ELMONT, N.Y. — This was a dream come true, of sorts, for Ella Shelton and her PWHL New York teammates.
On Jan. 10, the Professional Women’s Hockey League — in its inaugural season — made its first of four stops at UBS Arena this season in what was the first-ever pro women’s hockey game at the NHL rink, which is home of the New York Islanders.
“I think it’s great to be able to come in and use their facilities. It’s top-notch,” Shelton, who scored her second goal of the season that evening, said after her side fell 5-2 to PWHL Montreal. “It’s the treatment that we’ve been wanting and deserve, as well. To be able to come in this facility and play on that ice was kind of a dream come true to play in a big NHL rink.”
New York is one of the six founding members of the new league, which looks to finally provide a stable, long-lasting women’s league in North America. Amongst a 24-game season, four of New York’s 12 home games are at UBS Arena this season — the other eight taking place at Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport, CT, which is home of the Islanders’ AHL affiliate.
The hope is that sooner rather than later, New York can call UBS Arena their full-time home rather than setting up its base in Connecticut full-time and making the 60-mile trip for what resembles an away game at the Islanders’ rink.
“I’m very optimistic that this whole thing is going to grow,” PWHL New York head coach Howie Draper said amongst a seldom-seen scrum of reporters. “Not just for New York, but for everybody. The attendance that we’ve seen at the games — this is very rare for a women’s hockey coach to have 10-12 media members around. It’s very, very rare… It’s exciting what’s being generated here.
“I think the fans can see and I hope you can all see how strong and gifted these players are, how hard they work… The foundation is there. The league is doing some great things that’s going to help us build that foundation to continue to solidify it so that we can complete the pyramid.”
UBS Arena is one of two NHL rinks that are being used. PWHL Minnesota is playing full-time at Xcel Energy Center, the 18,000-seat venue that is home to the Wild. Their first game saw 13,000 fans attend while in Ottawa, 8,000 showed up to watch their PWHL squad.
There’s significantly more competition in New York given the eight “Big 4” sports teams that call the area home, but the crowd of 2,200 in the 17,250-seat UBS Arena is a promising start for the region’s newest hockey team.
“No one has an exact script for how this league is going to go, but this is an amazing starting point,” PWHL New York winger Jessie Eldgridge, who scored the first PWHL ever at UBS Arena, said. “If we can continue to grow a fan base here and get more people out, there will be no reason why we can’t be here.”
The stability of the league itself will only strengthen the chances of that happening.
Following the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2019, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) boycotted the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) — a North American league established in 2015 — due to poor working conditions. The boycott ended when the PHF was purchased by American businessman and the CEO of Guggenheim Partners, Mark Walter, who worked with the players’ union to revise the league, which transformed into the PWHL, with different ownership and management.
“The way we started this all together, it’s been years in the making,” Canadian national team captain and PWHL Montreal superstar Marie-Philip Poulin said. “We fee it. We can see it. It’s great to see on social media and on TV, how amazing it is to watch women’s hockey. People are talking about it and they want to come and see it. That’s what we wanted. We’ve been for many years, if you can see it, you can be it. That’s where we are.”
The NHL worked alongside the new league to help provide a blueprint for success while the PWHL secured a vital television partnership deal in Canada with TSN, Sportsnet, and CBC. In the United States, all games are streamed on the league’s official YouTube channel.
In New York, if the product is entertaining and, more importantly, successful, then the belief is that the sky is the limit — and that the Islanders will have a co-tenant.
“The spotlight is there for them. They deserve it,” PWHL New York general manager Pascal Daoust said. “The league is taking care of them… the building we decided to sign with is a great building, it’s an NHL building. The staff that we have been able to hire, it takes commitment from the league, it takes money to have that great staff join us. It’s not just about the content, it’s the wrap around it. It’s how you’re going to wrap everything and that it looks good. But inside, it’s not like cheap cereal. It’s good cereal inside the box.”