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‘That Was Electric’

Record crowd of 13,316 fans attends PWHL Minnesota home opener.

More than 13,000 fans packed into each level of Xcel Energy Center for the PWHL Minnesota home opener on Jan. 6, 2024. (MHM Photo / Heather Rule)

ST. PAUL – If records were made to be broken, the state of hockey pulverized an attendance record that was only four days old.

A world-record crowd of 13,316 hockey fans showed up to Xcel Energy Center on Saturday afternoon for the home opener of PWHL Minnesota, a game it won 3-0 over PWHL Montreal. That’s nearly 5,000 more fans than the 8,318 fans at The Arena at TD Place in Ottawa for its home opener on Jan. 2, also against Montreal.

Minnesota’s home opener and its atmosphere were phenomenal, said Minnesota coach Ken Klee.

“We had 14,000 fans in there cheering for them,” Klee said. “I asked them (his team) after, ‘How many of you have played in front of 14,000 before?’ And, of course, not one of them raised their hands.

“But they did today.”

Grace Zumwinkle, a Minnesota native who stole the show with the first hat trick in PWHL history and while also becoming the first PWHL player to record a multi-goal game in the young season, said she was “at a loss for words” after the game, crediting the state of Minnesota for the impressive turnout.

Maddie Rooney (left) and Grace Zumwinkle speak with the media following a 3-0 victory in the PWHL Minnesota home opener on Jan. 6, 2024. (MHM Photo / Heather Rule)

Goaltender Maddie Rooney, an Andover native who made 24 saves for the shutout called Zumwinkle a “powerhouse” and noted the fun environment of the arena.

“That was electric,” Rooney said, with a smile and a laugh.

The demand was so great for the game among hockey fans – old and new, young and old – that ticket sales expanded to the club level of the X on Thursday night. By Saturday morning, some 200-level seats were sold, too, with a few sections opened on the penalty-box side of the arena.

One of those last-minute ticket buyers was Mike Mack, of Minneapolis, and his wife. They decided to attend the game after reading the featured story about the PWHL Minnesota team on the front page of the Star Tribune sports section Saturday morning.

Mack had attended Minnesota Lynx and Gophers women’s hockey games, but this was his first professional women’s hockey game. He was pleased with the presentation even from before the puck drop, like during team introductions when each Minnesota player skated onto the ice accompanied by girls’ hockey players from all over the state.

“Just seeing the women’s pro stuff come so far, and the fact that they’re bringing in the kids,” Mack said. “To have the kids come out in the beginning was amazing. I kind of got choked up.”

Hockey fans packed the lower bowl for the PWHL Minnesota home opener on Jan. 6, 2024. (MHM Photo / Heather Rule)

Mack is “absolutely” glad they attended the game and plans to come back for more; his wife already mentioned the team’s next home game on Jan. 10.

Down in the lower bowl, Emily Matson, of Apple Valley, is another hockey fan who will be back for more PWHL games. Matson wore a blue, Premier Hockey Federation (PHF)-branded Minnesota Whitecaps jersey and her PWHL stocking cap to the home opener. Though she never made it to a Whitecaps game, she was very excited when she heard the new PWHL Minnesota team would play its home games at Xcel Energy Center.

“So, we haven’t got the new jersey yet, but I figured, it’s the first game, honor the old team,” Matson said.

Matson, also a longtime Minnesota Wild fan, is a PWHL Minnesota season ticket holder. Seeing a building full of 18,000-plus fans for an NHL game is one thing. But to see the crowd that turned out for the inaugural PWHL Minnesota game?

“I could not believe how full this is,” Matson said. “It’s really remarkable.

“To see thousands and thousands of people here, to see the Xcel this full, is really a treat. It’s really exciting.”

Many of those fans were dressed in purple, the PWHL Minnesota team color for the inaugural season. Perhaps some had on new PWHL merchandise; the line to purchase these items was lengthy during the first intermission on the main concourse level. Items were still being sold as of the second period as well.

Plenty of other fans had their hockey apparel or jerseys like the clusters of youth hockey teams scattered throughout the lower bowl wearing their team jerseys.

“Visibility for the sport is great, and to have us be able to play in this huge arena and have the younger generations in the stands be able to look on the ice and say, ‘I want to be like her someday,’ that’s so big for our sport,” Rooney said.

Fans could take their photos with these illuminated PWHLMN letters during the women’s hockey team home opener at Xcel Energy Center. (MHM Photo / Heather Rule)

For the little girls, and the older generations
Rooney also noted the opportunity for the games to be broadcast as well; PWHL Minnesota games can be found via Bally Sports North or the PWHL YouTube channel.

But it’s not just those little girls looking up to these current professional hockey players on the ice. There are plenty of women who came before these current PWHL players who either didn’t get a chance to play professionally or perhaps play women’s hockey at all beyond high school or college. PWHL Minnesota’s general manager Natalie Darwitz, for example, has often talked about how the Olympics used to be the highest place of achievement for women’s hockey players.

“The generations before us set the baseline and set the tone to make this league be able to happen,” Rooney said. “We have a bunch of pride stepping out on that ice knowing that we couldn’t be able to do this without those [women].”

Zumwinkle pointed to the PWHL players like her who used to be those little girls in the stands, looking up to the older generations of players.

“So, it’s super cool just generation to generation, and hopefully we can continue to leave that legacy on the people to come,” Zumwinkle said.

And if anyone is on the fence about attending a game or curious about the PWHL, Matson recommends going and said the game is “so fast.”  

“It’s more physical than you think it’s going to be,” Matson said. “Some people think of women’s hockey and think they’re just passing it around. No, this is a fast game. This is physical. There’s been checking, there’s been a little bit of everything.

“It’s exciting. It’s good stuff.”

Heather's love for watching hockey started when the Minnesota Wild came to town in 2000. Before that, she caught a few Minnesota Moose games as a youngster, and more recently she's kept up with the Austin Bruins and Fargo Force. She's a writer, freelance journalist and blogger who previously worked as a news reporter in Austin and Fergus Falls, Minn. She enjoys watching sports and closely follows the Wild, Minnesota Twins, IndyCar Series, tennis and prep sports. Heather keeps up her sports blog Thoughts from the Stands. You can follow her on Twitter/X @hlrule or Instagram @hlrule.

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