Boston Pride defeat Buffalo Beauts in dramatic home opener

Last Saturday, the Boston Pride opened at home with their third game into the season against the Buffalo Beauts. I didn’t know what to expect from the Beauts, who’ve had substantial roster movement over the offseason, although I knew I’d see a strong showing from the Pride, who remain undefeated this season thus far. That said, I definitely didn’t expect a thrilling progression from a third-period tie to OT to shootout to sudden-death shoot out. Saturday’s game was fast and gripping despite remaining scoreless until the second period.

Before puck drop, team staff unfurled banners that will hang in the rafters at Warrior–one celebrating the Pride as 2015-2016 regular season champions, another celebrating their Isobel cup win, and a third honoring injured teammate Denna Laing that bore her number on the Pride, “24.” Laing appeared on the ice in a new Pride jersey to pose for a photo with her teammates. For the first faceoff and puck drop, Laing joined the other five members of the 2015-2016 roster who have not rejoined the Pride this season: Corinne Buie (in her new Beauts jersey), Kelly Cooke, Kelsie Fralick, Cherie Hendrickson, and Casey Pickett (who has has returned to the Boston Blades). Harvard alum Dempsey acknowledged missing the Pride’s former home, but said of Warrior, “I”I feel like the crowd brought the energy tonight… it’s nice to feel like the place is packed. It’s a great sheet of ice.” Amanda Pelkey, who works at Ristuccia, the Bruins’ former practice rink, was excited to be at Warrior, too, although she’d like it if the Pride could also practice at Ristuccia.

Then Buie skated off to join her new teammates, the rugs were rolled up, and the game was on. The Pride (a.k.a Team USA) are a tight unit who have well-established strategies and plays, something that showed in their strong preseason showing against Team Russia, who many of the Pride played against at the IIHF World Women’s Championship earlier this year. This tactical approach works effectively against known opponents like Russia, this iteration of the Beauts proved a challenge for the Pride to surmount. While the Pride plays a slightly conservative defensive system, the Beauts’ defensive movements seemed a little more fluid, especially when it came to generating traffic in their own zone. The game was characterized by constant turnover and end-to-end movement. Despite leveling 42 shots on goal to the Beauts’ 17, the Pride could only match them in goals during regulation time. Some of the Beauts’ defensive strength was Beauts goaltender Brianne McLaughlin’s outstanding performance, but their ability to generate plays on the fly stymied the Pride’s usual tactics. Pride goaltender Ott agreed, saying of their new lineup, “You don’t always know what to expect of their players.”

Jordan Smelker was the Pride player who scored that second period goal, crediting linemates Brianna Decker and Zoe Hickel for their help. “They’ve got a great defensive lineup, they have lots of national team players [Megan Bozek, Emily Pfalzer, and McLaughlin],” she said of facing off against the Beauts. “We just knew that we had to keep on them and go hard on the forecheck but not too hard, just stay on them and tire them out.” Close to the end of the third period, Shiann Darkangelo scored the Beauts’ only goal, assisted by Buie and Sarah Casorso. Pride goaltender Brittany Ott said of her strategy for starting a new season against a fresh crop of players, “You have to be crisp at all times. I just tried to play simple and remain focused on my own game.”

Darkangelo’s goal tied the game, sending the Pride and the Beauts into 5 minutes of four-vs-four, scoreless OT–then an equally scoreless shootout–and finally a sudden-death shootout round. Amanda Pelkey ultimately netted the winning shoutout goal for the Pride. “You kinda watch to see how she moves with other people,” she said. “I was talking to Zoe and I was like, ‘Honestly, I think we should just go five-hole.’ Like, for me, it’s either I go five-hole, get the goalie moving and then shoot five-hole, or go deep back-end, but there was too much snow to do that and a couple girls already tried. So I was like, ‘oh, what the heck.'” Well, that was a heck of a shot.

Coach Bobby Jay had only praise for the Pride’s performance. Undefeated in the preseason, the Boston have continued their winning streak with three regular season wins in eight days. That lead will certainly be challenged as the largely fresh lineups of the other three teams in the league develop. Ott said, “Towards of the season playing these teams a bunch of times you kind of get to learn a little bit about these players and their tendencies.” It’ll be interesting to see how the Beauts fare in future matches against the Pride as the Beauts’ chemistry and systems develop and the Pride grow more informed.

