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PWHL effect infuses 2024 women's world hockey championship

UTICA, N.Y. — How the new Professional Women's Hockey League will change the international game is the buzz heading into the 2024 women's world hockey championship. The 10-country tournament opening Wednesday in Utica, N.Y.
United States forward Alex Carpenter (25) races to the puck ahead of Canada forward Jessie Eldridge (9) in the second period of a women's Rivalry Series hockey game Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024, in St. Paul, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Bruce Kluckhohn

UTICA, N.Y. — How the new Professional Women's Hockey League will change the international game is the buzz heading into the 2024 women's world hockey championship.

The 10-country tournament opening Wednesday in Utica, N.Y., is the first world championship since the six-team PWHL began operating Jan. 1 in Canada and the United States.

The rosters of defending champion U.S. and rival Canada are dominated by PWHL players with a combined 30. 

"It's one of the first times that we've come in completely game ready having come off a season," Canadian forward Sarah Nurse said.

"We have some players who have come from NCAA, but the majority of our players have come from the PWHL and the pace of play there, the level of physicality, the level of skill that we've seen in the PWHL, I definitely feel will be felt in this tournament."

Another nine PWHL players are sprinkled across other countries' lineups, including four on the Czech team. The tournament opens Wednesday at the Adirondack Bank Center. Canada's first game is Thursday against Finland.

Canada's general manager Gina Kingsbury and head coach Troy Ryan hold the same positions with PWHL Toronto. With a leg in each entity, the duo has a lens on how the new league could impact Canada's fortunes in Utica.

"The level our athletes have been able to continue to train at, and now compete at, it's just remarkable," Kingsbury said. "We're seeing an athlete that is far more ready coming into camps and events and Rivalry Series, but also more tired.

"This league can have an incredible impact on our success at a national team level, if we are aware of the changing dynamics, and if we maximize the opportunities that this league provides us, which is a daily training environment that's much higher than we've had in the last five years or in the last forever years to be quite honest with you."

After losing the first three in a seven-game Rivalry Series against the U.S., Canada scratched out a December shootout victory before winning three straight in February. 

Ryan believes the game readiness the PWHL provided had a hand in Canada's comeback.

"Heading into February's last leg of the Rivalry Series, I remember the first practice and I was 'OK, this group is ready to go,'" Ryan said. "There was no getting them up to speed.

"We probably have a few older athletes that earlier in the year were not getting meaningful games and needed a little bit of grease to get the wheels going type of thing. A lot of the young athletes that the U.S. are playing . . . were 10 games into their NCAA year."

Canada's run of titles — 2021 and 2022 world championship gold and 2022 Olympic gold in the span of just over a year — halted in a 6-3 loss to the U.S. in last year's world championship final in Brampton, Ont.

The U.S., Canada, 2023 bronze medallist Czechia, Switzerland and Finland comprise the tournament's top five seeds in Group A. Sweden, Japan, Germany, Denmark and China are the sixth to 10th seeds in Group B.

The IIHF continues to bar Russia from tournaments because of that country's invasion of Ukraine just over two years ago. 

The PWHL takes an international break during the 29-game world championship that concludes April 14.

U.S. and PWHL Boston forward Hilary Knight says playing 19 games so far, plus daily training and skates, helped her feel ready for Utica. 

"Before, it was trying to create our own programming and now we have that day in and day out," Knight said. "It's different now because we've had a rigorous season and we're going to hop back into a rigorous part of the season after world championships as well."

Canada relies on a core of battle-tested veterans — including forwards Marie-Philip Poulin, Brianne Jenner and Nurse — in comparison to a more youthful U.S. roster. 

Ten Canadian players are over the age of 30 or turn 30 this year, compared to five Americans.

"It was pretty unanimous from all of our coaching staff and our head scout and Troy and I that this was the best group that we can put together and we feel very good about the team that we have," Kingsbury said.

The PWHL won't dramatically increase parity in the 2024 world championship field. Women's leagues around the world, for countries that have them, offer different training environments and number of games in a season.

"Part of me thinks that the level of play could be the best it's ever been, partially because of the PWHL and partially because some of the league in Europe are progressing as well," Ryan said. "The professional side of women's hockey is in a much better place than it's ever been and I think that will reflect in the play.

"Some teams that maybe don't have the benefit of playing in other some of those European pro leagues or in the PWHL, it could make for a tough world championships on them because the players that are playing in these leagues are legitimately in midseason form right now or even better."

All five Group A teams and the top three in Group B advance to the April 11 quarterfinals. 

The semifinals April 13 will be followed by the April 14 medal games. The PWHL regular season resumes April 18 and concludes May 5.

In 22 appearances at the women's championship, Canada has won 12 gold medals and played in every final except 2019, when it was a bronze medallist.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2024.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press