They wanted to be part of history — or “herstory,” as one sign proclaimed — and they were.
Thickly populating all but the upper deck of the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Saturday, fans of the Minnesota franchise of the new Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) shattered the attendance record for a women’s professional hockey game.
The official attendance of 13,316 easily beat the previous record of 8,318 set days before in Ottawa, Canada.
“Look at all these people,” marveled Choua Thao of Mahtomedi as she watched throngs flow through the concourse before the puck drop of the team’s home opener, a 3-0 victory over Montreal. She brought her three children — Audrey, 15, a hockey fan; Dexter, 12, who plays; and Marshall, 8 — to Saturday’s game. “It’s super-exciting,” she said.
Minnesota is the upstart league’s only team to play on NHL ice — a fun fact well-known to many of those who streamed into the X on Saturday afternoon.
They wore the state hockey colors: Wild red, green and white, Gophers maroon and gold, and whatever they had approaching the deeper-than-Vikings purple that Minnesota’s PWHL team has adopted.
Yes, that’s the team name: “Minnesota.” None of the six teams in the league has adopted nickname or mascot yet — a challenge for fans. For example, you can’t really squeeze “Let’s go Minnesota!” in a crowd chant the way you can “Let’s go Gophers!” So they went with the basic “Minn-e-so-ta!”
Entire rosters of youth girls teams, from Orono to Rochester, booked blocks of tickets as low as $19 and wore team jerseys, a great way to grab the fan cam’s attention for some time on the Jumbotron.
Twin sisters Anna and Maddie Wiedewitsch, 9, wore their Centennial jerseys and rattled off names of players they were planning to cheer for as if they were longtime fans.
For their mother, Jeanne Chapple, seeing her daughters have the opportunity to come of age watching elite women’s hockey players in an arena like the X felt like the culmination of work by generations prior — including hers.
In the early 2000s, Chapple was a standout player at Ohio State University. Today, she admires the state of women’s hockey both on and off the ice.
“The stuff they’re doing today, the skills, it’s amazing — and we thought we were pretty good,” she chuckled. “But to see a pro team playing in a place like this, everybody dreamed of it, but I don’t think we actually thought it would happen.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by other women who came before.
“This didn’t just happen,” Laura Halldorson, the first coach of the Gophers women’s hockey program, told fans during the intermission between the second and third periods as she traced the development of women’s hockey. That included a shout-out to the Minnesota Whitecaps, a professional team that has played in various leagues since 2004.
One key distinction of the PWHL, which is owned by Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter and his wife, Kimbra, is the money; the average salary is $55,000.
“They’re actually getting paid real money, like they deserve,” said fan Dawn Voelker.
Team Minnesota is peppered with elite players native to the state, such as former Olympians Lee Stecklein of Roseville and Kelly Pannek of Plymouth, as well as Grace Zumwinkle of Excelsior, who scored the game’s only goals, one late in the first period, another early in the third, and completing the hat trick on an open net in the third. But none have the following of former Gophers star Taylor Heise, the league’s first overall draft pick.
“She’s the reason we’re here,” said Heidi Berge of Heise’s native Lake City. “We’re known her since she was a little girl.”
“I’ve seen a few of these players in person before,” said Ava Bauer, a sophomore at the U who played for Apple Valley High School. “It’s supercool to see them get the opportunity to play here professionally.”