The Premier Hockey Federation is putting pride on the line at its upcoming All-Star weekend. National pride, that is.
The PHF was inspired by its expanding global reach to create a whole new All-Star game format, featuring three teams made up of American, Canadian and international players selected from across the PHF's seven teams.
Quick history lesson: The PHF began in 2015-16 as the National Women's Hockey League with four clubs: The Metropolitan Riveters, Connecticut Whale, Boston Pride and Buffalo Beauts. The league expanded in 2018-19 when the Minnesota Whitecaps joined, soon to be followed by the Toronto Six in 2020-21 and the Montreal Force in 2022-23.
Back to this season: The PHF's All-Star main event takes place on Sunday, January 29th at 7 p.m. ET in Toronto, and will be broadcast live across the U.S. on ESPN2 and in Canada on TSN, TSN.ca and the TSN app.
"This is the best women's hockey league in the world. If you want to watch some of the top players [for the first time], this is where you can do it," Sami Jo Small, president of the Toronto Six, told ESPN recently. "The buzz around the PHF is really exciting and super positive, for not just women's hockey, but women's sport in general."
Get ready for the PHF's All-Star showcase with all the news, notes and names to know:
Format first: Three teams, one champion
Fun fact: The PHF planned to host its 2022 All-Star Game in Toronto.
A surge in COVID-19 cases -- and restrictions -- ultimately made that impossible. So, the league pivoted to holding its event last January in Buffalo. That was the PHF's first crack at a three-team pattern too, with designated captains virtually drafting players from around the league to make for a best-on-best battle.
One year later, the PHF is taking that standard up a notch.
The league represents more players from around the world than ever before. Highlighting that depth was the impetus behind this season's All-Star game formula, with 45 players -- 15 per squad -- pitted against one another by country. The All-Star game itself will be a four-on-four affair opening in round-robin contests, followed by a championship matchup.
Team Canada and Team USA square off first. That winner will play Team World in the second game; the losing side will face Team World in a third and final round-robin contest. The games will be two seven-minute periods of set time, with a one-round shootout happening between periods where either side can add bonus goals. The title game will feature the top two teams following the three-game round-robin.
"I think [the format] will create some new and exciting rivalries, but also allow the players to meet [people] from other teams and to just create some bonds that go beyond perhaps just on the ice," Small said. "These women toil away on their own [PHF] teams and nobody else really knows what they go through except for their fellow hockey players at this level."
Connecting with new -- and familiar -- faces is a major incentive for the players as well. Some of those selected might be wearing their country's colors for the first time. Others have been on the international stage before. But most participants will agree: This new configuration adds serious spice to the All-Star weekend.
"I think it's cool," Metropolitan Riveters forward and Team USA selectee Madison Packer, making a record sixth All-Star game appearance, told ESPN. "I know players have already been talking on our team. A lot of us played together on other teams growing up so it's fun to reconnect with some of those players. I think the grouping together of peoples' countries and having the [international] team that brings together the dynamic of a lot of [different] players. It's infusing an element to make it fun, and I think that there's a lot of pride associated with it too."
Break it down: Roster construction
The PHF All-Star game will highlight a solid mix of rookie and veteran talents.
Boston and the Metropolitan lead with nine selections reaching All-Star ranks. Toronto is sending eight players, Connecticut has six, Minnesota has five, and four each will come from Buffalo and Montreal.
Of the 45 players picked, 24 are PHF newcomers and 17 hold previous All-Star experience.
Further, 25 of the 45 chosen have senior national team credits on their resume. That includes all 15 members of the international group, boasting players from Austria, China, Czechia, Finland, Hungary and Sweden.
"The talent level is enormous within the PHF," Small said. "There's so many new players in the league, not just from North America, but really from all over the world. I think that really makes a statement about the PHF being a league where the top players who want to play and hone their skills and make a living can do that."
Those picked to play in the All-Star game also got to vote on team captains. Packer will wear the "C" for Team USA, Boston's Kaleigh Fratkin is leading Team Canada and Connecticut's Kateřina Mrázová was selected to captain Team World.
In a news release, Packer pointed out that she and Jillian Dempsey tied in votes twice when teammates cast their ballots. Ultimately, Dempsey turned the captaincy over to Packer so she could "enjoy this one with my kiddos."