Next up for Warrior Ice Arena (and Watch This Hockey): tonight, the Pride take on New York.

Boston Blades surge back with 9-4 win over New England Eagles

Meghan Grieves just after shooting and scoring on the New England Eagles' goal.
Blades forward Meghan Grieves just after scoring on the New England Eagles.

Saturday night, the 2016-2017 Boston Blades met the New England Eagles in a preseason outing at The Edge in Bedford, MA. The stands were fuller than most of the Blades games I attended last year, thanks in part to a profusion of Eagles fans; those arriving early were treated to the end of an East Coast Wizards boys’ game. While my visit to the Blades’ selection camp last month had left me hopeful, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the new roster or their opponents. I definitely wasn’t expecting such a dramatic victory for the Blades, let alone one that gave me as many questions as answers.

First, let’s address their opponents. The New England Eagles are a local veteran’s team that’s part of the Skate for the 22 Foundation. This Saturday’s game against the Blades was the first game for the Eagles as part of the foundation’s hockey program. Considering their background and freshness as a team, the Eagles played an incredible game against the Blades. They scored the first goal and matched the Blades goal-for-goal for the first period. The Eagles had a strong offensive presence and a lot of reach on the Blades working in their favor, but their energy flagged over the course of the game. This was not an easy 9-4 contest. The Eagles made the Blades work for their win.

That win. Where to start? Let’s begin with the forwards, where Boston has made the biggest gains. The team’s newcomers scored five of those nine goals, with one each for BC alums Meghan Grieves and Kate Leary, BU’s Dakota Woodworth and Kayla Tutino, and UConn’s Margaret Zimmer. Their play was fast and dynamic, long passes easily connecting through traffic, with more backhanded passing than I saw last year. “Very strong forwards,” Tutino said of her linemates, “Lots of speed and they’re strong on their sticks, so they made some great passes today.” While the 2015-2016 Blades generally relied on a chip-and-chase strategy to move the puck into the offensive zone, these players and their linemates alike confidently carried the puck across both blue lines toward the Eagles’ goal. Even at close quarters with Eagles players, who relied on their long reach as well as generating traffic near their goal, the Blades continually generated scoring opportunities and kept the play in their Eagles’ zone.

Newcomers weren’t the only forwards who shone in this game. Last year, the Blades had few goals and few consistent scorers. Megan Myers, a returning 2014-2015 player, and Megan Shea led the team with four and three goals respectively; Captain Tara Watchorn (on defense), alternate captain Kristina Brown, and Elizabeth Tremblay each scored two. Against the Eagles on Saturday, Brown scored as many goals in one game as she did in the entirety of the 2015-2016 season. Myers and returning 2014-2015 player Casey Pickett scored one goal each. After the game, Brown was glowing. “Everyone’s really starting to gel together off the ice and it was awesome to see it come together on the ice,” she said. “We obviously always have room for improvement and cleaning some stuff up, but it’s really exciting to get to our next game in Toronto.” With teammates who are truly peers on the ice, these returning players are getting the opportunity to showcase their strengths and contribute even more to the team.

Speaking of returning players, my award for Most Improved must go to Clara St. Germain, who held her own on the same line with Watchorn last night. “Clara is one of the hardest workers out there,” said assistant coach Mike Diamantopoulos. Coach Brian McCloskey elaborated, “She’s very smart, very coachable. She did improve a lot last year, I was impressed. You can always find a place for a player like her: even though she might have the size and the skating ability of some other players, she makes up for it by being really intelligent and knowing her limitations.” The Blades’ defense spent less time protecting their goal than preventing turnover—the chippy play of last year was replaced by tight, controlled forward play supported by the defense. Watchorn and returning player Dru Burns continue to be key pieces for the Blades, each assisting on a goal of Brown’s. I was less impressed by newcomer Cassandra Opela, who seemed to have trouble shooting in tight quarters and through traffic.

Finally, there are the Blades’ two new goaltenders: Lauren Dahm, who started for the Blades, and Shelley Payne, who came in during the second period. While Dahm allowed three goals and Payne only one, it’s difficult to compare their performances on that basis alone—Dahm was facing much more shot pressure from the Eagles, while the Blades kept the Eagles penned in their own zone for most of Payne’s time in net. That said, Dahm appeared nervous and unsteady on her feet: the first goal she allowed came when she was too far out from the net to block the shot, the second and third when she fell forward. Payne seemed more comfortable on the ice, steady on her feet and easily moving from standing to butterfly position; the final goal of the game went in right behind her shoulder. “Both played solid,” said Diamantopoulos. “It’s tough for them, too, playing against guys and the way they can shoot—it’s a lot different from what they face normally.”

