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PWHL players joining NHL All-Star festivities is a chance to celebrate and grow the new league

Women's hockey has been on quite the sprint for the past seven months. Plans for a new pro league were unveiled in July, training camps opened in November and the puck dropped on the inaugural season in January.

A month in, the launch of the Professional Women's Hockey League has been, by all accounts, a resounding win, from multiple attendance records being broken to the quality of play. Two dozen of the PWHL's top players took part in a 3-on-3 showcase game at NHL All-Star Weekend on Thursday night, and their role in the festivities is a chance for members of the league to celebrate the successful start and get even more exposure on an international stage.

“It’s good to sort of press the pause button and take a step back and really appreciate everything that we’ve accomplished as a group,” Boston captain and U.S. Olympic champion Hilary Knight said.

Women's players have been involved in NHL All-Star Weekend several times now, including longtime U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield stealing the show in the fastest skater event in the 2019 skills competition. Last year, Canada's Sarah Nurse scored a goal on New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin to the delight of the crowd in South Florida.

Those times, they were known as U.S. or Canadian national team players. This time, they are on the ice in Toronto in the uniforms of the PWHL's six teams, advertising the rapid progress women's hockey has made since last summer.

"It’s only been seven months to the date, and so it’s pretty remarkable what we’ve been able to do in seven months," said Coyne Schofield, who scored for the team named for Billie Jean King in the 5-3 victory over the team named for Ilana Kloss. “Now here we are representing the PWHL, a league that we’ve dreamed about for a very long time.”

The league, financed by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter and born out of the purchase and dispersal of the Premier Hockey Federation that many of the top players refused to join, is thriving so far.

PWHL teams in Boston, Minnesota, New York, Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa have combined to draw nearly 5,000 fans a game for a total of 106,658 through 22 games. Minnesota on Jan. 6 set the record for the biggest crowd to attend a professional women's hockey game with 13,316 at the Wild's home arena in St. Paul.

“Attendance has been fantastic, and we knew it,” said retired U.S. player Meghan Duggan, the New Jersey Devils' director of player development and a coach of the 3-on-3 game. “It’s that ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality that a lot of the players have been saying for a long time. But I think the product has been excellent. I’m at home, I turn on the games every single night and I’m on the edge of my seat. I’m watching a lot of them over NHL games. That’s what we wanted to see.”

NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said the league loves the idea of having the best men's and women's players in the same building at All-Star Weekend.

“We’ll continue to lean in and work with the women’s players and have them as part of our world,” Mayer said. “It just makes it a better event.”

The only thing that would be better, Coyne Schofield said, is having every PWHL player taking part. But, she added: “It absolutely is a reflection of all the hard work. We’re off to such a great start.”

Just the start, though, because the season resumes Saturday with Coyne Schofield and Minnesota visiting Nurse and Toronto at sold-out 2,500-seat Mattamy Athletic Center, the site of the former Maple Leaf Gardens. Toronto's Feb. 16 game against Montreal has been moved to 19,800-seat Scotiabank Arena, which is another opportunity for an attendance record.

“I was hopefully optimistic going into the season, what it was going to be like in each market and attendance and obviously the excitement around the league,” Nurse said. “Everything has blown away my expectations.”

Knowing so many of her contemporaries and predecessors spent years building to this point, top PWHL draft pick Taylor Heise at 23 called NHL All-Star Weekend a well-deserved honor for everyone. But she's already looking forward.

“It’s funny,” Heise said. "You can breathe out and be like, OK, we’re here. But now where do we go from here, I think, is the next question."

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AP Women’s Hockey: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-hockey