WICHITA, Kan. – The visor on Annie Pankowski's helmet gave her significant pause before the ECHL All-Star Classic.
"That is the first time me and the other women have worn visors," said the three-time world champion who has always worn a full cage. "When I saw that, it was the first time I got nervous. I started telling some of the guys like, you know, I'm not going to play defense."
Not to worry, no one else was playing much defense, either.
Pankowski was one of four members of the U.S women's team taking part in the event played in collaboration with the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association.
Dani Cameranesi, Kali Flanagan and Gigi Marvin also played on the 2018 U.S. Olympic gold medal team.
The ECHL event featured four teams playing short games against each other and included Kansas City Mavericks defenseman Zach Osburn. There was one female player on each team in the nationally televised showcase.
"It's an opportunity for our league to celebrate our players but also to highlight hockey everywhere for our fans to enjoy," ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin said.
But while the women were competing with some of the better players in minor-league hockey, the games barely resembled normal competition. It was 3 on 3 with no stoppages – and almost no defense other than an occasional stick in the passing lane.
"I was really nervous about how it would go, how the guys would accept us," Flanagan said. "But they made us feel like one of them."
Flanagan played for the Eastern Conference All-Stars, who won the event. She scored a goal in the final, though it went into a wide open net after the puck went off a referee's skate. That earned her some good-natured teasing in the hallways.
"Got lucky there," she said, laughing, "but you could tell by the time we got to the final, the guys wanted to win."
Wichita Thunder forward Stefan Fournier said the women were a welcome addition for the all-star festivities.
"They integrated right in," he said. "I think, for us, it was about respecting all hockey players. Sure, the size of the players might be different between men and women, but mentally, we are all just hockey players."
For Flanagan, the event was particularly special as her uncle, Joe Flanagan, played in the ECHL All-Star Game more than 20 years ago.
"I was thrilled to be part of that," she said. "And I'm really happy the ECHL is fighting for women's hockey."
Pankowski, playing with a team comprised of host Wichita Thunder players, scored a backhanded goal in the night's third matchup, getting a big cheer from the crowd.
Cameranesi and Marvin also scored goals during the round-robin portion of the tournament.
Pankowski was thrilled to see each of the women score, but she said one of her favorite moments came after the sharp-shooting competition when she was just yapping with other players.
"I told them I was worried about taking too long, that they might just turn the lights out on me if it took too long to hit the targets," she said. "And they were all like no, you did fine, look at what this guy did or whatever. It was nice to be so relaxed like that, just joking player to player."