The lineup for Saturday’s game included some practice players and does not fully reflect the final roster, which GM Krista Patronick will share this week: those players will face the Furies in Toronto on October 15 and 16 as the Blades begin their season on the road. Still, the change in energy and direction from last season is clear. Tutino and Leary were cheerful after their first professional game, eager to talk about how much fun they were having. “This is a great group of girls,” said Tutino; “It was a great game to play, and obviously fun to win,” said Leary. Meanwhile, captain Watchorn was beaming. “It’s exciting this year,” she said. “It’s going to be good. This is great.” And a hard-won great it is, too.

Big win on home ice: the Boston Pride sink their teeth into Team Russia

Saturday night, the Boston Pride met the Russian national team for the Pride’s second pre-season outing and the first of Team Russia’s series against the NWHL. After a close game against Boston College on Thursday night, the Pride returned to the ice to win a 5-1 victory over Russia. Yet this was no easy contest—the Pride pulled off a definitive win against a team that led in puck possession and shots on goal (24-18), and without co-captain Hilary Knight.

Captain Brianna Decker led the team in goals, scoring two at even strength. Like her fellow US national team members, she had spent the past week at a training camp at Warrior Arena. “Today was pretty tough, actually, ” she said. “Once we got our feet under us, we were moving the puck really well… my legs weren’t feeling good in the first period.” Any fatigue didn’t show on the ice. Meghan Duggan netted the first goal of the game in the first period, follow by goals from Decker, Alex Carpenter (on power play), and Kacey Bellamy, who scored right out of the penalty box.

Team Russia didn’t skate like they were two days off an international plane flight, either. They outshot the Pride 24-18, with 4 of those shots coming from former Connecticut Whale player Ekaterina Smolentseva. While they suffered in defense, Russia kept pace with the Pride offensively, which is rare to see from any of the Pride’s opponents. “Today I really noticed they read each other very well,” said Bellamy of the team’s offense. “They don’t have to necessarily look where they’re giving it. They can backhand across ice and their teammate will be there. Very deceptive with the puck, and they’re not going a million miles an hour, they’re just moving the puck exactly where they needed to. But it was good for us to see that kind of pressure and that kind of offense.” Notably absent from the Russian team were former New York Riveter Liudmila Belyakova and assistant captain Iya Gavrillova, who was selected in the third round of the 2016 CWHL draft by the Calgary Inferno.

Ultimately, the Pride’s defensive skill and solid netminding from Lauren Slebodnick and Brittany Ott (who split time in goal) proved decisive in the team’s first game—and first win—at their new home rink. “It’s an amazing facility, the ice is great,” said Carpenter. Duggan added, “It’s a fantastic facility. Obviously, the Bruins have welcomed us with open arms here. It’s state of the art. Locker rooms are great, ice surface is great, it’s beautiful.”

From what I saw on Saturday, these things are all true. Aesthetically, Warrior is certainly an upgrade from Harvard. However, the most notable change is seating capacity: the Bright-Landry seated approximately 3,000 people, whereas the Warrior Arena seats only 650. This will no doubt be a crunch for fans, but that may be an incentive for the NWHL—the fuller the stands, the more appealing games will be for TV and streaming deals. Even at this pre-season game, there were a few hundred spectators. Sold-out games are in the Pride’s future.

Boston Blades Selection Camp: “Bladies Are Back”

Morgan Grieves skates out in front of the net at Boston Blades Selection Camp
Boston College alum Morgan Grieves at the 2016-2017 Boston Blades Selection Camp

On September 15th, the second day of Selection Camp for the Boston Blades, the arena at UMass Boston was quiet. Players were already on the ice when I arrived at 8:45, demonstrating their skating skills before moving onto their stickhandling. Coach Brian McCloskey and Assistant Coach Mike Diamantopoulos (a new addition to the Blades staff) were on the ice, their eyes on the players; GM Krista Patronick watched from the stands. “Every time I watch this group skate, I just feel more and more optimistic about the season to come,” she said.

