Marking a big moment for women athletes past, present – and future

Cassidy McNeeley proudly shows of her college logo prior to her senior season.

Growing up playing hockey, I dreamt of becoming the first girl in the NHL. Today, little girls everywhere have an even better dream: playing in the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL).

Last Wednesday, Minnesota beat Boston, 3-0, in the inaugural PWHL championship game, but it was female athletes worldwide who were the true winners. As I listened to fans chanting “Thank you, Boston” and then watched Kendall Coyne Schofield of Minnesota raise the Walter Cup for the very first time, I was surprised to find myself tearing up.

The PWHL has been a long time in the making. Throughout my hockey career, I have witnessed the founding and failure of various professional leagues, but 2022 marked an entirely new era for women’s hockey. That was the year when the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association teamed up with Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter and tennis legend Billie Jean King to acquire the assets of the Premiere Hockey Federation (PHF). The group then shut down the federation’s operations and established the PWHL, hoping to create a unified and sustainable professional league.

The first PWHL draft was in September 2023 and by January 2024 games had begun. Since then, the play of the league’s six teams have captivated thousands.

I have to be honest: At first, I wasn’t confident the league would be successful. I thought we would have to add another chapter to the failed attempts of professional women’s hockey leagues.

I am so happy I was wrong.

As the games continued, dedicated fan bases were quickly established. On May 20 of this year, history was made at the Bell Centre when 21,105 fans watched Montreal take on Toronto. This has since been recorded as the largest attendance ever for a women’s hockey game worldwide.

The playoffs proved to be just as exciting as more than 13,000 fans formed a sea of purple and cheered on Minnesota in Game 4 at the Xcel Energy Center. After 60 minutes of play, the game went into double overtime and was thought to have ended when Minnesota’s Sophie Jaques scored. After further review, the goal was overturned due to goalie interference.

Boston’s Alina Muller responded less than a minute later, sending the puck over the left shoulder of Nicole Hensley to force a Game 5.
Those who weren’t already PWHL fans quickly hopped on the bandwagon after the dramatic finish to five periods of hockey. At the end of the game, tickets for the next one were already being re-sold for thousands of dollars. While the crowds were impressive, seeing how passionate the fans were made watching the game so special.

I’ve played hockey since I was three years old. That’s what happens when you have two older brothers you idolize. Despite being given pink snow pants and bright white figure skates, I wanted to be just like them. Whether it was my lack of grace or my immense amount of energy, it didn’t take long for my parents to switch me over to hockey.

For most of my childhood, I was the only girl on my team but I still shared the same goal as all my teammates. Like them, I imagined myself taking my rookie lap in my first NHL game. Preferably in the black and gold.

As I got older, and more all-girls teams were established, I realized I wasn’t good enough to skate alongside my childhood idols. So, college hockey became the new dream. It was the highest level of women’s hockey that I watched, so it was the level I wanted to reach.

The road to college hockey was great, but my junior hockey teammates and I often joked that it was “dress like a seat night” at each game. No one around us seemed to care about women’s hockey. Still, somehow my love for the game only grew.

After high school, I attended Trinity College where I was a member and captain of the women’s ice hockey team. Those were the best years of my life to date. After four seasons (if you count our unusual Covid year), my lifelong journey with hockey ended abruptly in the NESCAC quarterfinals.

On Feb. 26, 2022, I took my last faceoff with tears streaming down my face. I hoped that if I won the puck back to my defenseman and skated fast enough, somehow, I would beat the clock. After the final buzzer rang, I left the ice slowly as I looked up at my mom and dad in the stands. I went to the locker room where I hesitantly took off my gear. I haven’t put it back on since.

Even though I’ve spent countless hours in the rink and on the ice coaching the past two years, I can’t help but feel as though I lost a large part of my identity that day. When I watched Game 5 of the PWHL finals last Wednesday night I felt as though I had found that tenacious little girl once again. As I ate dinner at a restaurant in Norfolk, I scanned the room and noticed that each and every TV was broadcasting the game. Better yet, people were paying attention. It wasn’t just background noise.

Between the second and the third period, I returned home to watch the game’s final period. While I’m a die-hard Boston sports fan, I wasn’t upset when Minnesota won. Instead, I watched the players cry tears of joy as they raised the beautiful Tiffany & Co. Walter Cup and I cried along with them.

I cried for the little me who lacked female role models, I cried for the college me who said goodbye to the game, I cried for all the women on the ice that day and everything they’ve done, but, most importantly, I cried for the little girls in the stands who were watching across the world.

Soon enough the 35-pound sterling silver cup will be engraved with the Minnesota roster, and while these names will forever go down in history, the future for so many others has just begun.

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