Kelley Steadman is on the ice most weekday mornings during the season with the Colonials, the women’s hockey team at Robert Morris University. She’s the team’s director of operations and stands along the side of the rink and gives players direction during drills.
But on the weekends, she’s in the middle of the action as a forward in the National Women’s Hockey League, the NWHL.
Steadman commutes more than three hours to play in Buffalo, N.Y., with her team, the Buffalo Beauts. It’s one of four NWHL teams in the young league. Or she’ll drive even further to away games in New York or Boston.
This weekend, she’ll have the chance to play much closer to home. The NWHL’s All-Star Game and a skills competition is taking place in Pittsburgh, and Steadman is one of the team captains.
“You get to see the best players in the country and in the world playing against each other on the same rink, which you don't see very often,” Steadman said.
Steadman was voted MVP of last year’s All-Star game. She’s played on the U.S. Women’s National team, winning gold medals in international competitions and she’s also been a player in the Canadian women’s league.
At 5-feet 10-inches, Steadman said she’s not afraid to use her size against other players. Body checking isn’t allowed in professional women’s ice hockey, but Steadman said that doesn’t mean it isn’t tough.
“It's fast paced,” she said. “A lot of people think that because it's women’s hockey we can't hit, that it's not physical, but they'll come to a game and then they'll say, ‘Oh my gosh, like, you, you hit her. I thought you weren't allowed to do that.’”
Alan Saunders with Pittsburgh Hockey Digest said, actually, the women’s game resonates for a lot of hockey fans, even without the brawling.
“There's an expectation that it's an emotional game and that people get mad and there's you know there's everyone's holding a weapon in their hands,” he said. “And women's hockey is, I may say, more passionate than men's hockey. They get fired up.”
Saunders said Pittsburgh as the host for this All-Star game shows the city is becoming a larger hockey market. He said the Steel City’s hockey tradition is still pretty young, not like Canada and New England. Connecting with fans is the way to grow the market, Saunders said.
Cori James is one of those fans. She’s a player with the amateur Pittsburgh Puffins women’s ice hockey team. She and her teammates practice at the Pond Arena in Valencia, north of Pittsburgh, sometimes as late as 10 p.m., after all of the kids and teenagers go home. James has been playing for about seven years.
“I regret every day that I did not start sooner,” she said.
She said even though she knows she has years of amateur play ahead of her, at 26 she’s one of the youngest on her team, if there had been a professional women’s league when she was younger, things might have been different.
“There's definitely something to seeing people like me doing certain activities where that makes me think that's OK,” she said. “Yeah, it would have changed my perspective.”
She wants to take her 9-year-old niece to the All-Star game and she’s also hoping the NWHL chooses to expand to Pittsburgh when they grow the league.
League Commissioner Dani Rylan said that’s not out of the question.
“Pittsburgh is on the shortlist for sure,” Rylan said. “We’re excited to see what we do this one weekend, and see if there’s a potential to do something further down the road.”
Rylan said women’s and girls’ hockey is the second fastest growing sport in the country, and Pittsburgh is part of that trend, with its own youth leagues and competitive teams for girls. They’re the next generation of professional women’s ice hockey players.
According to USA Hockey, Inc., there has been a 93 percent increase in the total number of female players in western Pennsylvania since 2005.
Kelley Steadman said they’re also some of the NWHL’s biggest fans.
“Sharing what we do with them and giving them something to look forward to ... and people to look up to,” she said. “That's probably my favorite part.”
Steadman and the other captain of this year’s NWHL All-Star Game, Amanda Kessel, sister of Pittsburgh Penguin star Phil Kessel, will lead their teams in a skills competition of shooting accuracy and speed on Saturday, Feb. 11 at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. The main event is Sunday, Feb. 12.
Fans can also watch on the NWHL’s YouTube channel.