Sunday afternoon Snohomish native Lexi Bender will be teammates with Kendall Coyne Schofield as members of Team Szabados at the National Women’s Hockey League All-Star Game in Nashville.
Bender, a defender with the Boston Pride, usually is tasked with trying to stop Coyne Schofield, a high-scoring forward with the Minnesota Whitecaps. So, at one of the marquee events for the nation’s top professional women’s hockey league, Bender will be helping Coyne Schofield score goals for a change, rather than trying to prevent them.
“She’s one of those players that when she’s on the ice you’re always looking to see where she is,” Bender said. “You can’t let her get a step, because once she gets that step you’re not getting it back.”
That’s something we all found out about Coyne Schofield two weeks earlier, when the eyes of the entire hockey world were on her.
Indeed, this weekend isn’t the extent of Coyne Schofield’s All-Star involvement. On Jan. 25 in San Jose she became the first ever female to participate in the NHL All-Star Skills Competition when she was part of the Fastest Skater competition.
Coyne Schofield completed one circuit of the rink in 14.346 seconds, which placed her seventh among the eight participants. Not only was it a historic moment, the female participation at the All-Star Skills Competition created a sensation that’s brought attention to the women’s hockey and highlighted the fact that women can play hockey at an elite level, too.
“It was such an amazing opportunity for exposure for the women’s game,” Bender said. “I was so impressed with how the women there represented their skill level. It’s great to see it recognized.”
Coyne Schofield was one of four women who were involved in the NHL All-Star Skills Competition. Fellow U.S. national team member Brianna Decker demonstrated the Premier Passer competition, while Canadian national team players Rebecca Johnston and Renata Fast demonstrated the Puck Control and Accuracy Shooting events, respectively.
Decker performed so well demonstrating the Premier Passer event that she completed the drill faster than the eventual winner. A campaign was taken up on social media to award Decker the $25,000 prize for winning the event, and hockey equipment company CCM eventually stepped up with the cash.
— CCM Hockey (@CCMHockey) January 26, 2019
All of the buzz generated from the NHL All-Star Skills Competition has been a boon for women’s hockey.
“I think it was fantastic and great for women to be out there,” said Paul Mara, Bender’s coach with the NWHL’s Boston Pride who was an assistant coach with the U.S. women’s national team that won the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics. “Having coached two of the players who were out there on our Olympic team, I know the skill and the drive that they have. Just to be out there with the NHL players is great for women’s hockey, for young players to see women play on the same surface as men. It was groundbreaking for women’s hockey.”
Perhaps some of those young players will be inspired to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Bender, Brooke Whitney and Kelly Stephens as female hockey players from the area who went on to national prominence. Kelly Goscinski, president of the Shoreline-based Washington Wild girls youth hockey program, said participation numbers continue to grow. Usually players begin playing hockey between the ages of 6 and 8, but this year has seen a spike in girls 13 and older who are taking up the sport for the first time.
Witnessing the exploits of Coyne Schofield on a national stage will only provide another boost.
“I have every expectation that we will continue to progress out west,” Goscinski said. “It’s going to take some time, but I do believe we will be able to grow the NWHL out here, as well as college hockey for girls. I know there’s a lot of interest in the University of Washington somehow coming up with something like that. I think in the next five years we’ll see a lot more momentum in that space, especially once the NHL team comes here.
“I think it’s fabulous that women are continuing to break through in areas where they previously weren’t expected to,” Goscinski added. “There’s a whole bunch of little girls behind them cheering them on.”
Little girls who are cheering on a sport that’s had more than just an All-Star weekend. Women’s hockey has had a two-week All-Star bonanza, and it’s shined a light on a sport that fully deserves it.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.