December.

Shannon Szabados, the gold-medal winning Canadian goalie, signed to play women’s professional hockey with the Beauts in June. Prior to that, she’d been on the men’s circuit.

She grew up playing juniors in Edmonton, starting with MLAC Maple Leafs Midget AAA, and just stuck with men’s hockey all the way through.

FEBRUARY 5, 2019: Buffalo Beauts goaltender Shannon Szabados during a game in Boston, MA on Nov. 18, 2018. (Photo by Michelle Jay)

“I started playing at five and didn’t have options, so I played with guys,” she said. “I stuck with it all the way up, and there was no women’s hockey league. … Luckily now we have two leagues of professional women’s hockey. Hopefully, someday, one league.”

Szabados played in the Southern Professional Hockey League for three seasons, posting a .910 save percentage in 22 games with the Columbus Cottonmouths in 2015-16.

She has practiced with her hometown Oilers in the past and has had arguably more success in the men’s game than any other women’s player in North America. But she’s content with the Beauts.

“It’s an adjustment on odd-man rushes, but that’s about it,” she said. “In men’s hockey, the (defenseman) can step up and completely eliminate the player, where in the women’s game, more times than not that’s going to be an entry into the zone.”

Noora Raty has some experience playing with men, as well. The 29-year-old Finnish star, now playing with the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays of the CWHL, posted a 3.59 goals against average in 17 games with KJT in her native country.

“The women’s game has a lot of hooks and trips and stick play, and with guys they can use the body to get someone off the puck,” she said. “All that slashing is gone. It’s easier to defend on the men’s side than the women’s side.

“It’s a different world for goalies.”

All those differences for a player who isn’t supposed to be hit, regardless of gender, all because of the physical nature of the sport.

“The reality, if you look at every sport with records of physical performance, women’s (records) aren’t equal to men’s,” said Boyle. “Whatever it is, they’re always going to be in that same situation.”

Closing a divide

In the skill department, the gap — which was never terribly large, anyways — is closing.

Competing after Coyne in the NHL All-Star Skills Competition, Brianna Decker posted the fastest time in the All-Star Premier Passing contest. Her unofficial time of 1:06 was three seconds better than official winner Leon Draisaitl. A year earlier, Hilary Knight finished what would have been third in the shooting accuracy contest, behind just Vancouver’s Brock Boeser and New Jersey’s Brian Boyle.

Regardless, if an all-world athlete like Knight can score on Szabados, she could score on some of the lesser men’s goalies as well. And plenty of men’s players don’t go in the corner to take a hit, but still litter NHL rosters for their scoring ability.

“As far as a tactical standpoint, the game has slight differences,” said Szabados. “There’s not full-out body contact, so in the women’s game there’s more puck possession, chances to score. Hockey’s hockey, but at the same time there’s minor details like that.”

Northeastern womens hockey photos. Alina Mueller. Please credit Jim Pierce/Northeastern Athletics.

Northeastern freshman Alina Mueller has plenty of experience doing just that. The Swiss forward began playing at 6-years-old with boys and eventually joined a team, where she played for eight years before playing with EFC Kloten’s heralded U17 boys elite team.

“I worked hard off the ice so that I was in the best shape I could be to prevent injuries,” she said. “On the ice, I tried to be smarter than my opponents and think ahead, as well as be agile and quick on my skates.”

With Kloten, Mueller improved every year, with 6, 14, and then 20 points across 31 games in 2016-17. Much like the Boston Pride’ Kaleigh Fratkin, the adjustment going back to the women’s game was more challenging.

“I like to use my body, especially in the corner or in a battle,” said Mueller. “Up until now, I sometimes take penalties for bodychecking. Besides the physical difference, I had to learn to be more patient with the puck in women’s hockey.”

Mueller noted, “boys’ bodies are often stronger and thus, many of them can skate and shoot harder than in the women’s game, except Kendall Coyne.”

Ultimately, for those on the ice, hockey is just hockey.

“The style isn’t that much different,” said Coyne. “The guys are a little bit bigger and the pace a little bit quicker. At the end of the day it’s the same game and making decisions a little bit quicker.”

FLYING HIGH: Kendall Coyne (left) and Hilary Knight skate around the ice with the American flag following yesterday’s 3-2 shootout victory against Canada.

Future change

Ultimately, women aren’t trying to make the NHL anymore.

Since U.S. women’s national team members boycotted in 2017 for equal pay and treatment with their male counterparts, women’s hockey has been uniquely united — remarkable, given that the two leagues in North America have a history of bad blood.

That might mean abandoning the mindset of men’s hockey being the pinnacle altogether, and instead making room for women’s hockey. The NHL continues to state a desire for the two women’s leagues to either merge or conform to something of which it approves.

But the Bruins joined a host of other teams — the Sabres, Devils, Wild, Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Flames — in offering tangible financial support.

“We’re very supportive of the women’s game,” said commissioner Gary Bettman. “We’re not looking to start a third league, so we’re going to wait to see how things play out. At the right time, we might get involved. But the circumstances would have to change from where they are now.”

They might also have to change within the NHL. For women, the doors onto the rink aren’t the only ones closed. The league hired its first full time female coach in 2016, with Hayley Wickenheiser’s hiring last August as Toronto’s assistant director of player development. It was the first tangible suggestion a woman might someday lead a team.

Women’s hockey has continued to grow despite that.

“Rather than worrying about competing with men, they’re worried about their own game,” said Boyle. “They’re making professional leagues. There’s more emphasis there instead of wanting to play with men. That’s not the goal anymore.”

With a place to thrive all their own, without the need to live up to any male notions of what’s better, women’s hockey players are better off than ever.

“Today, I don’t think it’s an issue girls have to look at,” said Szabados. “There’s so many options out there starting at 5 years old. There’s so many teams around. I always joke with my friends I wish I was born 15 or 20 years ago, because those girls will have it made by the time they grow up to be professional hockey players.”

Someday, as men’s hockey continues to evolve, there might be room for someone who can skate or score as well as anyone in their league, regardless of their ability to take a hit. But until then, the other half of the best in the world are playing hockey in a way all their own — a way that, as Coyne proved, is not entirely unequal.

“They kept saying they were a little nervous I’d beat them,” she said of her fastest-skater experience. “I had full confidence in them, so for them to have full confidence in me was pretty cool.”



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