PWHL's roaring success shows Toronto deserves bigger stages for women's sports

PWHL's roaring success shows Toronto deserves bigger stages for women's sports

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As the white-towel-donned seats at Scotiabank Arena began to fill with people, the once-quiet arena hours earlier filled with just staff and media members had turned into a bustling environment as fans of all ages and genders got ready to watch a game.

However, they weren’t coming to watch the Toronto Raptors or Maple Leafs. Instead, they were here to witness the “Battle on Bay Street” between PWHL Toronto and PWHL Montreal.

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On a Friday night in mid-February, as part of the PWHL’s inaugural season, Toronto players left the cozier confines of their home rink and travelled three km south to face off in Toronto’s sporting mecca, Scotiabank Arena, against their biggest rivals from Montreal.

The teams played in front of 19,285 people — the most ever to watch a professional women’s hockey game.

“I think when you see the number up there, obviously, it’s in the middle of the game, but for a quick second, I looked at it, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really special,’ and it’s really cool to be a part of history,” Jesse Compher said post-game.

In the historic contest, Toronto won 3-0 in a physical match where Compher and Victoria Bach scored their first goals of the season while Hannah Miller also slotted one in on her birthday.

“This is definitely the coolest birthday, so (it’s) pretty special,” Miller said. “And I’m happy we got the win.”

While the game details are important, in this match, the result was always going to come second. The sell-out crowd — it took only two hours for tickets to be bought out — clearly was the main story.

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“It’s really special to have that many people here and Toronto has really gotten behind us,” Kristen Campbell said. “It just shows the demand for women’s hockey, women’s sport and playing in this venue is something that we’re always going to cherish for the rest of our lives.”

But selling out Scotiabank Arena and then returning to the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC) one week later, which has just a sliver of the capacity, raises the thought: If Toronto shows up for women’s sports, why hasn’t the city truly been rewarded for it?

Of course, getting a PWHL team in the city is a reward in and of itself. Still, a sold-out Scotiabank Arena crowd, in addition to another sold-out crowd at the WNBA’s Canada Game nine months prior, is proof the city can not only handle, but support whatever women’s sports team may come its way.

The WNBA Canada Game played in May also was record-breaking. It was the most-watched WNBA pre-season game and had the highest pre-season attendance, as tickets sold out within 18 minutes. Additionally, it became the second most-watched WNBA game in Canada.

Yet, when the WNBA announced its newest expansion teams, Toronto didn’t make the cut.

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According to reports, MLSE was considering the purchase of a team despite the hefty $50-million price tag. However, Rogers reportedly vetoed all hopes of a Toronto expansion. Despite the unwavering support from Toronto fans, they didn’t reap the reward.

In the PWHL, Toronto plays in the league’s smallest arena. The venue is better known as the former Maple Leaf Gardens, the home of the Leafs from 1932 to 1999. More than 16,000 fans could crowd into the Gardens during the arena’s peak. Currently, the venue allows 3,850.

While it likely comes down to scheduling conflicts and money, playing in the smallest PWHL arena is yet another blow to the Toronto faithful, especially when the team has proven, at least for a night, it can sell out Scotiabank Arena.

“When we play home games, our crowd is sold out every single game. We already have a line for season tickets for next year and, obviously, you saw the crowd today. It’s just super exciting to hear the fans and give them something to watch and support,” Compher said.

“We’ve been working for this for a long time and to see people support us and give us what we deserve is something that’s really special, and we hope to continue to grow the game.”

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When the players from Toronto and Montreal were announced to the crowd at Scotiabank Arena before puck drop, cheers filled the 665,000 sq ft arena, only growing louder as Marie-Philip Poulin, Sarah Nurse and Natalie Spooner were announced. The cheers continued when Canada Basketball’s Kia Nurse took centre ice for the ceremonial puck drop between Poulin and Sarah Nurse.

“It’s always so special,” Poulin said. “Obviously, Sarah Nurse has changed the game all around, and getting to do that opening face-off with her (and) her cousin Kia is very special. Those are the moments you look at each other like, ‘Wow, we did it.’”

PWHL Toronto and Montreal jerseys littered the stands, along with Team Canada gear, Maple Leafs merchandise and young girls wearing their rep hockey team jerseys.

Besides the jerseys, handmade signs could be seen everywhere: “Ice time earned” and “Play like a girl” were some of the common ones.

When Toronto scored their first goal of the game, the already-buzzing crowd became electric. When the team scored two more, the noise levels grew even louder.

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“Some of the coaches were joking around that they kept getting notifications on their watch saying that the environment was too loud,” Toronto head coach Troy Ryan said.

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In the PWHL’s opening game, where New York beat Toronto 4-0 at the MAC, the game’s broadcast reached 2.9 million Canadian viewers across the league’s three broadcast partners. The game averaged 879,000 viewers.

The NHL’s opening game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks in 2023 saw an average of 1.43 million people tuning in on American network ESPN. That was an increase from the 2022-23 season-opening game, which averaged 744,000 viewers — less than the PWHL’s inaugural season opener.

The league’s impact is clear: Young girls can finally see themselves represented on the highest stage, and women can start seeing a world where female athletes get the same recognition and exposure as men.

The Battle on Bay Street game showcased that women’s hockey is not an afterthought to the men’s game. It can fill up arena seats, just like the WNBA Canada Game did before it, and just like whatever future women’s sporting event Toronto will hold next.

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