With a 1-23-0 record for 2015-2016, the bar for improvement is low. After their roster was decimated by the outflow of players from the Clarkson-Cup-winning 2014-2015 roster, the Boston Blades struggled to fill spaces at the start of the season. Patronick recruited heavily from Boston College, community ball hockey (Patronick is a goaltender), and former NCAA players looking to make a comeback to the game. While the team struggled on the ice, they flourished off of it. “Our team, how we connected was unbelievable,” says forward Erin Kickham, who joined the team last season after her graduation from BC. “That seems to be happening [now], and we’ve had two practices. That’s special. You can’t teach that.”

Another connection is evident on the ice, noted by defender Dru Burns: “One-touch passes, people are filling lanes, supporting people.” Two skates in, the 2016-2017 Blades prospects already look more coherent than the rostered players of last season. Both Patronick and Diamantopoulos expressed their excitement about influx of forwards from the 2016 CWHL draft in August. While the main roster for the team is 25 players, Patronick can protect up to 40: she expects that this will include most of the forwards.

More visible in the group of players on the ice Thursday was the new crop of goaltenders: a total of six were in attendance, taking up much of the sheet’s real estate. Patronick has since released Sarah Quigley and offered Amanda Fontaine a spot on the reserve roster. It will be difficult to replace Olympian Genevieve Lacasse, who logged 1345 minutes in 23 games last year and overtook the CWHL record (649) in just 15 of those games. Lacasse finished the Blades’ difficult season with a .904 SVP; in August, she was traded to Calgary. Those are big skates to fill. Lacasse took the vast majority of ice time, yielding only one game to back up goaltender Amanda Carridi; Patronick isn’t sure whether this year’s goaltenders will be have a similar dynamic or be more of a tandem duo. “We’re looking at all options right now,” she said, “But I think we’re in a good spot where we have to make those tough decisions.”

While the Blades are saying goodbye to Lacasse and forward Megan Shea, who played a big role last year, many players will be returning. On the ice Thursday, Carridi joined Burns and Kickham as well as Maggie DiMasi, Nicole Giannino, and both Clara and Sadie St. Germain. Absent were Blades captain Tara Watchorn, who was fulfilling her duties to Team Canada, and forward Megan Myers, who has already signed for this year. Another returning player was forward Casey Pickett, who played for the Blades prior to serving as a practice player for the Boston Pride last year. Patronick expects that she’ll play a big role this year. (Former Pride and Blades forward Kelly Cooke was also on the list of Selection Camp attendees, but not in attendance. Patronick says that she doesn’t expect Cooke to join the team, but she may referee some Blades games this year.)

Many of the new faces at the rink have ties to the returning Blades through Hockey East and Boston College. “A bunch of my old teammates played on the Blades and spoke very highly of it,” said forward Meghan Grieves, who graduated from BC this spring. “Kristina Brown and Dru Burns, as well as Melissa Bizzari, Kate Leary, and myself, we’re all playing again… It’s awesome to get to put on a new jersey with my old teammates.” Burns and fellow BC alum Kickham said they spent the summer recruiting former BC and Hockey East players; Diamantopoulos spoke highly of the players they brought in. “We got about six or seven girls out of Hockey East that I think are really going to add to the depth of our club that we didn’t have last year,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how we can fit them into our system.”

Another crucial piece of the puzzle (a metaphor used by Burns) is defender Kikuchi Sato, who was extended an offer by the Blades after Thursday’s skate. “Sato is really impressive, I have to say,” said Patronick. “Her skating ability is really awesome, she battles hard, you probably saw her going into the corner a little bit. She just doesn’t give up, which is something we love about her.” Sato returns the love, evidently: she shared news about joining the Blades last week on Twitter.

The Blades will debut their new lineup in Toronto on October 15 and take to the ice at home on October 29 at UMass Boston. (Most Blades games this season will be played at Walter Brown, their “home” arena, as well as UMass Boston.) Judging by what I saw at Thursday’s skate, they have a promising roster in the works for the 2016-2017 season. “Bladies are back!” Burns and Kickham said in unison at their end of our conversation. “We’re really excited for another year to get out there,” added Kickham. “We’re gonna win some games.”

NWHL Teams Begin Race For The Isobel Cup

The Isobel Cup Playoffs start today! Here’s what you need to know:

WATCH THE ISOBEL CUP ONLINE:

You’ll be able stream games via the Cross-Ice Pass or ESPN 3.

