On a night when the game’s brightest stars hit the world’s biggest stage at the Madison Square Garden, all eyes were on Team Women’s Sports Foundation and Brianna Decker in their 4-3 victory.
For the forward, the scenery may be of difference, but that’s not lost on her due to the pandemic. “This was a huge step for us. We’re trying to obviously build here and try to build something bigger and better for women’s hockey and women’s professional hockey and this gave us huge visibility, that’s what we strive to do every time that we’re competing and there’s a lot of talented players on the ice every single showcase that we have, but when we get a platform like this and being able to be broadcasted and play at MSG, that’s a huge stage for us to play on and I was really pleased with how we played and moved the puck and showed a lot of our skill.”
Entering the 2021 Dream Gap Tour, Decker had been home in Wisconsin after workouts in Calgary were halted due to the pandemic. While that changed her daily regimen in not being able to take the ice with her teammates, the righty continued training alone with the ultimate hope of being able to play this year.
Due to the closed Canadian border, the five-foot-four centreman found herself challenged. While this presented Decker an obstacle, the 2018 Olympic gold medalist received a phone call from New Hampshire’s Bill Flanagan. Able to relocate without a quarantine, Decker found herself on the move after requesting a trade to accommodate her circumstances.
“Yeah, so obviously I was originally with the Calgary hub, came back to the States in October for a U.S. camp and hadn’t been able to get back up there because of the border, so, yeah, I just was training by myself in Milwaukee, back home in Wisconsin, which I really appreciated, being back actually around my family, but Bill [Flanagan] reached out to me, our head coach, and was like, “Hey, would you wanna play for the New Hampshire team and come down to Florida and play in the games down there” and I was like, “Yeah absolutely, if I’m allowed”, so I obviously had to ask for a trade to the PWHPA board and I was approved so, thankfully, obviously I, mean, I was kind of stuck and hadn’t been able to get out to Calgary, so thanks to them and thanks to them for allowing me to obviously get traded and play for the team New Hampshire cause I’m enjoying competing again.”
Joining a new regional training hub, Decker received a pair of invites to play at Hub City Tampa, held in Wesley Chapel, Florida. Skating with the USPHL, both sessions the American took part in were intended to prepare her for the start of the Dream Gap Tour.
Given the later start due to lockdown regulations, the events, consisting of players who were named respectively to New Hampshire and Minnesota, allowed the PWHPA All-Stars to compile some ice time while better executing game plans.
Between the two sessions of the Hub City series, Jayna, joined alongside her event staff, remained hard at work to start the season in style. Despite the many looming uncertainties, there was a glimmer of light shed at the end of the tunnel.
That takes us to February 3rd when Jayna Hefford and Mary-Kay Messier jointly announced their first NHL partnership. Doing so with the New York Rangers, the press release stated that the agreement would include a historic venue for the Secret Dream Gap Tour. That being Madison Square Garden, the PWHPA said this opportunity would help market the showcase with the world’s best players.
Setting out on a mission to advance equity, the PWHPA announced the stop in New York would be a two-game series, aired on national television. The first game, held Saturday in New Jersey, was nationally televised on CBC Sports. Game two, played in Midtown Manhattan, was carried live on Sportsnet and NHL Network.
From the first few minutes of the game, colour analyst Blake Bolden said Brianna Decker was looking to get on the board as soon as possible. That statement couldn’t have been more true, as just 2:49 into the opening period, Decker did what she does best and put the puck in the net.
That was only her starting point, as she continued to contribute throughout the frame, allowing Team Women’s Sports Foundation to go out ahead on Team Adidas, 3-1. Looking to do further damage, Amanda Kessel found herself at the net just four minutes later to double down on Minnesota. Keeping pressure on in the offensive zone, Decker set Kessel up from the left circle, thus earning the assist.
For both, this is a winning combination who have played for 10 years together on the U.S. National Women’s Team. Putting that chemistry to action, Kessel said of the impact Decker makes on the ice, “Yeah, I grew up playing against Decker in boys hockey, like since the time that we were 6-7-years-old, played against each other and then we were playing together before and after girls teams, we went to high school together, so we’ve played together a lot, 10 years on the National Team, she’s just a complete player, she’s somebody that you wanna have on your team, she’s good in the defensive zone, she can pass, shoot, she’s physical, she kind of has it all.”
