How do you know when you've reached major league status? In these early days of the Professional Women's Hockey League, Kendall Coyne Schofield found one measure in the signs she saw on her way to her new workplace, Xcel Energy Center.

"It just kind of hits you when you're driving to the game and you see, 'Event parking here, event parking here,'" the PWHL Minnesota forward said. "People are talking about how they have to get here early to get parking."

The traffic around Xcel is only one indicator that the league is off to a solid start, especially in Minnesota. Two weeks into its inaugural season, the PWHL's six teams are drawing more than 5,000 spectators per game, including Minnesota's league-high average of 8,658. Jerseys and T-shirts are selling fast. TV broadcasts are as polished as they are for major men's sports, and they're airing on the same networks.

When the PWHL was unveiled last summer, its backers promised a new standard of professionalism for women's hockey. Owners Mark and Kimbra Walter have poured money into the league, attracting the best players from around the world.

The first two weeks have showcased a thrilling brand of hockey: speedy, physical and action-packed, with star turns by multiple players. PWHL board member Stan Kasten, who soaked up the enthusiasm of opening-night crowds at several arenas, said it's just the kind of beginning league officials were hoping for.

"We're a startup. We're looking for our audience," Kasten said before Minnesota's home opener on Jan. 6. "But what we proved [in the first week] was that women's hockey works as a product, as an entertainment vehicle.

"We're a long way from really getting it to work as a business, but we're prepared for that. We're ready for the long haul."

Minnesota is the only PWHL franchise to play regularly in an NHL arena. Xcel's large capacity — combined with the state's appetite for hockey — has made it the biggest draw in a league that has attracted 50,856 fans to its first 10 games.

The 13,316 at Minnesota's home opener set an attendance record for women's professional hockey. The team pulled in a combined 25,974 fans for its first three home games, with a low of 4,707 for a victory over Toronto last Wednesday night. Ottawa's home opener against Montreal is the only non-Xcel game to surpass that 4,707 total, with an announced crowd of 8,318.

Most teams are playing in smaller arenas, with only Minnesota and New York in home venues with capacities of 10,000 or more. Toronto has sold out all home games this season, while Ottawa and Montreal sold out their home openers.

Bright lights

Playing some games in NHL venues, and televising them on networks such as Bally Sports North, gives the PWHL prestige and visibility that was lacking in previous women's pro hockey leagues. New York forward Jessie Eldridge views that as a big factor in expanding the audience.

"Looking around the rink at the fans coming in, having [the media] here, having this game on TV for everyone to turn on," she said, listing things that have made the PWHL feel like a breakthrough. "In the past, there wasn't the platform to do that.

"We're pretty proud of our game. And early on, we've seen that when people pay attention, they appreciate your sport a lot more than they thought they would."

The fans at Xcel have been very appreciative, creating a loud, high-energy environment at the first three games. While PWHL Minnesota is marketing primarily to girls youth hockey teams, the crowds also have included men and women across a wide age range.

The teams have given them plenty to cheer for. The PWHL's talent seems to be well-distributed across the six teams, with half of the first 10 games decided by one goal and three going to overtime.

New York coach Howie Draper, who has coached women's hockey for 27 years, said he is "in awe" of the tempo, skill and creativity shown over the first two weeks. The league features the kind of speed and slick playmaking seen in Olympic gold medal games, along with an extra dose of physicality.

Game officials are allowing more contact, which excites fans and keeps the action moving. According to Minnesota forward Taylor Heise, tied for second in the league with three goals, that's a welcome development.

"I think this is bringing a new notch to the game that's going to make it more complete and whole," she said. "We're happy with that."

Determined investment

Kasten said every PWHL team got a standing ovation at its home opener, even though Minnesota was the only one to win its initial home game. He has realistic expectations for season one, knowing there will be nights with smaller crowds.

Though startup costs have been greater than expected, Kasten said PWHL officials decided it was worth spending big to make the league as professional as possible. The theory is that giving players more resources — higher salaries, healthy meals, support staff — will lead to the kinds of performances that will attract more fans.

The league will measure success not only by crowd sizes and revenue but by players' opinions of how things are going. Coyne Schofield is giving it an early thumbs-up, and not just because of the cars lined up for $20 parking.

"You wake up the next day, and you're sore," she said, laughing. "Every game is going to be a tough battle. That's what you want."