USA-Canada ‘Rivalry Rematch’ highlights historic underinvestment, and future potential, of women’s hockey

After winning gold at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Canada will face off against the U.S. in a rivalry rematch hosted by the PWHPA and Pittsburgh Penguins
Getty Images
0 Comments

Saturday afternoon’s ‘Rivalry Rematch’ game between the U.S. and Canadian women’s hockey teams will air on NHL network in the United States, SN1/SN Now and TVA Sports in Canada, and AT&T Sportsnet Pittsburgh for local TV viewers.


Originally published: March 4, 2022

In a historic first, the U.S. and Canadian women’s hockey teams will play a post-Olympics “rematch” on Saturday, March 12 at 4 p.m. ET.

The rivalry game, which is being organized by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) and hosted by the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, will be played at PPG Paints Arena.

Last month, Canada defeated the U.S., 3-2, at the 2022 Winter Olympics to win a fifth overall gold medal in women’s hockey. In Pittsburgh, both teams will be led by guest coaches. The PWHPA says it is still determining whether players with remaining NCAA eligibility will be able to participate (full rosters are below).

But the question of why the PWHPA and Pittsburgh Penguins are organizing and funding the event – and not USA Hockey or Hockey Canada – has an answer that spans decades, and multiple sports. And it also contains a hint of what is to come in women’s professional hockey, including a potential team in Seattle.

The U.S. and Canada might be bitter hockey rivals, but off the ice? ‘Our goal is the same’

While the U.S. and Canada have traditionally played a series of rivalry games in the lead-up to each Olympics, the game on March 12 will mark the first time the two teams face off in the post-Olympics spotlight.

“There’s always been a lot of talk about doing something like this, a sort of post-Olympics tour and making sure that this visibility doesn’t just end after the Olympic gold medal game,” said PWHPA Operations consultant Jayna Hefford, who won four gold medals while playing for Team Canada. “But it’s never been done before and nobody’s been willing to take it on.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: In sled hockey, coed in name only, women are building their own Paralympic pipeline

“I think it’s a huge miss that we aren’t doing some sort of tour post-Olympics,” U.S. forward and PWHPA board member Hilary Knight said last week, prior to the announcement of the one-off game on March 12. “It’s only going to deepen the value of that team, to any organization, and to any sponsor or brand that wants to be involved.”

The U.S.-Canada women’s hockey gold medal game in Beijing averaged 3.54 million viewers on NBC, making it the second most-watched hockey game in the U.S. since 2019 – behind only the title-clinching game of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. In Canada, the game drew over 1.3 million viewers on CBC.

“We’re taking advantage of this great spotlight that is on the women’s game,” Hefford said. “There’s a demand for this and there’s a demand to see the best players in the world on a consistent basis.”

In some ways, it is fitting that the four-year Olympic cycle will conclude with a game organized by the PWHPA. The organization was founded in 2019 after more than 200 players – including every post-grad member of the 2022 U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams – announced that they would not play in any North American league, essentially boycotting the NWHL (which has since rebranded as the PHF).

“The players that play on Team Canada and Team USA have been united under one banner, and that’s the PWHPA,” said Canadian forward and PWHPA board member Brianne Jenner. “While we’re bitter rivals on the ice… our goal is the same and we’re working together off the ice to try to build a better future for women’s professional hockey.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Women starred at 2022 Winter Olympics, but men photographed most of the action

But the PWHPA stepping up to the plate also exposes the historic lack of investment and marketing in women’s hockey.

A USA-Canada women’s hockey ‘rivalry rematch’ is not a new idea

The concept of a post-Olympics tour has been raised in negotiations with USA Hockey without success according to John Langel, an attorney who has represented players on the U.S. women’s hockey team since 2016, including during their 2017 pre-Worlds boycott.

Langel, who retired from law firm Ballard Spahr in 2016, previously worked with U.S. women’s soccer players, and even helped that team launch its first ever victory tour over two decades ago.

In the lead-up to the 1999 Women’s Soccer World Cup – which was hosted in eight cities across the U.S. – American players asked U.S. Soccer how the federation planned to capitalize on the event. They were shocked to learn that the federation’s only real plan was to send them to South Africa and Egypt after the tournament.

We need to grow the game here. Why are we going to Africa?Julie Foudy recalled in The National Team, written by Caitlin Murray.

Concerned that U.S. Soccer wasn’t interested in growing and promoting the women’s game in the United States, American players – aided by Langel – decided to organize their own 12-city indoor victory tour. They didn’t do their planning in secret, but U.S. Soccer essentially ignored the player-organized tour until – a day after the U.S. won the 1999 Women’s World Cup – a full-page advertisement for the victory tour appeared in the Los Angeles Times. U.S. Soccer officials were shocked – and furious. They threatened an injunction to stop the tour, and then offered $2 million to buy the event out and send the players to Africa, as planned.

But the players persisted, and the tour ultimately helped create a new revenue stream. Two decades later, the victory tour remains integral to USWNT player contracts – though the number of games has diminished – the result of an increase in overall programming opportunities (both with the national team and club teams).

When the U.S. women’s soccer team won the 2019 World Cup – and then embarked on a five-game victory tour – Knight took notice.

“That sort of sparked us saying, ‘Wait, why haven’t we done that?'” she said.

It was not the first time someone asked that question.

‘We had some hiccups’

In 1998, the U.S. won the first ever gold medal in women’s hockey. “There was a lot of fanfare and excitement around the gold medal, and we had nothing planned,” recalled Angela Ruggiero.

While Ruggiero, then 18, returned to high school after the Olympics, she recalls watching teammates Cammi Granato and Sarah Tueting appear on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

“I think we realized that there was a market for us after the Olympics, and we should be doing something,” Ruggiero said.

