How Pittsburgh is becoming the center of the women’s hockey universe

From this weekend’s NWHL All-Star Game to the local women’s leagues to college superstars, this is it.

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Jaycee Gebhard’s hometown of Plenty, Saskatchewan is roughly 3,000 miles from Pittsburgh. But the Robert Morris University freshman, who has been playing hockey since she was 5 years old, chose to come to Pittsburgh to play at the college level because of the school’s strong women’s hockey program.

“[My parents] knew it was my dream to come to the States to play so they were like, ‘We gotta let her do it,’ ” the 19-year-old Gebhard said.

Like a lot of her teammates, Gebhard’s post-college hockey aspirations include the Canadian women’s league, the Canadian National Team, helmed by her favorite player Marie-Philip Poulin, or the relatively new National Women’s Hockey League. There are more options for female hockey players in 2017 than ever before, with a lot of that interest concentrated in the Pittsburgh area.

Jacyee Gebhard

Jaycee Gebhard

Justin Berl/Robert Morris Athlet

The NWHL will hold its All-Star Game in Pittsburgh this weekend, as players from the nascent league show off their skills to a national audience. Formed in 2015, the league has four founding teams: the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters. The Boston Pride are the defending champs, the first team to win the Isobel Cup last March.

The All-Star weekend comes to Pittsburgh at a time when NWHL’s fan base and audience are growing, especially in western Pennsylvania. A clue that girls in Pittsburgh are interested in hockey: The Saturday morning girls’ clinic is already sold out of tickets.

“Since I’ve been here, the program has gotten stronger and added more girls every year,” said Kelley Steadman, director of hockey operations at RMU and a forward for the Buffalo Beauts.

Steadman was MVP of last year’s All-Star Game, and has played on the U.S. National Team and in the Canadian Women’s League. She and Amanda Kessel, who plays for the New York Riveters (and is sister of the Penguins’ Phil Kessel), will be captains of the two teams that face off in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

“The game is a lot more physical than most people think,” Steadman said. Checking is not allowed in women’s hockey, but it’s by no means a tame version of the sport, she added. “I think it does give you a chance to really see the skills of these players.”

‘An interesting hockey bubble’

The opportunities for women to play hockey have increased since the Nagano Olympics in 1998, the first year women’s hockey was an Olympic event. But locally, the offerings for girls who want to play hockey are a little scattered, according to Amanda Carlson of Central Pittsburgh, a USA Hockey women’s team that’s been around since about 2002. Their roster ranges from women in their mid-20s to their 40s, and Carlson described Central Pittsburgh as a mostly tournament team of experienced players.

“Girls’ hockey in Pittsburgh is an interesting hockey bubble,” the Minnesota native said. While it’s true that some girls’ hockey associations are growing, Carlson added, some in the youth system still end up playing on boys teams’ depending on where they live.

Carlson pointed to Penguins Elite, an AAA amateur hockey organization that fields both boys and girls teams, as an example of a thriving program. Penguins Elite began as a 2012 partnership between the Pittsburgh Penguins team, Dick’s Sporting Goods and the successful Pittsburgh Hornets amateur association.

For women who want to play hockey, opportunities abound in the Pittsburgh area. In addition to Central Pittsburgh, there are the amateur Pittsburgh Puffins, started in 1998 as the Mothers of Hockey, and which was a founding member of the Pennsylvania-Ohio Women’s Hockey Association in 2002. The Puffins attract female players who may have come to the sport a little later in life, and now play in the Mid-Atlantic Women’s Hockey League after a move in 2014. The MAWHL’s teams also include the Steel City Sirens, who play at RMU’s Island Sports Center, and the Reading Reign.

Carlson can see the sport growing, yet knows the community needs to work together to continue that development. “At the end of the day, hockey’s hockey. We all have to be in it together to push the sport forward, particularly in an area that is begging to be a hockey hotbed, but not quite reaching that potential yet.”

Pittsburgh’s hockey hub

If any organization has demonstrated the potential for women’s hockey and its future in the Pittsburgh area, it’s the women’s program at RMU. The Colonials, who play in College Hockey America in NCAA Division I, are currently ranked No. 8 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.

Since its inaugural season in 2005-2006, the RMU team has been a kind of hub for women’s hockey in the area, attracting not only talented American players, but top-tier women from up north as well: 18 of the 23 women on the Colonials’ women’s hockey roster are from Canada, one is from the Czech Republic, and the remaining four hail from good hockey states: Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina and Vermont.

Chelsea Walkland, an assistant coach with RMU, played for the Colonials during her own college years. She skated on boys’ teams growing up, which even now is still the only option for a lot of girls.

Walkland explained that with the NWHL and other women’s leagues, “now you have girls who have gone through their playing careers and are giving back to the sport. Young girls have female role models, whereas in the past it might have been an older brother or other male role models.”

She and a lot of other young women were drawn to hockey after the 1998 Olympics in Nagano and following players like Cammy Granato, the breakout star of that first women’s Olympic team, Walkland said.

Amanda Pantaleo, 20, an RMU forward from Markham, Ontario said she looked up to Canadian players like Hayley Wickenheiser — “I don’t think you can be a girl hockey player and not look up to her” — and others on the Canadian national team, like Megan Agosta. She says RMU has been a great place to play her college hockey, due in large part to the region’s embrace of the sport (and its Stanley Cup-winning team, of course).

“Pittsburgh really loves their hockey.”

Amanda Pantaleo

Amanda Pantaleo

Justin Berl/Robert Morris Athlet

But despite the increased options for professional play, her future plans don’t include a career in hockey; Pantaleo said she’s studying to be a teacher. But that doesn’t mean she’ll never lace up her skates again.

“I want to stay involved with hockey, maybe I won’t play, but I want to stay in it,” she said. “I don’t think you can ever really leave it.”

For her part, Jaycee Gebhard said she was partly drawn to RMU’s hockey program by a fellow Saskatchewanian Amber Rennie, a forward on the team. “I came and visited, and it was a smaller school, which was what I wanted,” she said.

In addition to Poulin, Gebhard, who was the CHA Rookie of the Month for February, said another player she looks up to is Hilary Knight, who plays for the Boston Pride of the NWHL. Knight will play on Team Kessel this weekend.

“You can always notice her on the ice,” Gebhard said. “You want to be like that, like the one that dominates.”