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A look at the Professional Women's Hockey League's first season and playoffs

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Montreal versus Boston is a classic hockey rivalry - when we're talking about the men, anyway. And this very first season of the Professional Women's Hockey League is following suit. Last night Boston and Montreal met in the playoffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: ...Makes the stop and comes loose - looking for a chance, and she scores.

Susanna Tapani, the hero in overtime, and Boston wins Game 1.

KELLY: Well, to check in on the league on and off the ice, we turn now to Karissa Donkin. She reports on the PWHL for CBC Sports. Karissa, welcome.

KARISSA DONKIN: Hello. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: OK, so the playoffs - as we just heard, Boston beat Montreal in Game 1. That's one matchup. We also have Minnesota playing Toronto. These semifinals are the best of five. Briefly, how did these particular teams get here?

DONKIN: So this is the first season of the league. It's a brand-new league. We've got six teams in total. Four of them made the playoffs. And this league does things a little bit differently from some of the other major sports leagues across North America. Notably, the team that finished first, they actually get to pick their opponent among the third- and the fourth-seeded teams. So...

KELLY: And just to note - the No. 1 team was Toronto, right?

DONKIN: Yeah. So they actually had 24 hours where they had to decide between playing Minnesota or playing Boston, and then they announced their decision. So that's kind of fun.

KELLY: Give us a cheat sheet. If there were a couple of key players we should keep an eye on in these playoffs, who would they be?

DONKIN: Yeah. The big name on Toronto is Natalie Spooner. So she finished first overall in the league in both goals and points. And if we look at Minnesota, someone I would keep an eye on is Taylor Heise. She was the first overall draft pick in the very first PWHL draft last fall. And if we look at Boston and Montreal, Marie-Philip Poulin is the captain of Montreal. She's been the face of women's hockey here in Canada for a long time, arguably the best player in the world. And she's facing off against Hilary Knight, who's the captain of Boston and has been one of the faces of women's hockey in the United States for a long time.

KELLY: And then back to the question of this first season, how it's gone in a league that came together really quickly - the teams still don't have logos or mascots. Is that right?

DONKIN: That's right. They don't have team names or logos. That's something they're still working on. Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah. But the first season has gone well. What kind of decisions have they made in terms of structure?

DONKIN: I mean, I think it's safe to say it's exceeded everyone's expectations, you know, on the fan interest side. We've seen world records shatter for attendance. Just last month we had the Bell Center, which is the biggest hockey arena in North America, packed to see Montreal take on Toronto. There's been a ton of interest for, you know, viewership on television. They're streaming the games on YouTube, which - they've seen a ton of people tune into that. But I think they've launched at really the perfect time because it's not necessarily unique to women's hockey what's going on right now. I think there's just a voracious appetite for women's sport all across the world right now.

KELLY: Yeah. So what's your elevator pitch to somebody who has not watched the Professional Women's Hockey League yet?

DONKIN: I think you're missing out. It's, you know, such fast, skilled hockey. I mean, I think the women's game has always been so fast and skilled. But it's also probably more physical, maybe, than what you've seen before. I mean, women's hockey has always been physical, but for a long time, you know, one of the things you'd hear people say is, oh, I don't watch women's hockey 'cause there's no hitting. Well, that's certainly not true. There's definitely hitting. In this league, you'll see that very quickly if you watch a playoff game. And I think for folks who tune in once every four years around the Olympics, I mean, you know, these are the same players that you see at the Olympics. They're just wearing different jerseys.

KELLY: That is Karissa Donkin with CBC Sports. Thank you.

DONKIN: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF GWEN STEFANI SONG, "HOLLABACK GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.