But nothing more substantial materialized in 2002. Or 2006.

Ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Ruggiero and agent Sheryl Shade decided to take it on themselves. Shade brought on Mike Burg, who had planned similar post-Olympics tours in figure skating and gymnastics, both sanctioned by their respective national governing bodies (NGBs).

“We put our brains together and put the whole plan in place,” Ruggiero said. “We had rinks secured… we had the trips and the dates. The teams were all ready to go and we had some hiccups with our NGBs.

“I remember negotiating, trying to get things sorted out at the Olympics.”

When the U.S. lost in the gold medal game, the remaining hurdles essentially became insurmountable.

Four years later, after Canada defeated the U.S., 3-2, in stunning fashion at the Sochi Olympics, Tim Leiweke, then president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, says he and chairman Larry Tanenbaum tried to organize a post-Olympics rematch with a “winner-take-all” prize pot.

“We had conversations with the Canadian Federation and the U.S. Hockey Federation and tried to pull it off,” Leiweke recalled.

But that game fell through, too. “There was a lot of politics and a lot of details from the two federations,” Leiweke said.

In an email, USA Hockey’s Senior Director of Communications Dave Fischer said the NGB has sanctioned the upcoming USA-CAN rematch, but did not comment on the previous tour attempts.

Hockey Canada did not return a request for comment.

While a post-Olympics rematch has been years in the making, Hefford is especially proud of what the March 12 game represents for the future of women’s hockey.

“Of course, there’s a Canada-U.S. rivalry going on, but I think this event is so much bigger than that,” she said. “It’s also showing the solidarity and how united these women are.”

Beyond the upcoming showcase games (including an event this weekend hosted by the Washington Capitals), the PWHPA is still marching towards its initial goal, though Hefford declined on Monday to provide a specific timeline.

“When the PWHPA was formed, its mission was to create a sustainable and viable professional league for the women to play in,” she said. “We haven’t swayed from that mission.”

Does the future of women’s pro hockey include a team in Seattle?

While Leiweke might not have been able to stage a U.S.-Canada rematch in 2014, he has remained a fan of women’s hockey and hopes to play a role in the sport’s future.

The company he co-founded in 2015, Oak View Group, owns 51% of the newly renovated Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, which is home to the WNBA’s Seattle Storm and NHL’s Seattle Kraken.

And Leiweke envisions a day when a women’s pro hockey team will also call the venue home. He said he’s been working with his brother Tod, CEO of the Kraken, on the endeavor.

“We really applaud what these women are doing,” Tim said. “We’re going to try to help them any way we can.”

Tim said his perspective on the future of women’s hockey has been inspired, in part, by the WNBA’s Storm, a team that has spent the last three seasons playing without a true home court while Climate Pledge Arena underwent renovations.

“They went out, they stayed as a profitable organization, they won championships.”

Then add in the fact that the Storm is bringing back Tim’s personal hero in Sue Bird for the 2022 season.

“We are really inspired by them. They’ve taught me an awful lot about how to do it right.”

Looking ahead to the future, Leiweke said launching a women’s pro hockey team in Seattle – as part of a larger PWHPA-led league – isn’t about making a donation.

“One: they’ve earned it. Two: right time. Three: right idea. And if it’s done properly, it’s going to be successful,” Leiweke said, citing his experience with Major League Soccer while with AEG.

“You’ve gotta be patient. It’s gonna take some time. There’s going to be good days, but there’s going to be bad days.

“But if you find the right nucleus of partners… and you have a partnership and a bond between those initial founding partners, and the players, you’re going to kill it. You will have success. Because at the end of the day, what really matters is, ‘Will people come and watch this?’ Of course they will. This is one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports.”

USA and Canada women’s hockey rosters for the ‘Rivalry Rematch’ hosted by the PWHPA and Pittsburgh Penguins

Note: The PWHPA is still awaiting confirmation on whether players with NCAA eligibility will be able to compete. That includes Sarah Fillier for Team Canada, and Caroline Harvey, Abbey Murphy, Cayla Barnes, and Grace Zumwinkle for the United States. The only other player missing is Brianna Decker, who was injured in Team USA’s first game of the Olympic tournament.

Canada Roster

United States Roster

Coaches:
  • Cassie Campbell-Pascall
  • Jayna Hefford
  • Laura McIntosh

Forwards: 

  • Rebecca Johnson
  • Laura Stacey
  • Jill Saulnier
  • Melodie Daoust
  • Brianne Jenner
  • Sarah Nurse
  • Natalie Spooner
  • Emily Clark
  • Emma Maltais
  • Marie-Philip Poulin
  • Blayre Turnbull
  • Jamie Lee Rattray

Defense: 

  • Jocelyne Larocque
  • Renata Fast
  • Ella Shelton
  • Ashton Bell
  • Erin Ambrose
  • Micah Zandee-Hart
  • Claire Thompson

Goalies: 

  • Ann-Renee Desbiens
  • Emerance Maschmeyer
  • Kristen Campbell
Coaches:
  • Cammi Granato
  • Emily Matheson
  • Matt Leitner

Forwards: 

  • Abby Roque
  • Kelly Pannek
  • Hayley Scamurra
  • Jesse Compher
  • Hannah Brandt
  • Hilary Knight
  • Dani Cameranesi
  • Alex Carpenter
  • Kendall Coyne Schofield
  • Amanda Kessel

Defense: 

  • Lee Stecklein
  • Megan Keller
  • Megan Bozek
  • Savannah Harmon
  • Jincy Dunne

Goalies: 

  • Nicole Hensley
  • Alex Cavallini
  • Maddie Rooney

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC