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Toronto a launching pad for Dream Gap Tour women's hockey games

Marie-Philip Poulin dreams of a day when hockey is a career option for young girls.

The Canadian forward is among the women giving the Dream Gap Tour its star power.

The roughly 200 hockey players who formed the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA) begin deploying in the tour's inaugural events Saturday and Sunday.

The four-game Unifor Women's Hockey Showcase at a Toronto community rink features 90 PWHPA players including Poulin, Brianne Jenner, Rebecca Johnston and Natalie Spooner, as well as Americans Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker.

"We're going to want to sell our product and make people realize women's hockey deserves what we want to have," Poulin told The Canadian Press on Thursday. "Maybe not for ourselves, but for the future generation."

The PWHPA formed this summer following the demise of the Canadian Women's Hockey League that operated for 12 years.

The association's mission is to create a financially viable and sustainable professional league.

The Dream Gap Tour is the PWHPA's vehicle to make their product more visible, as well as establish stronger connections with fans and sponsors.

Poulin, scorer of big goals for Canada in the 2010 and 2014 Olympic women's hockey tournament finals, expects Toronto's games to be competitive because the stakes feel so high for the players.

"It's a year where we're not to sure what's going to happen, but being able to be out there playing against each other and having games is going to be super-exciting," said the 28-year-old forward from Beauceville, Que.

"To be able to reach out to the fans, have people in the stands to be there to support us and have our backs — because we are doing this for a reason — we want to push this for the betterment of women's hockey."

The Toronto games are in a Westwood Arena rink with a capacity of 1,200. The event includes autograph signings between games and merchandise sales.

PWHPA president Jayna Hefford says weekend passes are almost sold out, and single-game tickets are still available.

"People need to show up if they want to support women's hockey," the Hockey Hall of Famer said.

Games aren't on television, but CBC will livestream games on its digital platforms, as will the PWHPA on its YouTube channel.

In addition to Toronto's showcase, other PWHPA players will take on Boston College's women Saturday in Chestnut Hill, Mass., followed by another game Sunday in San Jose's SAP Centre against NHL Sharks alumni.

Kendall Coyne Schofield is the PWHPA headliner in San Jose, where the American forward set the hockey world abuzz with her speed lap during the NHL all-star game's skills competition in January.

Four-game showcases are also scheduled for Oct. 5-6 in Hudson, N.H., and Oct. 18-20 in Chicago.

More Canadian events will be announced at a later date, says Hefford.

Toronto's Westwood is a multi-icepad community centre.

It's an intimate venue where boys and girls in minor hockey can interact with some of the world's best female players, Hefford points out.

"This is a great way to stay connected to the grassroots level," she said.

"If we were doing one game, absolutely I'd say let's do a 5,000-seat rink or more. But when you're trying to do four games, that's a huge endeavour.

"Down the road we want to be playing in these professional buildings, but this movement is about the grassroots and the community-engagement piece."

A veteran Canadian Women's Hockey League goaltender and advocate of women's pro hockey, Liz Knox from Stouffville, Ont., is now working with the PWHPA.

She was involved in organizing Toronto's tour stop.

"It's really a unique opportunity to see 100 of the best players in the world play against each other and see some line combinations you wouldn't normally see at a rivalry series or at the Olympics," Knox said.

PWHPA players refuse to join the U.S.-based, five-team NWHL starting its fifth season.

The CWHL announced it was shutting down earlier this year after 12 seasons.

Many women want the NHL to get involved in running a league like the NBA does with the WNBA.

But commissioner Gary Bettman has said the NHL doesn't want to interfere while a women's league is operating.

The PWHPA's tour will compete with the NWHL for eyeballs and money at times this season.

But those involved in the Dream Gap Tour stop short of declaring the demise of the NWHL is their goal.

"I don't think that's ever been a box on our list," Knox said. "In our conversations early on in the season, they didn't provide us with the answers we wanted to consider it a viable option.

"They're on the same path as the CWHL was and we saw that does not work. We saw there were limitations to that from a business standpoint, from a sponsorship standpoint."

Said Poulin: "They're doing their thing. We believe in our product and we believe in the model we want and we're not so comfortable in their model."

Hefford, from Kingston, Ont., says the PWHPA doesn't want to "put anyone out of business."

"We're looking to create something much bigger and a more long-term solution for women's hockey than what any of us see right now," she said.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press