TEMPE – Some of the best players in the world heard little outside of loud “USA” chants from fans inside a nearly sold-out Mullett Arena last Wednesday in Team USA’s 3-1 win over Team Canada. However, the victory wasn’t the most important part of the game.
The national competition – and Rivalry Series game between the two countries – was another step toward growing the game of women’s hockey in Arizona ahead of Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) camps opening soon.
Globally, women’s hockey has been thriving as of late – and particularly in Arizona. In Mullett’s short existence since opening in October 2022, the arena has hosted four women’s hockey events. In March, the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) hosted its championship between the Minnesota Whitecaps and Toronto Six. The American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Arizona State women’s hockey team played Grand Canyon University in Mullet’s debut, then played once more for senior night against Michigan State University last February.
ASU women’s hockey team won its conference championship last season and made it to the National Championship for the first time in club history. The U19 Arizona Kachinas (the official tier one girls hockey association of the Arizona Coyotes) made it to the national tournament in their league in 2022 as well.
The lead-up of women’s competition on the ice culminated in all of the teams and athletes attending Arizona’s leg of the Rivalry Series and showing support – and many of the players believe the match marked another turning point for women’s hockey in the Valley.
Even Canadian forward Sarah Nurse, who was on the losing end of the game, was excited to play in the state and hopes the desert is on the verge of fielding professional women’s hockey.
“This facility (Mullet Arena) is phenomenal. It’s super cool. Super well done,” Nurse said. “I think it’s great for the university. Hopefully, they can get some (professional) women’s hockey here in the next few years. But I think it’s a great facility. I’m excited to be here.”
Near the end of the game, when it was clear USA was going to win, the crowd chanted, “USA, USA, USA.” American forward Hilary Knight loved the wave of support and hopes the teams can play in the Grand Canyon State again.
“I don’t even want to call it a non-traditional market, right, but most call it a non-traditional market,” Knight said postgame. “When we come into different towns and cities, it’s great for us to be able to grow the game, lace the skates up and represent our country. Just to impact young and old fans.
“It’s a huge responsibility, but how much fun is it to be able to do that through sports? I’m really encouraged by the turnout tonight so hopefully, we can come back someday.”
Arizona State senior Berkleigh Radcliffe, a defenseman who has played on the ASU women’s hockey team for the past four years, was part of the team when the Sun Devils were still trying to win the conference playoffs back in 2021. Now, her team is ranked No. 7 nationally and a powerhouse out West. She understands how important the Rivalry Series is to the Valley and the potential it has to inspire girls to fall in love with the game.
“It’s super awesome that the Rivalry Series is here,” Radcliffe said of the popular competition between the two countries that spans seven games while crisscrossing North America through February.
“Arizona girls hockey is something that’s been growing a lot recently and I think it’s really good that all these girls are going to be able to see high-level and competitive women’s hockey in their community.”
It’s not Team USA’s first time helping to grow the sport in Arizona. Lindsey Fry, who dropped the ceremonial puck before the game, is a Valley icon admired by many. Fry was born in Mesa and won an Olympic silver medal with the U.S. in 2014 in Sochi before retiring from hockey shortly after.
She has elevated the sport’s prominence in the state by helping out in the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes organization, along with helping found the Kachinas.
American forward Taylor Heise, who was selected first overall this summer in the inaugural PWHL draft, watched as her teammate Knight took the ceremonial faceoff from Fry. Just like her older teammate, Heise wants to help expand the sport’s demographics and popularity. Even after scoring a goal in the game, she found that the number of girls in attendance was more important.
“I think the thing that was more important for me today is being able to have a lot of young girls here to watch us, proving that you can do whatever you set your mind to,” Heise said.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see more professional women’s hockey events come to Mullett in the near future. With the first season of the PWHL starting up, Arizona might eventually be in the running for a team. Until then, women’s hockey looks like it will continue to grow in the desert and become a sports staple for girls across the Valley.