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The new pro women's hockey league allows more hitting. Players say they like showing those skills

LOWELL, Mass. (AP) — With an early-season PWHL game between Montreal and Boston winding down, the speakers blared the Olivia Newton-John classic, “Let’s Get Physical.”

And that's just what the players did.

In a break from previous top professional women's hockey leagues, the PWHL has written into its rules more body checking than most might be used to. The skaters say the leeway gives them a better chance to show their skills and restores the traditional balance between finesse and physicality familiar to hockey fans everywhere.

“The game’s been physical for a long time,” Toronto defender Renata Fast said. “All of us, we train every single day. We’re strong enough. We’re fit enough to be able to play that physical game. I think if they’re able to get the game to a point where players are still protected and we’re avoiding injuries of head contact, it’s going to be great for the game and the entertainment value.”

Checking — and even fighting — have been a part of men’s hockey for more than a century, with players using their bodies to dislodge an opponent from the puck and their fists to send a message about messing with a star skater or a defenseless goalie. Advocates of the more brutal side of the sport say that by allowing players to police themselves, it actually makes the games safer, and there’s no doubt that dropping the gloves can bring the crowd to its feet.

But most international leagues — both men’s and women’s — ban fighting and threaten heavy punishments like suspensions. Even the NHL has tried to minimize the practice with stiffer penalties against instigators and those who leave the bench to join a brawl.

Women’s leagues have long steered away from not just fighting but even hard body checking; the rare brawl does break out in women’s hockey, but routine fighting has never been a part of the sport. Players say the lack of physicality was partly due to a misguided attempt to protect their supposedly frail bodies.

“I feel like that always kind of has been something people said about the women’s game: ‘Oh, they can’t hit,'" said Montreal forward Jillian Dempsey, a former Harvard captain who was the all-time leading scorer in the Premier Hockey Federation, a PWHL predecessor. “And it’s like, ‘Well, we really do.’

“But now it’s nice that it’s more within the rules to be able to do it,” she said. “It just kind of gives us that freedom to go out there and display the strength and the power that that many players have.”

PWHL Rule 52, “Body Checking,” allows for contact “when there is a clear intention of playing the puck or attempting to ‘gain possession’ of the puck.” Two players chasing a puck are “reasonably allowed to push and lean into each other provided that ‘possession of the puck’ remains the sole object."

The league also gives any stationary player the right to “hold their ground” – even if she is between an opponent and the puck: “It is up to the opponent to avoid body contact with such a player. … The opponent is obliged to skate around the stationary player.”

This is conspicuously different from the NHL, where checking — at least how the rules are applied — is legal if there is a plausible argument to be made that the hitter is trying to dislodge the puck. And, what the rules say can sometimes matter less than how the individual referees interpret them.

“It’s just a different level, a different kind of physical,” Minnesota goalie Nicole Hensley said. “I think it’s good for the game. But at the same time, you just need to make sure everyone knows how to take and give hits.”

Montreal’s Feb. 4 game against Boston featured a handful of full-body hits that are a natural part of playing in close quarters, a few of them heavy enough to knock a player off her skates. But there were none of the NHL-style, bone-crushing hits that come long after the puck was gone.

More often, players skating near the boards were just muscled off the puck. There was one roughing penalty, when Boston's Jessica Digirolamo, with her hands and stick raised, smashed Montreal's Laura Stacey into the boards midway through the second period, drawing gasps from the crowd of 4,210 at the Tsongas Center in this 19th century textile center about an hour northwest of Boston.

Montreal coach Kori Cheverie noted that most of the women on her team hadn’t played with this much checking since they were young and had to play with boys’ teams to find competition that could keep up with them.

“I think it’s made the game way more exciting,” said Ottawa captain Brianne Jenner, a three-time Olympian for Canada. “I think it’s showcased our skills even more. It actually hasn’t slowed down the game. It’s made it better.”

PWHL head of hockey operations Jayna Hefford, who won four Olympic gold medals with the Canadian team, said the league has been working with players to find the right balance.

“The physicality is one area that they were really excited about,” she said. “These women are skilled, they’re strong, they’re fast, they train hard every day and they want to be able to play the game. It was something immediately that we knew we wanted to add to the game.”

Hefford said the increase in hitting has not led to more injuries — a relief for the young league. But the crowds have responded well — no small factor for a business hoping to stick around where other pro women's hockey circuits have faded away.

“The fans like it, too, which helps to kind of build some of that attention," said Dempsey, who at 5-foot-4 and 135 pounds is more likely to be receiving hits than dishing them out. "I don’t enjoy being on the the wrong end of those a few times, but, yeah, it’s a fun aspect of the game that we get to do now.”

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AP Hockey Writers John Wawrow and Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.