There’s Nothing Mini About This Minny Title

OK, you fans of Minnesota professional sports. (Both of you?).  I stand corrected.

After I made a huge deal out of how significant and hungry the fans of the Land of 10,000 Lakes are for a professional title in the wake of the Timberwolves’ NBA playoff run, I noted the failures and disappointments of the last thirty-something years of the Twins, Vikings and Wild, not to mention the irony that the Wild’s NHL predecessors, now known as the Dallas Stars, won their sole Stanley Cup only after they left the area and the word “North” behind.

But I had completely forgotten what was going on with their other professional hockey team.  It’s almost understandable, given their lack of any national United States network or global platform yet finding a way to carry the inaugural season of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL).  But in Canada, it was a HUGE deal.  Toronto regularly drew five-figure crowds for its home games, and TV audience were impressive, even in comparison to some U.S. offerings.  When Toronto and New York (none of the PWHL teams have yet to commit to nicknames) squared off on New Year’s Night for the league’s historic first-ever match, per The Hockey News 2.9 million people watched at some point across CBC, Sportsnet and TSN, with an average of 879,000 reported by SPORTS BUSINESS JOURNAL’s Alex Silverman.  Not quite what the combination of ESPN networks delivered for MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL in 2023 (17.4 million).  But per Numeris, the de facto Nielsen of Canada, there are only 28.3 million potential viewers in the whole country.  By my math, that’s about a 3 rating.  Tell me how many leagues of any kind beyond the NFL get those kind of numbers nowadays.

Fortunately, THE ATHLETIC has a gifted and passionate writer named Hayley Salvian on the beat, and her report of what went down for the Minnesota sports fan last night was stirring:

The first-ever PWHL Finals could not have ended in a better fashion: with Minnesota captain Kendall Coyne Schofield scoring the empty-net goal to seal the championship.

“There’s so much about this day that she deserves,” said Minnesota goalie Nicole Hensley. “She has obviously done so much for this sport and for this professional league. It’s completely fitting that she’s the first one to touch the Walter Cup.”

Coyne Schofield — a key figure in the creation of the PWHL — hoisted the Walter Cup after her team downed Boston 3-0 in Game 5 of the PWHL Finals on Wednesday night. Mark Walter, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and now the PWHL’s sole investor, presented the trophy to Coyne Schofield and — per the captain’s request — helped her lift it.

I asked Mark to hold it with me for a second,” she said on the ice after the game. “It was cool to be able to hold that alongside him.”

It was the culmination of a post-season filled with surprises for Minnesota that rivaled anything we’ve seen so far in the Stanley Cup, as Salvian further detailed:

Minnesota won the best-of-five series 3-2 after thinking they’d won it back on home ice at the Xcel Energy Center — at least for a few minutes before Sophie Jaques’ double-overtime goal was called back due to goaltender interference. Alina Müller scored to force a fifth and final game in dramatic fashion, but Minnesota still came out on top.

Minnesota entered the playoffs as the lowest seed (4) and on a five-game losing skid to end the regular season. The team was on the brink of elimination against Toronto, which got out to a 2-0 series lead, but won three-straight games to advance to the Finals and upset the top-ranked team in the league.

The game’s Canadian broadcast was available on several U.S. regional sports networks, including Bally Sports North in Minnesota, so at least the locals could celebrate in a local watering hole.  Others needed to seek out You Tube, where the league also allowed access.  Reportedly, well over 100,000 viewers did just that.  Without an NBA playoff game to compete with, enough hard-core sports fans bored, disinterested or triggered by the Stars-Edmonton Oilers matchup apparently chose this historic alternative.

Some might contend that I’m giving this league and effort far too much attention; indeed, outside of USA TODAY agate, no mainstream publication apart from THE ATHLETIC gave the league much attention at all.  Salvian, a one-time player and a member of the platform’s hockey podcast team where she regularly keeps pace with snarky male counterparts and displays her knowledge and passion for the sport with endearing qualities, is evangelical about the PWHL, and I dare say her frequent reports on what I consider to be a must-listen for any hockey fan increased my awareness and appetite.  Stories like this–a come-from-behind last-seeded team ultimately prevailing in a winner-take-all Finals decider–are rare in any sport.  Having the first PWHL season ever close so dramatically will help ensure that the degree of obscurity that this was shrouded in will not recur.

And I’m pretty sure the state of Minnesota will be helping her cause going forward.

Courage…

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