As I walked into Westwood Arena on Sat. Sept. 21, I felt like a kid on Christmas walking down the stairs. Instead of walking into a room filled with a bright Christmas tree riddled with presents under it, I walked into a hockey arena filled with hopeful energy, scrambling volunteers, and several young hockey players ready to watch their idols take the ice for the first time in months.
At the end of August, when the PWHPA announced that the first stop of the Dream Gap Tour was going to be in Toronto, I knew that I immediately needed to be a part of it.
I was the Toronto Furies social media manager for the 2018-19 season. The experience was one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done. There was something special about the culture in the CWHL and having the opportunity to be around it was humbling.
Then, the CWHL announced that they were ceasing operations. I had no clue if I would ever cover those players and be around that environment ever again. It was a tough time. There was uncertainty, confusion. It all just felt like one giant nightmare that nobody could wake up from.
When I interned for the Furies, I felt like I was part of a family. Every time I would show up to the rink, I would see the same people, the players got to know me and always gave me a smile or said hello, and the staff and volunteers took me under the wing. I felt safe and at home.
Westwood Arena and the PWHPA brought me back home this weekend.
I walked throughout the arena’s lobby, dodging and stumbling over hockey bags and passing by several fans awaiting the doors to be officially open. With warmups on the horizon I had a few things on my mind. First of all, I needed a coffee. Second of all, what kind of merch do they have? And finally, third of all, I can’t wait to see Sarah Nurse and Natalie Spooner on a line together again in person.
Once I grabbed myself a coffee, I entered the rink and to the right was a table filled with PWHPA adidas hoodies, t-shirts and pucks. I told myself I would wait till in between games to buy anything. What a mistake that was. At about halfway through the first game almost all of their weekend stock for merch was gone. Hot commodity apparently eh? By the way, for those wondering and keeping track at home, I was able to pick myself up a t-shirt.
There was something really special about the vibe on the ice this weekend. It was almost like a sense of a relief from the players the moment they stepped back out there after a VERY long and frustrating summer. “We’re trying to put a great product out there, just so that those little girls can have dreams like we did when we were little,” Team Johnston defender, Kacey Bellamy mentioned in a press conference after game one.
With the packed Toronto crowd on their side, the members of the PWHPA proved how good of an on-ice product they could provide. It was intense. It was action packed. But most importantly, it was fun.
It felt like playoff hockey at times. Everyone wanted to win, and everyone in the building was feeding off of their energy. There were plenty of goals, big saves and “spiciness”. You would’ve never guessed that most of those players haven’t played game pace hockey since April ... using brand new equipment, nonetheless.
The motivating force behind the PWHPA was evident all weekend.
Need to find as much joy in life like Marie-Philip Poulin finds joy in greeting fans 🥰 pic.twitter.com/VAvNVxisPT— The Ice Garden (@TheIceGarden) September 22, 2019
From the moment Team Johnston and Team Jenner hit the ice for warmups in Game 1 to the moment Team Poulin and Team Jenner left the ice at the conclusion of Game 4, each and every single player made sure every fan felt important and loved. They never missed a fist bump coming out of the tunnel, signed countless amounts of autograph, took numerous amounts of selfies, all with a smile on their face. I had never wanted to use the #ForTheKids hashtag more in my entire life than I did this weekend.
Before Team Knox and Team Johnston hit the ice Sunday morning, I was sitting in the lobby pumping coffee into my body once again. I saw former Toronto Furies and current Battle of the Blades contestant Natalie Spooner approach a young fan who was decked out in Furies gear. She picked her up, gave her a huge hug and asked how she was doing. It was like watching two best friends reunite and it was also single handily one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen in my life. Little moments like that are the reason why women’s hockey is special.
As I experienced every single moment this weekend all I could think about was how much I wish the Dream Gap Tour existed when I was younger. As a now 21-year-old I sit back and wonder how 12-year-old-me would’ve reacted to watching the likes of my hockey heroes; Meghan Agosta and Hayley Wickenheiser play in an event that would’ve showed me that playing professional women’s hockey was possible.
I never got to experience something like that. But, what I did get to witness this past weekend was hundreds of young girls watch players like Hilary Knight and Marie-Philip Poulin inspire them both on and off the ice, which, to be totally honest is how it should be.