ISOBEL CUP STRUCTURE:

Both the semifinal and final rounds of the Isobel Cup playoffs have the same structure. Three games are scheduled for each match: Friday, Saturday, and an additional tiebreaker (if needed) on Sunday. If a round does not require a tiebreaker, individual game ticket holders for Sunday’s matches will be refunded.

SEMIFINALS: THIS WEEKEND

The Boston Pride will host the New York Riveters at the Raymond Bourque Arena at Endicott College in Beverly, MA. I’ll be covering this round for Watch This Hockey from the press box – you can follow me on Twitter & Snapchat (ekbartus)!
Friday, March 4 – 7:00 pm ET
Saturday, March 5 – 8:00 pm ET
Sunday, March 6 – 7:00 pm ET

The Connecticut Whale will host the Buffalo Beauts at the Whale’s home rink, Chelsea Pears in Stamford, CT.
Friday, March 4 – 7:10 pm ET
Saturday, March 5 – 7:30 pm ET
Sunday, March 6 – 6:00 pm ET

FINALS: NEXT WEEKEND

The winners of each semifinal round will compete for the Isobel Cup at Prudential Center Practice Facility, Newark, NJ. Attention, everyone headed to New Jersey: please eat some disco fries for me.
Friday, March 11 – 7:30 pm ET
Saturday, March 12 – 7:30 pm ET
Sunday, March 13 – 1:30 pm ET

On Denna Day, Fins Down, First Place, and Farewell to Harvard

On February 14th, the crowd at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center turned out not in the familiar Harvard crimson, but in yellow. While the Boston Pride’s last home game was a tensely fought match with their most heated rival, the Connecticut Whale, the Pride’s focus was on teammate Denna Laing. For the first time since her injury during the Women’s Winter Classic on December 31st, Laing joined her teammates on the ice for a photo prior to warm-ups as well as fistbumps and hugs at the start of the game. The merchandise table quickly sold out of the wristbands and adult-sized shirts whose proceeds go to help Denna Laing. (If you’re interested in other ways to help Denna Laing in addition to donating money, see my post from last week.) Over 1900 people were in the stands of the Bright-Landry Center, the highest attendance since the Pride’s home opener on November 22nd.

Sunday’s game was the Pride’s fifth against the Whale, whom the Pride have now seen for three of their past four games. The Whale remained undefeated until December 27th, when the Pride won 2-1 with a shortened roster than included both Laing and Pride GM Hailey Moore, who signed a single-day contract with the league to play. Since then, the Pride have held steady against the Whale. Some of the Pride’s success can certainly be attributed to overall defensive improvement, but their growing familiarity with the Whale has also worked in their favor. The Pride remain the only team to defeat the Whale: they’ve now done so four times, all in regulation. This weekend’s 4-2 win pushed the Pride into first place in the league standings, putting them at 25 points to the Whale’s 24.

Jordan Smelker led the Pride on that push to first place with a three-point outing on Sunday that made her NWHL’s Player of the Week. She scored the Pride’s first goal late in the first period and the game-winning midway through the third, finishing off with an assist on Gigi Marvin’s empty-netter. Pride captain Brianna Decker scored the Pride’s remaining goal early in the third. The Whale leveled only 12 shots on goal to the Pride’s 37, spending a full ten minutes of the game short-handed and much of the rest hemmed in their own zone. Goaltender Brittany Ott allowed two goals, putting her at a .833 SVP for the game, lower than her .927 season average, but the early lead and strong defense from the Pride never let them seem vulnerable.

After the game, the atmosphere in the locker room was jubilant, no doubt helped by a huge box of Top Shelf cookies. ” I feel pretty strong about fins down,” Ott said of every Pride fan’s favorite hashtag. Her outlook on the Pride’s final matchup with the Whale next weekend was pragmatic. “I think we just have to keep plugging away at what we’ve been doing. I think we’ve been gaining a lot of momentum as we’ve been going along this season. We can’t go in there overconfident or cocky or anything like that, they’ll definitely capitalize on that. They’re a good team, they’re smart players. So we just have to keep focusing on us and improving this week and we’ll be ready.”

The Pride will host the 3rd or 4th seed for the semifinal round of the inaugural Isobel Cup playoffs at Raymond Bourque Arena in Beverly, but this is their final game at Harvard. Former Harvard women’s hockey captain Jillian Dempsey said of her return to Bright-Landry, “Everybody always gives me a hard time because of all my Harvard hockey love—” (She was interrupted by riotous laughter from locker room.) “I’m a little biased, but it’s the best sheet of ice in the whole country. ” Ott was clearly moved by the turnout for the game. “It was incredible to see the wave going around there a few times,” she said. “That was like something I definitely had to take in for a second because that was just an awesome feeling.”

