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What’s next for the PWHL after ‘monumental’ New Year’s Day opener?

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Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Ella Shelton scored the first goal in PWHL history on New Year’s Day and helped lead New York to a 4-0 win against Toronto.

But neither of those special moments are what stuck out the most to the 25-year-old defenseman.

“It was a huge day for women’s hockey in general, not just for me or the team,” Shelton told Sportsnaut. “It was exciting to see lots of girls in the stands.”

That’s what makes all that happened Monday in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,537 at Mattamy Athletic Centre bigger than a single game. It was the realization of a long-held dream — a viable league with solid financial backing that features the best women’s players in the world.

New York goalie Corinne Schroeder referred to the first-ever PWHL game as “monumental.”

Veteran forward Jill Saulnier, who, like Shelton, won a gold medal with Canada at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, admitted to being “very emotional” during pregame festivities.

“Obviously, it’s been a long ride to get to this point,” Saulnier said, referring to previous failed women’s leagues in North America. “To all work together (current and former players) to make this happen, yeah, I got emotional. But there was pure excitement and happiness, too. And I tried to take a moment to soak it all in.”

Howie Draper, New York’s coach who previously coached women’s hockey for more than two decades at the University of Alberta, told Sportsnaut, “It’s an honor to be a part of this.”

Billie Jean King dropped the ceremonial first puck along with Jayna Hefford. King, the tennis legend and noted women’s activist, is a PWHL board member. Hefford, a five-time Olympic medalist in women’s hockey for Canada, is the PWHL senior vice president of hockey operations.

After the ceremony, captains Micah Zandee-Hart of New York and Blayre Turnbull of Toronto embraced at center ice. The two were teammates when Canada won gold in Beijing two years ago and are now PWHL pioneers on opposing teams.

Ella Shelton scores first goal in PWHL history

PWHL
Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Shelton’s historic goal was scored 10:43 into the first period. Alex Carpenter worked the puck back to Shelton after a face-off win in Toronto’s zone and then set a screen in front of goalie Kristen Campbell. Shelton did the rest, snapping a low shot from the top of the left circle past Campbell.

“I really don’t remember the whole moment, it feels like a pretty quick moment, but it was exciting and a pretty historical moment for our group to have that in our back pocket,” Shelton explained.

Carpenter, a two-time Olympic silver medalist with the United States, made it 2-0 at 2:53 of the third period when she scored off the rush. That opened the floodgates for New York. Saulnier had a tap-in following a gorgeous cross-crease pass from Jade Downie-Landry at 4:57 and Kayla Vespa made it 4-0 with a goal at 7:42.

That New York reached the third period with a 1-0 lead thanks to Schroeder.

Corinne Schroeder earns shutout in first-ever PWHL game

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Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Like Shelton, Schroeder made history on New Year’s Day in Toronto. The 24-year-old picked up the first shutout in PWHL history, stopping all 29 shots she faced.

Schroeder was a surreal 19-1 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .955 save percentage in 22 games as a rookie for the Boston Pride in the now-defunct PHF last season. She again played a starring role Monday. With New York on its heels and being outplayed in the second period, Schroeder made 16 saves to protect a one-goal lead.

“Corinne is the reason we won,” Saulnier said.

Schroeder said she was “dialed in” after allowing herself to soak everything in before the game started.

“I just tried not to be overwhelmed by everything,” she explained. “Big sellout crowd. Billie Jean King dropping the puck. I just wanted to be in that moment. But as soon as my helmet went on, I channeled how I had prepared before the game.”

This was one of 24 games this season for New York and Toronto. Four of the six teams will qualify for the FPHL playoffs. So, the game and three points earned by New York were not insignificant.

But as the sun went up on the start of a New Year, it also shined on a new era for women’s professional hockey. And that’s something not lost on those who took part in the first-ever PWHL game.

“I think they all understand that this is something bigger than them, bigger than all of us,” Draper said. “That’s our hope anyway.”

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