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'It keeps the dream alive;' PWHL provides opportunity and hope for local players

The Professional Women's Hockey League has taken the sport by storm and is already inspiring players in Cambridge

Growing up playing boys hockey until the age of 14, Cambridge Rivulettes defenceman Reese Reid was surrounded by the chatter of youthful optimism.

Aspirations of one day making it to the games biggest stage, the National Hockey League, were thrown around by her teammates like well-executed saucer passes.

"When I was little I'd dream of playing in the NHL but that was a bit out of reach," Reid said.

"There was no girls league to dream of."

Until now.

The Professional Women's Hockey League began play on Jan. 1 and is nothing like the sport has ever seen before.

Just six days later, 13,316 people filed through the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. to watch the hometown team defeat Montreal 3-0. It was a record for attendance at a professional women's game, topping the previous high of 8,318 set earlier in the week at TD Place in Ottawa when Montreal pulled out a thrilling 3-2 overtime win.

Toronto, Boston, Minnesota, Montreal, New York and Ottawa are the PWHL's original six and while big cities may make up the current teams, the reach is far greater.

"Girls now have something realistic to strive for," Reid said.

"I really hope it grows into an international well known thing like the NHL is. Girls hockey has been undervalued and seen as weaker than boys. I think boys and girls are very different and it can do a lot to have more awareness."

Rivulettes forward Mave O'Hagan also knows all about the opportunity disparity in the sport up until this point.

With a father who played in the Ontario Hockey League for the Windsor Spitfires and Owen Sound Platers, she was on skates by the time she could say his name.

O'Hagan, who's set to continue her academic and hockey career at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY next season, brings a unique view to the new league. Not only does she watch on with hopes of one day playing, she's already attended camps with current PWHL players and Olympic gold medalists Renata Fast and Natalie Spooner.

She looks up to them, not because of ther ability, but for how they promote the game.

"They're constantly involved," O'Hagan said.

"I've found they've always said that maybe this type of league wouldn't be possible during their careers but maybe it would be for us. I’m grateful they've been able to see this."

It comes as no surprise to O'Hagan, as she points to the strong community that is women's hockey. Much of which has been out of the limelight until recently.

Rivulettes have new dreams of a professional hockey career after the launch of the PWHL. Matt Betts/CambridgeToday

"They've done so much for girls hockey I don't think people realize," she said.

"Camaraderie is a huge part of the women's game. Look at during the initial game when both captains went to centre ice for the ceremonial puck drop and gave each other a hug after. They’re all in this together."

Lexi Cupolo, a forward for the Rivulettes, shares in her teammates past frustration that's evolved into present day excitement.

"The most frustrating part is when we would look ahead for young female hockey players, we had a path that was already set out for us," Cupolo said.

"We could play college hockey and there’s not much after that. I remember telling my mom when I was at school with the boys and they were talking about playing in the NHL, my be all end all was college hockey. Now females can look so much further into the future."

Cupolo has experienced the growth of women's hockey locally in recent years. Working at The Zone Training centre, a hockey development facility in Waterloo, she's seen an uptick in interest from young females.

She hopes the PWHL assists in continuing the trend.

"It’ll help a lot in growing female hockey," Cupolo said.

"I think people are surprised at how truly skilled these women are. As it continues to grow it'll encourage people to watch and realize these women are super talented."

Rivulettes head coach Geoff Haddaway knows the talent level out there.

And he wants other people to see it, too. Those eyeballs, whether watching on television or in their seat at an arena, are the key. 

Not only do TV ratings and ticket sales drive revenue, it shows people are engaged at a time when entertainment dollars are sparse.

"It’s healthy we're talking about it" Haddaway said.

"I sent a message to our team. Regardless of the level of fan you become, Jan. 1 is a historically significant day."

As Reid, O'Hagan, Cupolo and other young female players in the city continue their careers, the PWHL represents something much more important than goals, assists, wins and losses.

"I think if we take a narrow view that it creates a spot for women to play professional hockey, it overlooks the bigger picture," Haddaway said.

"It keeps the dreams alive."