With a five-win streak behind them, the Boston Pride have hit their stride as they head into the final two games of the regular season. “They’re a tough team to beat,” said Connecticut Whale forward Brittany Dougherty, who scored her first goal in Sunday’s game. “They’re fast, they’re skilled, they have a couple Olympians that can just put the puck in the net. The only way to beat them is to work harder than them.”

Supporting Denna Laing, Supporting Your Community

This Sunday, the Boston Pride will face the Connecticut Whale for their final home game this season at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center. Past Pride home games have recognized veterans, breast cancer survivors, and an organization raising awareness for youth mental health (DIFD). In the same vein, the Pride are now rallying around teammate Denna Laing, who experienced a severe spinal cord injury during the inaugural Women’s Winter Classic on December 31st. Sunday’s game has been declared “Denna Day,” during which proceeds from a silent auction, chuck-a-puck, 50/50 raffle, Denna Laing player t-shirts, and bracelets will go to benefit Laing. Denna Day will be focused on Laing, but a league representative has said that the NWHL has been in communication with national organizations that support people with spinal injuries. Hopefully, we’ll see more information about community involvement from the league in the longterm.

While direct assistance is important, people with injuries like Laing’s rely on accommodations mandated by the government so that they can continue to participate fully in their communities and live independently. These accommodations include things like curb cuts, wheelchair ramps, prioritized parking spaces, as well as services like transportation and acute medical care. You can help Laing today by contributing to The Denna Laing Fund; by advocating for people with disabilities in your community, you can help her for the rest of her life.

Here are some ways you can get involved if you’re in the United States (and in Massachusetts)!

1) Find your senators and representatives [GovTrack]

2) Keep an eye on upcoming federal legislation, including these important bills:

S. 2427: Disability Integration Act of 2015

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) asserted the right of individuals with disabilities to participate fully in community life and live independently. The Disability Integration Act of 2015 seeks to enforce and expand the reach of the ADA, focusing on community support and services for individuals with disabilities. States need to consider the ADA as a civil rights mandate. This includes prioritizing services for individuals with disabilities within their budgets, focusing on integrated living solutions, and minimizing institutional placement.

S. 2001: TIME Act

Did you know that businesses which have been certified by the Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division can legally pay individuals with mental and physical disabilities below the minimum wage? Yes, even in Massachusetts. The TIME Act seeks to abolish subminimum wages, allowing a three-year period for businesses to transition to paying workers a fair wage.

S. 1604: Transition to Independence Act
Many individuals with disabilities do not receive support in sustaining or achieving independent living; instead, they are steered toward subminimum wage work, day programs, and institutional residency. The Transition to Independence Act seeks to provide incentive for states which are Medicaid buy-in states to find employment opportunities in integrated settings for individuals with disabilities who receive Medicaid-funded services.

3) As well as this problematic bill:

H.R.2646 – Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015
This bill is a sweeping action that defunds community services, limits HIPAA protections and the protection and advocacy agencies, and would substantially increase institutionalization and forced outpatient treatment. The National Council on Independent Living’s ADA/Civil Rights Committee explains more here (under “The Murphy Bill”).

4) If you’re in Massachusetts, now is a great time to learn about the state budget for fiscal year 2017, which is under construction right now.

Read more about FY 2017 funding for services for people with disabilities at the Arc of Massachusetts.

Pride Players Take a Win, a Loss, and a Pie to the Face at Inaugural All Star Game

At the National Women’s Hockey League’s very first All-Star Game in Buffalo, the stars were all smiles. Some of those smiles were very familiar if you follow the Boston Pride. Of the 28 players gathered that weekend to represent the league, 11 came from the Pride, nine from the Buffalo Beauts, five from the Connecticut Whale, and four from the New York Riveters. Given that All-Star Captains Hilary Knight of the Pride and Emily Pfalzer of the Beauts drafted most of the players (the final four – Madison Packer, Morgan Fritz-Ward, Hayley Williams, and Devon Skeats – were drafted by fan vote), a strong showing from both teams was no surprise.

