"On Wednesday afternoon, the NWHL announced that they’d be hosting their second All-Star Game in Pittsburgh at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, where the Pittsburgh Penguins practice. The news comes only a day after Dani Rylan penned an open letter teasing an out of market event. The two-day event will take place on the weekend of February 11-12; the actual ASG will be on Sunday."
The league also announced that Kelley Steadman and Amanda Kessel will serve as captains of the two teams, as both have ties to the Pittsburgh area. Steadman, who was an All-Star last year, is the director of hockey operations at Robert Morris University. Kessel, who played one regular season game this year before she was sidelined by an injury, is the sister of Phil Kessel, who plays for the Penguins in the NHL.
Dani Rylan was able to clarify certain details about the weekend and answer some questions from The Ice Garden via email correspondence.
For starters, the league’s partnership with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the All-Star weekend is a one-time deal, said Rylan. They’ll be working with the team and some of their staff to make the entire weekend a reality.
“The partnership with the Penguins is specifically for All-Star Weekend — nothing beyond that at this time,” said Rylan. “The Penguins have been incredible partners on this from the start, with President & CEO David Morehouse being so welcoming to the NWHL and our players, to the executives in the sales, marketing and facility divisions with the Penguins, and also the team’s PR staff, which has really gotten behind this and is already working with us on ways to promote all of the All-Star Weekend events.”
Since the league announced the location for the ASG, there has already been some buzz around the event. The Pittsburgh Penguins tweeted out a link to the announcement on their website, and Phil Kessel spoke about the event after a recent Penguins practice.
If the Penguins and the league continue to work together in a way that promotes the NWHL and the All-Star Game, it could be exactly what the NWHL needs in terms of press coverage. The league mentioned that every major sports outlet in Pittsburgh had reached out to them after the announcement. Especially after they got so much coverage when pay cuts were announced, some positive press is just what the league needs.
Rylan also made it clear that this particular event has been in the works for a long time:
We first started looking at taking it outside of market about six months ago, heard from several strong venues and cities, and just could not pass up an opportunity to work with the defending Stanley Cup champions and their outstanding executive team. The Penguins run an Elite women’s hockey program in the area and are one of the most dedicated teams in the NHL when it comes to area youth hockey, so we know there’s a strong potential audience for this game. One of the Penguins’ executives told us this morning, ‘Having your role models in Pittsburgh will be great for us.’ We loved hearing that.
The women’s hockey programs and girls’ youth hockey programs in the area were both mentioned by Rylan as reasons the NWHL decided to come to Pittsburgh. This gives them an audience to market to - one that has never seen NWHL hockey live before unless they’ve traveled to a game - and the potential to work with women’s teams themselves, whether that be through clinics or other events. In short, this isn’t just about the All-Star Game. It’s about women’s hockey in general, and growing the reach and exposure of the league to other women’s hockey programs in a new area.
For fans or season ticket holders who may be concerned that the event is farther away, Rylan didn’t rule out the possibility that there may be an All-Star weekend back in an NWHL market in the future (if there are more ASGs beyond this season):
“We are enjoying great partnerships with all four of our team’s facilities this season,” said Rylan. “I’m sure there will be All-Star Games in the future in our league venues. But this is a chance for the league to grow its existing fan base and increase awareness of the women’s game — AND in a big hockey town that isn’t far from the rest of the league. We’ve heard from many fans and media members about their frustrations that the game isn’t bigger or promoted better, and that’s understandable. Well, this is a one-weekend-only opportunity to showcase our players and league — and yes, drive the business — in a big way beyond our four cities.”
Hosting the ASG in Pittsburgh is a way for the NWHL to grow the game without having to expand, comparable to the CWHL taking the Clarkson Cup to Ottawa last year. Even if the league sells out the game, the maximum capacity for the rink is roughly 1500, which isn’t quite the same stage as the Canadian Tire Centre.
The exposure the NWHL seems to be looking for is more on the national level, like mainstream media coverage from Pittsburgh and other national outlets. Widespread coverage would certainly look appealing to potential sponsors or investors that might want to work with the league.
It’s an effort by the league to make new fans in a new place. Time will tell if the marketing and press that Rylan and the league has expressed so much excitement over will live up to the hype.
But the new fans in Pittsburgh will have to wait, at least a little longer, before they get a team of their own. Expansion isn’t in the cards for the league- yet.
“There are currently no plans for expansion to speak of at this moment,” said Rylan. “When the time comes, we view every great hockey town in North America as a good candidate, and we’ve heard from many.
“But one step at a time. It’s well-documented that there’s more work to do and successes that need to be had. But if and when the league decides the time is right, I think you’d have to agree that Pittsburgh would be a very viable candidate.”
And the ASG will be an excellent test to see if that potential fan base will be there for the NWHL come February.