For the first time since the 2014-15 season, there is only one professional women’s hockey league in North America.
The CWHL officially closed its doors on May 1, leaving the NWHL as the last league standing. For a brief instant, all signs seemed to point to the NWHL finally becoming the “one league” that so many had been clamoring for — but the spell was quickly broken.
The very next day over 200 professional women’s hockey players, many of them stars of Team USA and Team Canada, took to social media to announce they would not play pro hockey in North America in 2019-20 — forming the #ForTheGame movement. Less than three weeks later, the majority of those players joined the newly formed Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association.
Despite the boycott and more uncertainty about the path forward, the new season is already underway. While the NWHL regular season begins Saturday, Oct. 5, the PWHPA’s Dream Gap Tour has already begun.
The Dream Gap Tour
The PWHPA does not have a structured season because it’s not a league. Instead, its 173 dues-paying members are storming barns in North America for showcase weekends in the Dream Gap Tour and playing exhibition games against colleges, boys teams, and, recently, against the San Jose Sharks alumni. The PWHPA’s full schedule is still coming together, but they have already attracted several major sponsors and are streaming their games on YouTube.
The first stop of the Dream Gap Tour, sponsored by Unifor, took place in Toronto on Sept. 21-22. Team Poulin, essentially Les Canadiennes de Montréal, defeated Team Jenner 5-1. Many fans weren’t quite sure what to expect before the weekend’s games got underway, but the players delivered. It provided the strong start the PWHPA was hoping to see.
The Dream Gap Tour makes its second stop in Hudson, N.H., on the weekend of Oct. 5-6, which will directly compete with the NWHL’s opening weekend. Many former NWHL stars and vocal boycotters, including Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hayley Scamurra, will be on the ice for that event.
The NWHL curbed its Canadian expansion plans as a result of the #ForTheGame boycott, but that didn’t stop at least 14 players who made the pledge from signing NWHL contracts. Although there are no stars from Team USA or Team Canada in the NWHL this year, there is still plenty of talent on the ice.
As a result of the player exodus to the PWHPA, 51 of the 93 players who have signed NWHL contracts this season are new to the league. Much like in the 2017-18 season when the members of Team USA were centralized to prepare for the 2018 Olympics, the NWHL has turned to talent from overseas and NCAA D-III programs to fill its ranks.
A recap: What happened in women’s hockey from April to May
Despite the fact that the vast majority of the game’s biggest names are no longer in the league, fans will have more NWHL hockey to watch this year than ever before. The regular season has increased from 16 games per team to 24.
This year, all of the NWHL’s games will be broadcast on Twitch as a result of a three-year broadcasting deal that the league orchestrated in the offseason.
The Whitecaps enter the 2019-20 season as heavy favorites, not only because they’re the reigning champions but also because they have a dozen players returning from last year. All-Stars Amanda Leveille, Amanda Boulier, Allie Thunstrom, and high-scoring winger Jonna Curtis are all back, as is 41-year-old captain Winny Brodt-Brown.
Minnesota enters the season with what is arguably the league’s strongest roster on paper. In addition to keeping much of its core intact, the Whitecaps added former Riveters’ All-Star forward Audra Richards, Nina Rodgers and Sam Donovan from the Connecticut Whale, and Rose Alleva from the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays.
Minnesota also added Golden Gophers star forward Nicole Schammel, who erupted for 47 points in 39 games in her senior season last year. Schammel was a Top-10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award thanks to that breakout performance. She’s not only the rookie to watch for the Whitecaps, but also an early contender for the NWHL’s Newcomer of the Year Award.
The Whitecaps are favorites to win the 2020 Isobel Cup until proven otherwise. The average age of the Whitecaps players heading into this season is 27, which makes them most experienced team in the league by a wide margin. That experience and chemistry will make them a force to be reckoned with in a league that’s filled with players just coming out of college. If they do manage to repeat, Minnesota will become the first NWHL franchise to win two championships.
All things considered, no NWHL team changed more over the summer than the Beauts. Buffalo is back under NWHL ownership, its relationship with the Buffalo Sabres is over, and all of the new talent that the Pegulas were able to draw to the team last year have left. That group of players is headlined by Scamurra, Maddie Elia, Blake Bolden, and Shannon Szabados, all of whom won individual awards last year.
The Beauts have just two players returning from last year’s roster: two-time Isobel Cup champion Corinne Buie and goal-scoring winger Taylor Accursi. Also returning to the team after a one-year hiatus is goaltender Kelsey Neumann.
General manager Mandy Cronin, who helped establish the CWHL during her playing career, turned to Ontario, upstate New York and Slovakia to rebuild the Beauts. Her team has 14 newcomers to the NWHL, which makes Buffalo the biggest mystery heading into the 2019-20 season. Head coach Pete Perram has experience coaching the Swiss women’s national team and has a unique opportunity to establish a new team identity with this young, hungry roster.
