February 29, 2016
On Oct. 11, 2015, the NWHL dropped the puck on the history books. This past Sunday, Chapter One came to a close.
The 18-game NWHL regular season schedule wrapped up for the founding “The Founding Four”, ending the first season of women’s professional hockey.
Now the NWHL’s member teams turn their attention to the playoffs, but first, let’s take a look back at all the big happenings from the inaugural season of women’s pro hockey.
START YOUR ENGINES
Commissioner Dani Rylan, a former hockey star at Northeastern University, announced the official launch of the NWHL on Apr. 13, 2015. Its initial class would include four teams: the Boston Pride, Connecticut Whale, Buffalo Beauts, and New York Riveters (who came right out of the gate with one of the best name/logo combos in sports).
The launch party included a statement of support from the NHL, but many questions still surrounded the optimistic start-up. As the summer went on, the league ironed out details for standard player contracts, a salary cap, sponsorships, and a free agency/draft process.
This thing was happening.
The league’s first game was played between the Riveters and Whale at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Conn. The NWHL nay-sayers wondered how pro women’s hockey would draw. Fans gave a booming response to doubters by selling out the game as the Whale won, 4-1.
KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR
Being the first women’s hockey league to offer a steady salary, the NWHL naturally attracted some of the best talent the women’s game has to offer. One of the crown jewels of ladies’ puck is Hilary Knight, so when she signed on with Boston, expectations were high.
She didn’t disappoint.
The U.S. National Team staple finished the season atop the scorer’s ledger, leading the league in goals (15), assists (18), points (33), and game-winning goals (5). Knight averaged nearly two points per game- 1.94, to be exact- by far the highest in the NWHL, but she didn’t do it all by herself.
Brianna Decker solidified herself as one of the game’s top threats while centering Knight and finished second in the league with 29 points. The Pride’s top line of Knight, Decker, and Rensselaer grad Jordan Smelker combined for 38 of the team’s 75 goals scored. That’s more than half of Boston’s total offense, and one tally shy of matching the number of goals the Pride have given up this season (39).
Those figures make an easy argument for Knight and her round table of Decker and Smelker as the most dangerous forward unit in all of women’s hockey.
FRATKIN GOOD HOCKEY
For a decent chunk of the season, Knight was being chased in the points race by her teammate Decker and Connecticut’s Kaleigh Fratkin. Why is that of note? Fratkin is a defenseman.
Fratkin’s offensive production took a hit as her team stumbled down the stretch (the Whale won its first eight games then finished 5-5-0 in their last 10.) Still, she finished first among all NWHL defenders in points with 15 (5G-10A). In addition to her offensive prowess, Fratkin brought a mean streak to the ice, nearly doubling the runner-up for the league lead in penalty minutes with 40.
Not a member of Canada’s gold medal-winning squad at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Fratkin represents the next wave of dominant Canucks. She was the first Canadian-born player to sign with the NWHL, and emerged as one of the world’s best ever since.
BATTLE BETWEEN THE PIPES
Goaltending is always a hot topic in hockey, and the first season of the NWHL was no exception. Buffalo made waves early on, inking U.S. Olympian Brianne McLaughlin to the most lucrative deal for a goalie, and New York followed suit by looking across the pond for talent in the form of Japan’s Nana Fujimoto.
Those were the two big names at the start of the year, but by season’s end, the top dogs are Boston’s Brittany Ott and Connecticut’s Jaimie Leonoff.
Ott led the league with 12 wins and her 1.94 goals against average was more than a goal better than the second place goalie in the category, Leonoff.
With Boston’s regular season dominance (1st place, 14-3-1) and Ott’s gaudy stats, she could run away with the goalie of the year award. Not so fast, because a strong case can be made for the Whale’s first-year player out of Yale.
Leonoff may be way behind Ott in goals against average and victories, but she has a stark advantage over everyone else with a .936 save percentage. Those are Matt Murray numbers. By comparison, Ott’s save percentage is .925, Fujimoto’s is .911, and McLaughlin is at .905. Couple that with the fact that Leonoff has faced far more shots per game than anyone else in the NWHL, a whopping 43.8 shots against average, and her saves figure becomes all the more daunting. Ott faced the fewest amount of shots for game, down at 23.5.
Whatever way you spin it, a convincing case can be made for either Ott or Leonoff as the NWHL’s first ever goalie of the year.
Unfortunately, the NWHL’s first season wasn’t all giggles and smiles or saves and goals. A day that was supposed to be reserved for the growth of the game took a dark turn.
On Dec. 31, 2015, Boston Pride forward Denna Laing suffered a life-threatening injury in an outdoor game at Gillette Stadium before the NHL Winter Classic.
Laing was injured in an accidental collision along the boards, carted off the ice, but the severity of her ailment wasn’t announced until over a week later on Jan. 8 in a statement by her parents, Dennis and Jerilyn:
“Denna was thrilled to be taking part in the inaugural season of the National Women’s Hockey League and was absolutely delighted to be one of the pioneers in a breakthrough moment for her sport – the Outdoor Women’s Classic. Tragically, Denna suffered a severe spinal cord injury playing the sport she loves. As of today, Denna has limited movement of her arms and no feeling in her legs.”
There was an immediate outpouring of support for Laing and her family from the her teammates, the NWHL, NHL, and hockey fans across North America. Laing’s progress was chronicled through press releases and occasional Twitter updates, and most recently spoke to NBC Sports after she was able to rejoin her teammates for the first time.
WHAT’S NEXT? THE HUNT FOR ISOBEL
Now that the regular season is over, the NWHL begins the first ever playoff for the Isobel Cup.
Why “Isobel” for the female parallel for the most iconic trophy in sports? Well, the NWHL chose the name from Lady Isobel Stanley, the daughter of, you guessed it, Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley. Supposedly, Isobel grew up as one of the first women to play hockey and was actually the inspiration for Lord Stanley’s passion for the game that drove him to donate the now instantly recognizable bowl for an open challenge to find the best amateur hockey team in Canada.
All four NWHL clubs qualify for the Isobel Cup Playoffs and partake in a best-of-three series to advance to the Final. The top-seeded Pride face the Riveters in round one, and the Whale will take on Buffalo. Game 1 for both series begin Sunday, Mar. 7.
Can anyone pull off the upset and dethrone the Pride after their unbelievable regular season? Can Leonoff stop enough pucks to take her dream season to the limit? Will Boston win one for Denna? We’ll have to wait and see who continues to write hockey history for the NWHL.