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Grace Zumwinkle And Minnesota Are Breaking Free

David Berding/Getty Images

I was a little confused to receive an emailed statement from the new Professional Women's Hockey League yesterday evening. The release informed me that the “post-game handshake line would resume” after a “miscommunication caused handshakes not to be conducted” at the previous night's game between New York and Montreal. I had watched the game, but entirely missed this drama: Montreal's coach thought that New York had left her team hanging; New York's coach said he'd been given a no-handshake directive by the league office. All in all, it's a pretty funny inaugural scandal.

Post-game handshakes are staples of other sports, men's and women's. I have no problem with them. (Rather than stifle competitive spirit, I would argue the handshake line gives each player the chance to confront her enemies directly!) But also if they were ever done away with, it would be no great loss. As tributes to the power of love and friendship go, this league already has a much cooler one.

That would be the “jailbreak” goal. In other hockey leagues, the best possible outcome for a player serving a penalty is that they retake the ice two minutes later, suspiciously fresh-legged, while their resentful teammates huff and puff nearby. But a PWHL rule turns every penalty kill into a high-stakes rescue mission: If you score a shorthanded goal, you end the penalty and free your teammate. They may have done the crime, but they needn't do the time. The player in the box is no longer an ungrateful burden, but an innocent lamb to be avenged. She sits there, sweetly, thinking “white me...” and if you truly care about her, you will not clear the puck and go for a change. You will fight for her. You will score.

Last night, in the second period of a game between Minnesota and Ottawa (after which, true to the league's word, the handshake line did resume), it was Grace Zumwinkle's turn to play hero. Her teammate Susanna Tapani was called for tripping, and less than a minute into the Ottawa power play, Zumwinkle got a feed from Kelly Pannek at center ice, skated down the near wall, drove the net, and roofed the puck over Ottawa goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer to tie the game 2-2. She celebrated with her teammates on the ice, but before she headed back to her bench for fist bumps, Zumwinkle headed in the other direction, to escort the newly freed Tapani from the box. “I mean it's a bit like dodgeball, the switcheroo,” said Minnesota head coach Ken Klee. “Like, you catch the dodgeball and you gain a player and they lose one. So, it's definitely a momentum changer for the game which I've never seen.”

At 5-foot-9, Zumwinkle has the size and puck protection instincts of a great power forward. She graduated from the University of Minnesota last spring, and has made the adjustment to professional hockey with ease. The league named her its first star of the week last week. Having scored a hat trick at Minnesota's home opener—the first hat trick in league history—she leads the PWHL in goals this season, with five in five games. “I try not to focus on goals, necessarily, but I focus on getting shots and generating chances,” she told Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford. She added that her style was to “get to the net and leverage my shot as much as possible.”

Zumwinkle is one of many bright spots on a first-place Minnesota roster that's won four of its five games and earned points in all of them. This team is practically designed to be adored by its fans: About half the roster are Minnesota natives, including Zumwinkle. Her University of Minnesota teammate, Taylor Heise, has lived up to the hype that made her the first selection in the inaugural PWHL draft this past September. Heise's best highlights so far might be the pair of goals she scored against Toronto last week, but she's been just as fun to watch when creating chances for her linemates. And Minnesota has the best goaltending tandem in the league in Nicole Hensley (not from Minnesota) and Maddie Rooney (from Minnesota). Sometimes drafting and signing a bunch of hometown heroes really does work.

After Zumwinkle tied Wednesday's game, Hensley made some absurd saves to keep it tied through regulation. In overtime, Tapani brought the puck up the ice, and her shot was deflected into Ottawa's net for the win. Earlier in this game, someone had saved her, and now she'd returned the favor.

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