STAMFORD, Conn. — On Sunday afternoon at Chelsea Piers Connecticut, the hometown Whale defeated the New York Riveters 4–1 in the first-ever women’s professional hockey game. Connecticut forward Jessica Koizumi scored the landmark goal for the fledgling National Women’s Hockey League 2:28 into the first period, and what followed was a fast-paced and physical matchup fraught with excitement.
Kelli Stack, Shiann Darkangelo and Kelly Babstock added tallies for the Whale while Brooke Ammerman scored the first goal in Riveters history. Jaimie Leonoff stopped 35 of 36 shots to go down as the first winner in NWHL history, while New York goalie Nana Fujimoto was saddled with the loss.
Here are three thoughts on the historic game:
1. The hockey was great, but it also wasn’t the point.
Sure, the passing was crisp, the shots were accurate and the speed was just what you’d expect from Olympic-level athletes, but the puck drop between the Riveters and Whale was a signal that the future is now for women’s hockey. During the week leading up to the inaugural game, several players expressed the importance of connecting with fans and building for the next generation. Chelsea Piers isn’t exactly a venue built for professional sports, but the intimate setting put fans—many of which were young girls sporting local youth team jerseys—right on top of the action, up close and personal with their new heroes. When Koiziumi broke the ice (pun intended) with her historic goal, the sold-out crowd, with many fans lining the glass around the entire rink, turned into a happily screaming mass. When the buzzer finally sounded, everyone walked out with a smile.
2. It’s the little things.
For a league that was only announced in April, the product has a very polished feel. The gush-worthy jerseys feature a nameplate on the bottom so players can wear ponytails. The PA system blared pretty familiar tunes for all ages of hockey fans, from Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift to the Hartford Whalers’ classic Brass Bonanza when the Whale scored.
There were free pucks, handouts with player bios and team schedules. Merchandise was readily available. Connecticut players sat at tables and signed autographs for hundreds of fans after their win. The New York–Connecticut matchup and the Boston Pride–Buffalo Beauts game were streamed online—for free! The league and its teams have starred on social media. For all the comparisons to failed attempts at leagues for women and with the NHL keeping a close eye on things, the NWHL went the distance in putting as much thought as possible into the little things that will make it work.
3. The league will succeed because of its players.
And it’s not necessarily due to their on-ice skills, either. The players themselves are PR dreamboats, constantly tweeting and Instagramming their daily lives as they continue to live out their dreams of playing pro hockey. They have personality and appeal and recognize the magnitude of what they’re accomplishing. Stars will be born, and there are already more than Hilary Knight, Meghan Duggan, Stack and their fellow Olympic teammates—Japanese import Fujimoto’s jersey has become the NWHL’s biggest seller. A contingent of young girls seated in the front row at Chelsea Piers repeatedly chanted “We want Chelsea! We want Chelsea!” for Connecticut backup goalie Chelsea Laden. Every goal, every hit, every dangle (and there were plenty of all) introduced fans to another new favorite player. Yes, the league made the history it set out to, but the players are committed to bringing anyone and everyone along for the ride.