Three of the Boston Pride players who made the trip to Buffalo this weekend shared their experiences with me: Amanda Pelkey of Team Knight and Emily Field and Brittany Ott of Team Pfalzer. Here’s what they had to say about this weekend’s fun—and competition—on the ice, including what it was like to play along members of rival NWHL teams.

According to Team Knight forward Pelkey, there wasn’t much advance discussion with players on other NWHL teams. However, as soon as the players came together for Friday night’s dinner, Team Knight began to plan. “Most talk was about the skills competition,” said Pelkey. “What everyone was planning on doing, especially for the girls that were doing the breakaways. We were told that we had three shots for the breakaways. Personally, I wanted to do a couple of fun ones then one serious one. There were pranks on players all weekend which made everything more fun.” Pelkey’s own stunt was the result of Team Knight’s collaboration. “Everyone had that idea subtly but no one seemed to claim it. So I thought, ‘well, since I’m on the smaller side, I should be able to fit!’ I’m glad Hilary could help out!”

Team Pfalzer got a later start, beginning to plot during off-ice warmups prior to Saturday night’s Skate With The Stars. “I think our mentality going into the game was to have fun, obviously,” said goaltender Ott, “We also wanted to make it an awesome experience for the crowd and for those watching online, too, so we wanted to play hard and get the win.” Field added, “As far as pranks go, we didn’t pull any major pranks on Team Knight, but they got us pretty good!” Spontaneity was the rule of the game for Team Pfalzer. Players didn’t learn until after the skills competition which units they would play with during the actual game.

Even Emily Field’s spectacular goal celebration was planned on the fly. “After [All-Star Game MVP Kelley Steadman]’s first goal, our bench got talking about doing funny celebrations and that was the first one, so it wasn’t specifically planned for me,” she said. “I just happened to be the next person to score!”

Despite their different approaches, both teams dazzled on the ice this weekend. Team Knight succeeded in making the audience laugh; Team Pfalzer shone both in the skills competition and during gameplay, winning with a combined score of 8-1. “My favorite part [of the skills competition] was [Megan] Bozek hitting 88mph on the hardest shot competition,” said Ott. “I’ve been playing against her since high school and she’s always had an awesome shot that has always given me some trouble. But her hitting that speed was pretty phenomenal to watch!”

Pelkey and Field also enjoyed playing along familiar faces. “I enjoyed being able to be on the same team as Emily Pfalzer again as we haven’t played together since college,” said Field, a recent Boston College grad. Pelkey had fun playing with former national teammate Madison Packer. “Last time we played together was on the U-18 National Team back in 2009.” Both Ott and Field spoke highly of the new faces on Team Pfalzer as well, singling out Kelley Steadman, Devon Skeats, and Shiann Darkangelo for praise. Getting to play alongside Nana Fujimoto on Team Pfalzer’s roster was a high point for Ott. “Goalie partnerships are something that I always look forward to; and Nana is an awesome goaltender, always gives my team a hard time in games, and such a nice person off the ice too.”

Some of the most enjoyable and comic moments of the weekend came from the goalies’ participation in the skills competition, from Team Knight goaltender Jaimie Leonoff facing off forward Janine Weber in net during the breakaway competition (Leonoff scored) to Brianne McLaughlin and Ott’s race across the ice for the title of fastest skater. “I really thought I was going to be able to trip her when I threw my stick at her, but she was a little too nimble to be taken down like that,” said Ott. McLaughlin got her revenge later with a pie to Ott’s face during the handshake line.

A good time was had by all.

#14strong

A lot of transitional events get celebrated with a party. Marriage, birthdays, graduations. Put on a special garment and be, by the virtue of occasion or ceremony, transformed. The Women’s Winter Classic was marketed, during the three days between announcement and event, as one of these transformative and transitional events: the first women’s outdoor game on a grand stage, the first meeting of the CWHL and NWHL, partnering with the NHL to bring this dream to fruition. CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress talked about the role of the lengthy relationship between CWHL and the NHL in creating this opportunity; NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan spoke about all of the little details that went into making the game happen, right down to the signage. Later, players from Les Canadiennes and the Boston Pride would talk about the wondrous moment of stepping out onto the ice and looking up at the expanse of Gillette Stadium around them.

