By Teresa M. Walker

The Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On a day when the National Women’s Hockey League wanted to keep the focus on its All-Star celebrations and a record crowd for a professional women’s hockey game in the United States, Lee Stecklein could not help but look beyond to what the future could be.

One combined league for women to hone their games and play against the world’s best. Not just at world championships or every four years at the Winter Olympics.

“We have so much talent, I think it’d be really fun if we got to play each other all the time,” Stecklein said.

The NWHL All-Star game featured 11 women who competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics, including Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados, who captained the winning team. But Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight, who left the NWHL, are among the stars currently playing with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

Stecklein and other members of the U.S. team will see Canada’s best starting Tuesday in a three-game “Rivalry Series” starting in London, Ontario, and ending in a week in Detroit.

Playing each other more often would be much more fun, and likely more profitable. A combined league also is expected to be more attractive to the NHL; commissioner Gary Bettman has made clear the league’s interest.

“It’s somewhere we hope it goes someday, but who knows?” said Stecklein, who recently signed her own endorsement deal with Bauer. “As long as we continue to grow, giving more women the opportunity to play after college because we want to keep getting better and better. We don’t want to have your careers end at 24, so even having this opportunity is great but definitely want a next level.”

Dani Rylan founded the NWHL in 2015 after splitting off from the CWHL, which is in its 12th season and has six teams with four in Canada, one in the U.S. and another in China. Rylan told The Associated Press last October that one league was inevitable, but questions about a merger were not allowed during the NWHL All-Star weekend.

Then Stecklein was asked how she would like to see the sport grow.

“We know we’re role models to a lot of young girls,” Stecklein said.

The NWHL had 6,120 fans for the game at Bridgestone Arena, the home of the NHL’s Predators. The game followed Nashville’s 5-4 overtime loss to St. Louis; fans were allowed to stick around for the women, and the result was a record crowd that was good.

Goalie Katie Burt stopped Gigi Marvin in the shootout for a 3-2 win for Team Szabados over Team Stecklein.

Szabados thanked the fans who stayed to the end.

“You made this a special event for us,” Szabados said.

The NWHL women did their best to make an impression.

Kendall Coyne-Schofield skated a lap of 13.9 seconds that was even faster than her 14.3-second time Jan. 26 as part of the NHL All-Star Game’s skills competition, and the All-Star from the Minnesota Whitecaps was the first to point out the NWHL course was a little different.

“To see the impact that it’s had on our sport, the perceptions people have had that have changed, the amount of young people that have picked up the sport of hockey, the impact has been tremendous,” Coyne-Schofield said. “I’ll skate 14 seconds in a circle every single day if it’s going to impact this many people and grow the sport like it has.”

It is the latest step for a sport that has been abuzz for the past year since the United States ended a 20-year drought by winning Olympic gold at the 2018 Winter Games.

The NWHL All-Star skills competition featured a sold-out crowd at a local rink. Bauer Hockey teamed with Play Like A Girl, a nonprofit that works to keep girls playing sports past the age of 14, for a summit that included a street hockey clinic before the All-Stars coached young girls through drills on the ice.

Allie LaCombe, a Minnesota native who played at Syracuse and professionally in Austria, now is an associate coach at Nashville Girls Hockey, where the numbers have jumped over the past three years. They have three travel teams, including an under-17 team.

LaCombe has seen interest in women’s hockey jump just since Coyne-Schofield’s sizzling lap in San Jose, with people asking if their daughters from ages 5 to 14 can play.

“It’s a huge thing,” LaCombe said, “and our girls hopefully can be at that stage some day.”

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