With Buie, Accursi, and rookie Brooke Stacey leading the offense, the Beauts will likely finish in the middle of the pack in the standings, behind Minnesota and Boston. With that being said, much of Buffalo’s success will come down to the performance of former Worcester Blades goaltender Mariah Fujimagari and the young blue line playing in front of her.
The Boston Pride is now the only team in the NWHL with private ownership. New owner Miles Arnone announced plans to hire a team president — adding Hayley Moore on Oct. 3 — and to provide resources to help his players and staff develop. Needless to say, expectations are high for Boston this year.
The team’s new ownership is just one of the reasons why the Pride has an advantage over the rest of the league off the ice. Arnone’s team is entering its first full season in a partnership with the Boston Bruins and has former Bruin Paul Mara as head coach. Last year, Mara helped turn the Pride around after Boston slipped down the standings in the 2017-18 season.
On the ice, the Pride will be led by returning captain Jillian Dempsey, the NWHL’s all-time leader in even-strength scoring, dangerous winger McKenna Brand, a rock-solid blue line, and a new wave of rookies headlined by goaltender Lovisa Selander, who holds the NCAA record for saves in a career.
New general manager Karilyn Pilch did a fantastic job recruiting choice talent from local schools, including Lexie Laing (Harvard), Christina Putigna (Providence) and Tori Sullivan (Northeastern); all three rookie forwards averaged at least 0.64 PPG in their NCAA careers. She also re-signed key blueliners Lexi Bender, Kaleigh Fratkin, Mallory Souliotis and Lauren Kelly. It’s hard to say before any hockey has been played, but the Pride might have the best blue line in the league this year.
With extra support off the ice and a deep balanced team on the ice, the Pride has everything they need to return to the Isobel Cup Final for the first time since 2017. Finishing any worse than second in the standings after the 24-game regular season would be a major disappointment for this team.
Former assistant coach and current general manager Kate Whitman Annis lost a lot of the team’s most popular players from last season but has managed to build a promising team around elite winger Madison Packer who was named the third captain in Riveters’ franchise history. She’s tied for first all-time in the NWHL in goals scored and has shaped the team’s identity since the league’s inaugural season.
Whitman Annis was also able to convince underrated veteran defenders Kiira Dosdall and Rebecca Morse to return and signed former Boston Blades’ star Kate Leary late in the offseason. Packer, Leary, and rookie center Kendall Cornine will likely do the heavy lifting for the Riveters offense this year; Cornine is already off to a strong start after a dominant preseason performance against LIU in which she scored a hat trick and had 12 shots on goal.
There’s a lot of promise on the Riveters roster, but the team is also facing some giant question marks. The most pressing question off the ice is how the team and its fans will adjust to a new home rink in Monmouth Junction now that the partnership with the New Jersey Devils has dissolved.
The Riveters’ biggest question mark on the ice is goaltending. Sam Walther and rookie Dana DeMartino both come from schools outside of NCAA D-I. Thus far, goalies from small schools have struggled to gain a foothold at the NWHL level.
New head coach Ivo Mocek will likely have to play defense-first hockey at even strength until he has a better idea of what Walther and DeMartino are capable of. Fortunately for the Riveters, Whitman Annis also signed NWHL veteran Colleen Murphy to bolster the blue line and Russian national team player Tatiana Shatalova to provide depth down the middle. If all goes well, the Riveters should be competing with Buffalo to finish behind Minnesota and Buffalo in the standings.
Connecticut has finished at the bottom of the standings in each of the last three seasons and all signs point to a repeat this year. However, the Whale do have a new home rink, a new head coach in former NHL enforcer Colton Orr and an experienced blue line.
Over the summer Connecticut lost six of its seven top scorers from last season and All-Star goaltender Meeri Räisänen. Former Riveters star winger Bray Ketchum Peel took over as the Whale’s general manager during the offseason. Half of the 16 players Ketchum Peel signed to her roster are D-III alumna and all three of the Whale’s goalies are rookies.
The absence of an elite scoring forward this year means Connecticut will have to score by committee instead of relying on Kateřina Mrázová and Emily Fluke to spark the team’s offense like last season. One bit of good news for Connecticut is that its blue line is one of the most experienced in the league; the Whale have three defenders who are entering their fifth season of NWHL hockey, including All-Star Shannon Doyle, who is coming off a career year.
Doyle is also one of the Whale’s nine returning skaters from last season, which means this group will likely start the season with more chemistry than the Riveters and Beauts and possibly the Pride — a big deal in a league where teams practice twice a week. Orr will need to lean heavily on Doyle and his veteran blue line to keep the Whale in games this year, but that likely won’t be enough to get Connecticut back over the .500 mark.
Disclosure: The author of this story is currently employed by the NWHL.
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