As the second annual NWHL All-Star Game looks to turn the page on an otherwise difficult month of December in league circles, its midseason showcase shall set a new precedent, going out of market, potentially appealing to a wider fan base. Considering that the NFL Pro Bowl was traditionally hosted in Hawaii, while the NBA experimented with going out of market by hosting its All-Star Game in Las Vegas, the trend follows in women’s hockey, as the NWHL brings its shining stars to Pittsburgh.
Beginning with a Skills Competition on February 11, the game itself will follow on February 12. The UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, which is also the practice facility of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, shall serve as the venue for both days.
Each All-Star roster will consist of two goaltenders, four defenders and eight forwards. While an All-Star Draft shall take place to fill out rosters, a recent online vote saw more than 20,000 fans make their picks over the course of two weeks. The top four vote getters earned a place at the All-Star Game, including Gigi Marvin of the Boston Pride, Harrison Browne of the Buffalo Beauts, who has become a courageous inspiration for so many the first transgender athlete in modern professional sport, along with Madison Packer and Rebecca Russo of the New York Riveters.
For a city with such a rich sporting history, it signified the second time this decade that the Iron City will make its historic mark in women’s sports. In 2012, Heinz Field hosted the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) championship game, which marked the first time that a female football championship game was contested in an NFL venue.
With the upcoming NWHL All-Star Game, it represents the first professional women’s ice hockey game in the state of Pennsylvania. For the budding league, this marks the second straight season that they brought their brand to another state, as the Boston Pride visited the Minnesota Whitecaps for the first professional games in the State of Hockey.
The prestige of the All-Star Game also serves to add to a growing women’s hockey legacy in Pittsburgh. At the NCAA level, the nearby Robert Morris Colonials from Moon Township captured a postseason title in the College Hockey America conference, usurping state rival Mercyhurst in 2012. Among their most notable alums are Brianne McLaughlin, a two-time Winter Games medalist, Delaney Brian, a 2016 Clarkson Cup champion, and Rebecca Vint, who was named to the 2017 CWHL All-Star Game.
In addition, a pair of successful girls programs has emerged as one of the nation’s most competitive, producing a plethora of talent. Competing at the Tier I level, the Pittsburgh Penguin Elite Girls are among the most competitive clubs at the Tier I level of the Mid American District, with the Under-12, U-14, U-16 and U-19 levels. Associated with the Steel City Selects, who compete at the Tier II level, these teams have emerged as a success story. Among the notable Elite Girls competing at the NCAA level include Jessica Brown, Pippy Gerace and Ashley Vesci.
Fittingly, the two players honored as NWHL All-Star captains hold unique ties to Pittsburgh. Amanda Kessel, who signed the most lucrative contract in league history with the New York Riveters, had a most memorable spring. In addition to helping the Minnesota Golden Gophers capture the Frozen Four in her final season with the program, her older brother Phil was a key contributor towards the Pittsburgh Penguins winning their fourth Stanley Cup, defeating the San Jose Sharks.
Having played with Kessel in a gold medal effort with Team USA at the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championships, a significant aspect of Kelley Steadman’s hockey glories took place in the Keystone State. At the NCAA level, she suited up for the Erie-based Mercyhurst Lakers. Currently one of the Buffalo Beauts franchise players, she also serves as director of operations for the Robert Morris Colonials women’s ice hockey program.