Feeling very much at home with Kessel, Decker wasted no time speaking of their illustrious history together. “Yeah, Amanda and I go way back, we grew up in Wisconsin together, played against each other actually quite a bit in boys hockey growing up, and then yeah, we went to high school together, played together there and then again against each other in college, so we know each other’s tendencies quite a bit, whether we’re against each other or on the same line and being on the National Team together and playing a lot together there has helped a lot, it took us only a couple games down in Florida to get back to where we wanted to get, like I said, she’s one of the easiest players to play with. If you watch her passing skills, she makes it easy out there, so I love playing with her and I couldn’t say enough great things about her.”
Given their on-ice history together, the placement was a no-brainer for Bill Flanagan, who added extra flavour to the line in Haley Skarupa. While that line was arguably the strongest, Team Adidas got on the board a minute later, as the Abby Roque show continued to spark thanks to her dominance. The goal, assisted by Samantha Donovan, was the third Roque scored in a 24 hour span.
While that drew Minnesota within one, Brianna Decker got right back on the scoresheet with a goal from Skarupa to double their lead, now 3-1. For Decker, that was her third point of the frame, an achievement she attributes to the skill of her linemates. “Yeah, us three had an opportunity to play down in Florida a few weeks ago, so I think that helped to have a little bit, a little bit of practice with each other, but honestly, Amanda Kessel is one of the smartest players in women’s hockey, so she makes it easy out there to play with, and Haley Skarupa works her butt off on every single shift, so you know you’re on a line with those two players if things are gonna come a little bit easier for you, so, you know, honestly we’re just there moving the puck well and we communicate quite a bit, I think that helps, makes the game a little bit more simple and you’re finding those seams a lot quicker than you would.”
After 20 minutes of play, Team Women’s Sports Foundation held a two-goal lead over Team Adidas. With a hunger to do more in the second, both backstops really carried their own weight, while Minnesota’s defence held New Hampshire at bay.
It did so for most of the frame until Savannah Harmon, with just three minutes remaining, shot a rocket from the left circle, initially ruled as a goal. Upon further video review, the puck got over the arm of Alex Cavallini, but deflected off both posts, just falling short of the goal line. While intensity remained high for both cities, Team Women’s Sports Foundation held their lead after 40.
Fast forward to the final frame, it was Hilary Knight leading the charge for Team Adidas, very quickly responding with a goal to start the third. Firing from the right-side circle, the laser, scored just two minutes in, would pull Minnesota within one, now trailing 3-2.
No problem, however, for New Hampshire, as four minutes later, during a Minnesota power play, Brianna Decker promptly converted on a five-on-three and made no mistake, tallying her second goal of the night. This gave Team Women’s Sports Foundation a 4-2 lead while Decker collected her fourth point.
Regaining the two-goal lead on Team Adidas, this would hold until the dying minutes when Kendall Coyne Schofield, with just 4:40 remaining, managed to tack on one more late in the game for Minnesota. From there, New Hampshire held their own ground, as they tied up the series, topping off a big weekend.
With four points overall through opening weekend, Decker, for her offensive output, was named as Canadian Tire Player of the Game. Named as the game’s first star, her first goal of the evening was chosen as the Budweiser Goal of the Game.
While her team didn’t win the full weekend, Decker knows that the success of her team comes second to the mission they were chasing in New York City. “Yeah, I mean, honestly I think just continuously having these opportunities like we had this weekend and we’re gonna have next weekend, I think it’s huge that we’re having back-to-back weekends with women’s hockey being broadcasted, you know, couldn’t be more thankful to the Rangers and the Blackhawks next week, just being supportive of what we’re trying to do here, and we’re trying to create a better and bigger future for professional women’s hockey, and the visibility is what we need and hopefully we can continue to have that, you know, having other NHL clubs step up, we couldn’t be more thankful if that happens.”
Now, as they look forward to Chicago, New Hampshire will look to keep forming chemistry, while removing any kinks to try and sweep the next series. Saturday’s matinee at United Centre will be broadcast on Sportsnet and NBCSports. Sunday’s game at Fifth Third Arena will be on CBC Sports and on the CBC Gem app.
With the same task set before them in a new city, Decker knows what must happen to take her team from good to great. “We just have to use this game as momentum,” she said. “We didn’t come out on top this weekend. If we try and play our transition game like we did and move the puck like we did today, I think we’ll be a bit more successful in the first game next weekend.”