Even from a great distance, you could feel the good vibe at CBC headquarters in downtown Toronto on Monday.
You could see it in the smiles on your flatscreen TV, in the purple carpet, in the outfits, in the urchins seeking autographs and a word with their hockey heroes. You could hear it in Alina Muller's quivering voice and in so many other voices, so excited and, at the same time, somewhat disbelieving.
It was the realness of the surreal.
"I keep pinching myself," Billie Jean King said in a natter with Andi Petrillo of the CBC. "Like, is it really happening today after all these years of working?"
Yes, Billie Jean, there really is a Professional Women's Hockey League, and Christmas had arrived three months and a week early for the finest female players on the planet, ninety of them wrapped up and delivered to six franchises in a dispersal of hockey talent like we'd not seen before.
Billie Jean was at the inaugural PWHL draft not simply to lend high celebrity to the occasion, but as one of the new league's founding partners and a woman who knows a thing or two about pioneering in sports.
"Oh wow, what a day," the tennis legend and equal rights icon said softly after she had slow-poked her way to the dais. (Two months shy of her 80th birthday, Billie Jean isn't quite as spry as back in the day, when she was winning tennis Grand Slams on the regular, but then who is?)
There was a sense of relief, if not exhaustion, in her voice, as if a great burden had been pried from her mind.
And it had been, actually.
The creation of the PWHL had been a journey of four-plus years, starting with a March 2019 phone call from Kendall Coyne Schofield, one of America's leading ladies of Ponytail Puck who had a four-word request of Billie Jean: "Would you help us?"
The response was "let's talk, let's listen."
That was ground zero for a startup league that now features six-franchises—New York, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto—with a roll call of six general managers, six coaches and 108 players, 90 of them selected Monday and another 18 signed to three-year contracts prior to this milestone draft.
All six outfits are still teams-to-be-named-later, and we've yet to learn which rinks they'll call home once the puck is dropped in January next year, but that's part of the start-from-scratch process.
"A trailblazer is one that blazes a trail to lead and include others," Billie Jean said, peering through a pair of fuchsia-and-purple eyeglasses. "The first person to do something or go somewhere, who shows that it is also possible for other people. Trailblazing is bold, it's brave, and it can be very scary and lonely. But it's worth it, it's really worth it. It's worth it for each one of us who have fought so hard for this day, and it's worth it for the generations of women and girls who will come behind us. This is an incredible moment, but it's not about a single moment, it's about a movement. Finally giving women professional hockey players the structure, the support and the platform they deserve, that hockey deserves. I proudly stand here celebrating these trailblazers. And the best part? We are just getting started."
You could have heard a ball of cotton hit the floor as she spoke to a gathering of a few hundred at CBC HQ.
Billie Jean then introduced Taylor Heise as first among the Chosen Ones (to the Minnesota franchise) and 89 women followed her to the stage.
Left unsaid during the four-hour landmark extravaganza was that it was a great day for the LGBT(etc.) community.
Billie Jean King, of course, is a gay icon, and both she and her wife, Ilona Kloss, are PWHL founding partners. Erin Ambrose, the sixth player selected in the first round by Montreal, is gay. Ditto Jamie Lee Rattray (Boston), who mentioned her partner, and Jill Saulnier (New York).
They join other notable out gay players Marie Philip-Poulin and her fiancé Laura Stacey (Montreal), Brianne Jenner (Ottawa), Alex Carpenter (New York), Micah Zander-Hart (New York) and Emily Clark (Ottawa), each of whom agreed to a three-year contract during the PWHL free agent period.
That speaks to where female professional sports is at in terms of diversity compared to the men's portion of the playground. It's become a bio footnote with the women, who can be comfortable in their own skin, whereas a male athlete coming out still generates man-bites-dog headlines. There are zero out gay men in North America's five major pro team sports.
The National Hockey League, for one, talks a good game about diversity and inclusion, but the PWHL lives it.
How long they'll live it is the million-dollar question, although the financial backing of billionaire couple Mark and Kimbra Walter suggests they're in it for the long haul.
"For all of our fans, our job now is earning, earning the investment of your time and your support," said Billie Jean, a Pride rainbow band on her wrist watch. "We have to earn that, and that is a challenge we happily accept."
Betting on sports has become all the rage, and I wouldn't want to bet against the gay icon.