By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) – The new year ushered in a new era in women’s sport on Monday with tennis trailblazer Billie Jean King handling ceremonial opening faceoff duties as Toronto and New York met in the Professional Women’s Hockey League’s (PWHL) first game.

New York will go into the record books as the 4-0 winner of the inaugural contest but more significantly the game marked the launch of a league with ambitious plans to do for ice hockey what the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) did for their sports.

With six nameless franchises in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, New York, Boston and Minneapolis-St. Paul, building a fan base will be job one for the fledgling league financed largely by a single investor Mark Walter, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and part owner of Premier League club Chelsea.

Born out of failed leagues in Canada and the United States that were boycotted by many of the world’s best players over inadequate pay and resources, there was a buzz and air of history at the Mattamy Athletic Centre as Toronto and New York players took to the ice in front of capacity crowd of 2,537.

“All week I have been saying just enjoy it, take it in,” said Toronto coach Troy Ryan. “I hope they all felt all the emotions they should.

“I hope they reflected back on some women who were influential in their careers.

“I hope they had all those feelings and if that cost us a game I can deal with that.”

The importance of the moment was underscored by the presence of tennis great Billie Jean King, a gender equality crusader who has thrown her considerable cache behind the project taking a seat on the PWHL board.

The winner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles also made a pre-game appearance in both dressing rooms.

“It was one of the best moments I have ever had as a coach just seeing her come in and announce the starting lineup,” said Ryan, who is also the head coach of Canada’s national women’s team. “Seeing the emotion in the faces of our players when she announced their names it was an iconic moment from an icon.

“I’ve been part of world championships, club championships, Olympic Games and there was probably more emotion surrounding this one than any of those gold medal games.

“There’s so much riding on this situation, it is such a long time coming and so many people fought for the opportunity.

“It was special.”

Certainly pay equality will remain a far off dream with the average PWHL salary at $55,000 while Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid will make over $150,000 a game this season.

Still, the PWHL has attracted players from 12 different countries (including Japan), including the sport’s biggest names like Canada national team’s “Captain Clutch” Marie-Philip Poulin and Kendall Coyne Schofield of the United States.

But the player in the spotlight on Monday was Ella Shelton who scored the historic first goal and eventual game winner midway through the opening period.”

“We’ve come a long way and we’re pretty excited to be part of a historical moment and it feels more like a team goal than a personal goal,” said Shelton. “I hope young girls look up and go I’m going to do that one day just like her.”

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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