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Pro Women's Hockey League explores new markets with neutral site games in Detroit and Pittsburgh

Boston defenseman Megan Keller can already foresee the potential for expansion with the Professional Women’s Hockey League holding neutral site games in Pittsburgh and Detroit this weekend.

It’s not a matter of if, Keller believes, but when for the first-year, six-team league.

“I think it’s inevitable,” she said during a PWHL video conference call this week.

“There’s so much room for growth in women’s hockey, and especially at the professional level,” added Keller, who grew up outside of Detroit. “To have that access for young hockey players in those different markets, I think it would be super successful. And it’s something fans, Detroit hockey fans, I think deserve.”

Though league executives have tapped the brakes on expansion talk, with nothing on the horizon until the 2025-26 season at the earliest, it hasn’t prevented them from testing potential markets as reflected in the PWHL’s dubbed “Takeover Weekend.” And the PWHL is already promising even more neutral-site games next season.

Toronto, on a nine-game winning streak, and Montreal will face off in Pittsburgh at the Penguins PPG Paints Arena on Sunday. And Boston faces Ottawa in Detroit at the Red Wings’ Little Caesars Arena on Saturday, marking a home-coming for Keller and fellow Michigan-born teammates Taylor Girard and Shiann Darkangelo.

“Growing up, my dad would always take me to Red Wings games and so it’s going to be cool,” Girard said.

The 30-year-old Darkangelo developed her skills in Detroit’s Little Caesars' youth hockey program, and is looking forward to holding a pre-game camp with program youngsters, while playing in a building that bears the company name.

While Detroit might be dubbed “HockeyTown,” what’s not lost on all three players is how the state’s two major colleges — Michigan and Michigan State — lack women’s varsity hockey programs.

Darkangelo and Keller wondered if the game in Detroit and the prospect of the PWHL one day expanding into the Motor City might spur both schools, who both have club teams.

It’s a sticking point for others, including Minnesota GM Natalie Darwitz.

When the University of Delaware announced launching a women’s varsity program in December, Darwitz called it “amazing,” before quickly adding: “We still don’t have Michigan.”

Count Minnesota forward Kendall Coyne Schofield among the boosters, given that her husband, NFL lineman Michael Schofield, played football at Michigan.

“In their fight song, they say they’re the leaders and the best. I think this is an opportunity for them to be leaders,” Coyne Schofield told The Associated Press. “When you look at just the history and the success of the sport in the state, it’s mind-boggling that there isn’t a Division I women’s program right now.”

It’s easier said than done, and there is no formal proposal on the table for Michigan to launch a varsity team, school spokesman Kurt Svoboda said.

One challenge is infrastructure. Given the 101-year-old Yost Ice Arena’s configuration, there’s little room to expand the venue to accommodate a woman’s team. And then there’s the mere cost of starting up a program, clouded further by ongoing questions over compensating college athletes.

Michigan State did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The neutral site games have generated interest, with the PWHL already selling tickets in the upper bowl in Detroit, while the lower bowl in Pittsburgh is expected to sell out.

Both games have major implications in standings, with the PWHL entering the final third of its schedule.

Boston, coming off a 4-0 loss at Minnesota on Wednesday, and Ottawa are tied with 20 points in holding the fourth and final playoff spot. Toronto, Montreal and Minnesota, meantime, are tied in first.

The neutral site settings reinforce the ties the PWHL has forged with the NHL.

Minnesota is the league’s only team to play games in an NHL venue, the Wild's home. Last month, Toronto and Montreal played at the Maple Leafs Scotiabank Arena and set a women’s hockey attendance record at 19,285. That record could be broken next month when Montreal hosts Toronto in a game at the Canadiens' 21,000-seat home.

Toronto, which has already outgrown its 2,500-seat facility, is already in discussions with Maple Leafs officials regarding future games at Scotiabank.

“We’re believers,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told the AP in a recent interview. “I always believed that until they all got together on the same page it wasn’t going to work, and that we would be happy to assist.”

Bettman was referring the arrival of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter, the PWHL’s primary financial backer, who launched the league by buying out the rival Premier Hockey Federation in June. The move brought together the sport's top players after U.S. and Canadian national team members balked at joining the PHF.

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AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

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AP Women’s Hockey: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-hockey