Canada beats U.S. on ice, but women's game is real winner

By Nolan Bianchi
Special to The Detroit News
U.S's Kacey Bellamy (22) and Canada's Natalie Spooner (24) mix it up in the corner near the end of the second period.

Detroit — “Hockey Week Across America” didn’t exactly start the way that the United States women’s team would have hoped.

Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados shut out the Americans in Sunday’s “Rivalry Series” finale at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, making 38 saves, and Canada rode goals from Brianne Jenner and Blayre Turnbull to a 2-0 victory that secured a 2-1 series win.

But still, in a lot of ways, the game and series itself is considered a win for women’s hockey in the States.

“I think the rivalry series was great for us,” three-time Olympian Hilary Knight said.

“The turnout was great and I think if it continues to pop on the calendar, we’re going to get even more people out next year.”

A crowd of 9,048 packed into the arena’s lower bowl, with many rows of fans occupied by young girls donning youth-league jerseys and witnessing their idols in action for the first time — a chance for moments of self-actualization that stars like Knight and captain Kendall Coyne Schofield experienced growing up.

“I remember when I was younger and not necessarily knowing women’s hockey existed,” Knight said.

“And all of a sudden, we’ve got a gold medal (in the 1998 Olympics), and that’s awesome, and then seeing the team play live in Chicago. So, now that we’re in Detroit, to have other youth clubs come out and support us and really see what women’s hockey is about at this level is a unique opportunity.”

Similarly, Coyne Schofield also got the chance to see the United States’ women’s team in action at the United Center in 2006 — where she was like “a bug on the glass,” she recalled — and with that experience in mind, is taking full advantage of the opportunity she’s helped forge.

Coyne Schofield was a key member of 2018’s Olympic gold-medal team, and on Jan. 25, put everybody on notice by kicking off the NHL’s fastest skater competition on All-Star weekend with a time of 14.346.

“Seeing the impact (the Olympic gold medal) had on women and girls and young people playing hockey was unbelievable,” Coyne Schofield said.

“But the moment three weeks ago impacted the world. It changed the perception of our game. … One of the few comments I’ve gotten that’ve made me smile is when a few parents have said, ‘My son wants to skate as fast as you.’ ”

A crosscheck to the neck of Knight in the second period would indicate that the United States-Canada rivalry isn’t a friendly one. The nations have collected all six Olympic gold medals since the women’s event was introduced in 1998, and at the end of the day, take their opportunity as a tandem of superpowers in an often-unheralded subsection of the game seriously.

“I said it to Canadian players, I said it to our players, credit is due to every single player,” Coyne Schofield said about her opportunity to represent the women’s game at the skills competition.

“We put product on the ice that led to that moment, for people to believe that we deserve to be out there with the men.”

According to data provided by USA Hockey in its 2017-18 end-of-year report, those efforts have been fruitful: The number of females registered in USA hockey grew 4.65 percent compared to the previous year, while the number of males registered grew by 1.84 percent.

Former Michigan State Spartan and Calgary Flames second-round draft pick Nicolas Perreault, 46, was just one coach to arrange for his team to get a row of seats in Sunday’s game, with hopes of inspiring the 10U USA Wildflowers (Bloomfield Hills) to witness a “high caliber of hockey with women playing” from section 113.

“I think that gives them a whole new idea of what they can do in hockey and how much they can compete, and that they can be as good as boys,” Perreault said. “I think deep inside they think they can, but they’re not sure without seeing it.”

Knight, Coyne Schofield and Brianna Decker all said after the game that they hoped the Rivalry Series would become an annual event.

Aside from “increasing the visibility of the game,” Knight said, it’s also an opportunity “to help us prepare for the (IIHF) World Championships,” which takes place annually in April.

While there’s a lot of hockey to play before a possible gold-medal game rematch can take place in the IIHF Worlds, the teams have faced off in the finals for all 18 installments of the tournament. With both teams still at the top of their sport, another matchup seems imminent.

And if that’s the case, at least one thing is certain.

The girls will be watching.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.