Nothing has been certain in 2020. Everything we knew changed back in March when the COVID-19 pandemic struck North America and essentially put lives at a standstill. Slowly, things have returned to some semblance of normal. Still, its a long way from the lives we all lived a year ago at this time.
Things we took for granted were shutdown and put on the backburner as we tried to slow the spread and keep everyone safe. Somewhere on that list of things lost was hockey.
A year ago, the PWHPA began its first season of play with ‘The Dream Gap Tour’. The popular showcase events sold out rinks across North America and gave hope that perhaps a sustainable professional league with living wages, the organization’s eventual goal, was possible. In May, the organization announced a new ‘Regional Training Hub’ structure, that put ‘teams’ in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Montreal, Toronto and Calgary.
The idea was to have those hubs compete in showcase events and for prize money. That process has been delayed, and the opportunity to build on last year’s momentum has dried up until the pandemic passes.
Or so most thought.
On Monday, the PWHPA announced that a team of 24 players would head to ‘Hub City Tampa’ to play in six games against USPHL competition. The team will be coached and managed by Bill Flanagan, and will contain players from both the New Hampshire (13) and Minnesota (11) Regional Training Hubs.
While in ‘Hub City Tampa’, this PWHPA ‘All-Star’ team will play six games. Five of those games will come against the Tier-2 NCDC Conference, which routinely sends top players to the NCAA level and has had multiple players move on to the professional level, including Drew O’Connor, who recently signed with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
Not only will these women get to compete in high-level games, they’ll also be given consistent practice ice and have the opportunity to train off the ice during their stay. Rightfully, they’ll be given a professional atmosphere to ply their trade and show off their skills to the hockey world.
The opportunity is not lost on the players or the staff heading to Tampa Bay in less than two weeks.
“This is an outstanding opportunity to train and play as a team against some high-level competition,” Flanagan said. “The facilities that these women will have access to are top notch. They will truly be able to focus on high-level hockey during this trip, and will be treated and taken care of like the professionals they are. I’m really looking forward to getting down there with this group of talented women.”
Most of these players have already faced off against USPHL teams, and understand the high-level of competition that awaits. The New Hampshire Region has played multiple exhibition games dating back to September, while Minnesota also had a weekend series with a USPHL club in the mid-west earlier this year.
“We are really excited for this opportunity to showcase the strength and talent among the PWHPA,” Haley Skarupa said. “To play against such competitive teams in the USPHL will be awesome exposure for the PWHPA, as well as a great way to further prepare for the upcoming ‘Dream Gap Tour’.”
Skarupa was hardly alone in her excitement. Minnesota forwards Kelly Pannek and Sophia Shaver are also looking forward to the two week trip.
“I’m really excited to get back into competition,” Pannek told ‘The Women’s Hockey Tribune’. “As professional female hockey players, we are always grateful for high-level competition and this year, given the circumstances, even more so. We really appreciate the USPHL for including us in what should be a couple of weeks of great games.”
“With the shutdown due to COVID in Minnesota, we haven’t been able to play in any games for over a month,” Shaver said. “This opportunity in Tampa is exciting because we’ll be able to play in a handful of competitive games and showcase everything we’ve been working on!”
Delaney Belinskas rarely gets the chance to play in her native state. The New Hampshire forward has also been unable to participate in practices and exhibition games due to travel restrictions entering New Hampshire. The native of Port Orange, Florida, is treating this as an extra special trip.
“There is so much excitement coming from everyone for this trip. I am especially excited since I will be playing in my home state,” Belinskas said. “I cannot wait to get on the ice with the team and play in competitive games again. Although this isn’t exactly what everyone was hoping for, its a start in the right direction!
“This trip to Tampa will draw attention to the PWHPA and to our upcoming season. I am grateful for this opportunity and everything Coach Bill and the PWHPA has done to make this happen.”
The PWHPA ‘All-Star’ team will arrive in Tampa on January 4th, and practice on the 5th and the 6th as a team. They’ll then begin their six game schedule on January 7th. The time and opponent will be announced in the coming days, as will the rest of the ‘Hub City Tampa’ schedule.