Here's the breakdown of players by country (including their PHF club):
Kelly Babstock (MET), Ann-Sophie Bettez (MON), Sarah Bujold (MET), Catherine Daoust (MON), Jade Downie-Landry (MON), Kaleigh Fratkin (BOS), Loren Gabel (BOS), Élizabeth Giguère (BOS), Mikyla Grant-Mentis (BUF), Brittany Howard (TOR), Kennedy Marchment (CTW), Corinne Schroeder (BOS) Kati Tabin (TOR), Saroya Tinker (TOR), Emma Woods (TOR)
Jonna Albers (MIN), Sydney Brodt (MIN), Shiann Darkangelo (TOR), Jillian Dempsey (BOS), Kali Flanagan (BOS), Taylor Girard (CTW), Abbie Ives (CTW), Dominique Kremer (BUF), Patti Marshall (MIN), Sidney Morin (MIN), Madison Packer (MET), Amanda Pelkey (MET), Natalie Snodgrass (MIN), Allie Thunstrom (BOS), Olivia Zafuto (BOS)
Taylor Baker (MON/HUN), Ebba Berglund (MET/SWE), Fanni Gasparics (MET/HUN), Anna Kilponen (MET/FIN), Denisa Křížová (MIN/CZE), Dominika Lásková (TOR/CZE), Leah Lum (TOR/CHN), Eveliina Mäkinen (MET/FIN) Antonia Matzka (BUF/AUT), Kateřina Mrázová (CTW/CZE), Emma Nuutinen (BUF/FIN), Lenka Serdar (CTW/CZE), Aneta Tejralová (BOS/CZE), Minttu Tuominen (MET/FIN), Tereza Vanišová (TOR/CZE)
Spill on stars: Who to watch
These games will be jam-packed with star power. Keep your head on a swivel.
Let's start with the rookies.
Boston's Loren Gabel and Toronto's Brittany Howard not only spotlight this year's All-Star freshmen class but pace the PHF in scoring this season. Gabel is tied with Howard for most goals (14) and sits first in points (24) for the league-leading Pride. Howard is right behind Gabel with 22 points for the second-place Six.
Those two, playing together for Team Canada? Epic.
Tossing in some previous international experience (and winning pedigree) for Canada will be Montreal's Ann-Sophie Bettez (15 points in 13 games), who earned an IIHF World Championship bronze with Team Canada in 2019.
Meanwhile, Gabel's teammate with the Pride -- five-time All-Star Dempsey -- will be wearing the red, white and blue of Team USA. Dempsey's having another great campaign in the PHF with a league-leading four game-winning goals, and sitting third in points (18).
Another Team USA standout is bound to be Connecticut's Taylor Girard (16 points in 13 games). Packer, for one, can't wait to share the ice with her.
"I think Taylor's arguably the best player in the league this year," Packer said. "She's incredibly talented, humble and I'm super excited to see her shine in an All-Star environment because I think people will gain an even greater appreciation for just how talented and special she truly is."
The USA crew also holds three 2018 Olympic gold medalists in Boston's Kali Flanagan, Minnesota's Sidney Morin, and the Riveters' Amanda Pelkey. Suffice it to say, the Americans will have talent to spare.
Ditto the international crew.
Minnesota's Denisa Křížová (six points in 14 games), Toronto's Dominika Lásková (five points in 13 games), Connecticut's Kateřina Mrázová (12 points in 13 games), and Boston's Aneta Tejralová (seven points in 15 games) all won bronze at the 2022 IIHF Women's World Championship.
"There's already so many players from so many different countries that are playing in this game," Small said. "Having a world team allows those players to highlight their skills alongside the North American players who often get most of the recognition; the international players have an enormous amount of talent as well."
For Packer, the PHF's growth of players from outside North America just proves how reputable -- and viable -- the league itself has continued to become since its inaugural season.
"I was just talking to one of my teammates the other day from Finland, and she was like, 'I didn't really know what to expect coming to the PHF, you hear a lot of things,'" Packer recalled. "I think that's the most popular comment is that [potential players] just hear so many different things. And [my teammate] said, 'this is incredible, you guys are really making strides and this is really becoming established.' So I think for a lot of the international players, it's nice for them to see we really are building a league that has some sustainability and maybe that's something they didn't know."
If the PHF's All-Star weekend goes to plan, more people than ever can recognize what makes the PHF so special.
"I feel passionately about this," Packer said. "I really do it because I love it, and I want there to be a sustainable place to play for many years to come. I think every year you see an influx of talent in the league and better players coming in. Some of the young talent that we have right now is amazing. And it's because there were players before [this generation] and there's going to be players after that, but getting everyone to buy into that mentality of what we're building and what we're doing [is crucial]. It's been a lot of fun."