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As puck drops on opening day, NWHL focused on sport’s long-term growth

The puck dropped on the NWHL on Sunday, with the Boston Pride beating the Buffalo Beauts and the Connecticut Whale topping the New York Riveters. While competition will be fierce, the main focus is on growing women’s hockey in the long term.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Meghan Duggan is no stranger to being on a big stage. She’s one of the most accomplished women’s players in NCAA history, a five-time gold medalist in the World Championships and a two-time Olympian.

Heck, in the most recent Winter Olympics in 2014, Duggan captained the U.S. women to within a sudden-death overtime goal of a gold medal.

Yet even for Duggan, a 28-year-old forward with the Buffalo Beauts who’s used to being involved in big deals, Sunday’s NWHL opener against the Boston Pride was kind of a big deal. It was opening day for the newly created women’s professional league, which after months of anticipation opened with its first two games in league history: Boston, led by two goals from Hilary Knight, bested Duggan’s Beauts 4–1 in Buffalo while the Connecticut Whale defeated the New York Riveters earlier in the day in Stamford, Conn, also by a 4–1 score.

“The vision to create this league was phenomenal,” Duggan said. “Today was about keeping your emotions in check. Obviously it’s an exciting day for women’s hockey, and it’s exciting for us. There’s been a big buildup.

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“Coming out in warmups and seeing all those little girls out there, that was us. That’s why we do it. We were watching the Cammi Granatos and Angela Ruggieros of the day. That was us. Now this is us wanting to elevate the game and push women’s hockey to be better.”

As much as the NWHL is geared toward growing women’s hockey for future generations, it began with a nod to its past.

The only woman to ever appear in an NHL game, Manon Rheaume, was in attendance promoting Between the Pipes, an upcoming movie about her experiences playing in a preseason game for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992. She dropped the puck in the ceremonial opening faceoff before Sunday’s NWHL opener.

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“When I was younger, I didn’t have anybody to look up to,” Rheaume said. “I had to look up to NHL players. Guys were what I was looking up to. Now for young girls, they can come to these games and think that they can do this one day.”

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Beyond the final scores of the games and impressive near-capacity crowds in both cities, the chance to grow women’s sports and to give young girls role models was why Sunday was such a monumental day for women’s hockey.

This is why even after the final buzzers sounded and the players shook hands, much of the two arenas remained filled with fans: some cheering, others participating in public skates with the players, taking pictures and getting autographs from young women who if they had never heard their names before Sunday, they’ll never forget them after.

“To skate with the fans like we did, I think it’s a great way to connect with the fans,” said Megan Bozek, a 24-year-old forward with the Beauts who won an Olympic silver medal with the U.S. in 2014.

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“We want them to come back. Opening day has all the hype. We had almost a sold-out arena. But we want these little girls to come back to more games because one day they’re going to dream about doing this. If we’re living our dream, we want to make sure they have the chance to live theirs. If we can help them, that’s great.”

What was also great was the competition.

Make no mistake, as much as NWHL players are focused on growing women’s hockey and spreading goodwill, they’re also highly accomplished hockey players. The league features more than a half-dozen former Olympians and scores of college veterans who know how to play the game right and crank up the intensity, producing a brand of hockey that’s as competitive as it is inspiring.

So even though the league’s objectives extend beyond a single game or season or win-loss records, the pedigree of the players involved is elite and their desire to be more than just inspiring is high.

“You’re friends off the ice, but you want to battle on the ice,” Bozek said. “It’s great to be part of this and making history. But we are all here to win.”

Although win may be a subjective term. Because even though the scoreboard will sometimes read otherwise, there really are no losers in the NWHL’s inaugural season.