Denna Laing is one of those players. She posted on the Facebook page her family has created about her experience at the Winter Classic: “the best day of my life.” Most of the photos attached to the post show Laing with her teammates in their jerseys; one shows her prized gold pumps, Winter Classic hat, and coffee in her Winter Classic dressing room stall. In the first period of the game that followed, Laing fell and suffered a significant spinal injury. At present, she has limited mobility in her upper body and no feeling below the chest.

Of course, if you’ve been following women’s hockey, you know all this. You might not have seen Laing’s injury, because the Women’s Winter Classic—for all its pomp and circumstance—was only seen by a handful of people either in the stands or watching along via Periscope, but you’ve no doubt read the articles. The tragedy of Laing’s injury has arguably provoked more interest and coverage from mainstream media than the game itself. Across social media, hockey teams and fans are posting their support of Laing with the number she wore at Princeton, tagged #14strong. NWHL players are wearing a yellow sticker with #24 on their helmets, the number Laing wore for the Boston Pride. A friend of the Laing family started a fundraiser on GoFundMe that reached over $43,000 in donations before it was suspended at the request of the Laing family, who have their own donation page set up at dennalaing.org.

I didn’t see Laing’s injury in real time, although I was at the Women’s Winter Classic covering the event for Watch This Hockey. It was difficult to see the players on the ice from the high vantage of the media seating at Gillette. I’d been distracted for most of the first period, trying to figure out whether it was better to watch the close-ups on the big screen above the field or squint at the ice, where the players looked like festively-attired ants. That confusion wasn’t why I missed Laing falling, though—I was tweeting.

Real life has a way of interrupting narrative.

Like the Women’s Winter Classic, profound injury leading to disability is also a transitional event. We have stories we tell about disability, too, many of which have already been trotted out on Laing’s behalf. There is a short leap between the tragedy of injury and the “tragic” existence of people with disabilities. If Laing wants to describe her injury as a tragedy and her recovery as a challenge, her experience is hers to own and define, but we should be careful how we generalize disability as an obstacle to be overcome. People with disabilities are people before they are stories. There is no obligation for anyone with a disability to be a heroic example for the world.

Unless, of course, you’re already a heroic example for the world. You’re part of a groundbreaking event; you’re playing for a league whose tagline is History Begins; you’re a female athlete of extraordinary ability in a world where “role model” is one of the key marketing attributes for people in your profession. You’re Denna Laing, posing for a photo with your Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. You’re on NHL ice in the middle of the Patriots’ home stadium with the broad sky above you. It’s the best day of your life.

When people talk about the tragedy of Laing’s accident, that tragedy isn’t just about the loss of Laing’s mobility or her athletic career—frequently, those things are incidental. The emotional note they hit is the loss of the dream of Denna Laing who skated onto the ice at the Winter Classic: the dream of the female athlete taking center stage. Laing, herself, isn’t lost at all. Like all of us who live with a disability, she will go on to have a life that may not include hockey but will be as meaningful and valuable as the life of any non-disabled person. Like all of us who live with a disability, she will regain autonomy not through hashtags or short-term fundraising efforts, but by long-term communal support and collective action.

Let Laing’s teammates on the Pride mourn the loss of her place at their side, but stop talking about her like she’s dead. Let Laing define her own experiences. Don’t donate a couple of bucks, chuck a puck, and check out. Learn how you can be a disability advocate and ensure that people with mobility impairments like Laing’s have full access to your community. Most of all, don’t make Laing into a symbol of whatever you feel about female athletes, women’s hockey, or the Winter Classic. Let Laing tell her own story.

A First Step: CWHL & NWHL Meet at the Women’s Winter Classic

The Boston Pride and Les Canadiennes prepare to shake hands and depart the ice
The Boston Pride and Les Canadiennes prepare to shake hands and depart the ice as Scotiabank and Dunkin Donuts advertisements loom overhead.

After twenty-seven minutes over two periods of play, the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League and Les Canadiennes of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League concluded the first Women’s Winter Classic with a 1-1 tie at Gillette Stadium on Thursday afternoon. The stands were nearly empty at the game’s 2:00PM start, but attendees for the alumni game began to trickle in and fill the stands while the players were on the ice. The game play was fast and chippy, with frequent turnover and without stoppage. Despite a sobering pause to remove fallen Pride player Denna Laing that ran out the clock on the first period and truncated the second, the game felt over almost as soon as it began. NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan described the game as “an unbelievable milestone for women’s hockey to have the opportunity to be on such a grand stage”; CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress called it a “showcase.” As an exhibition game, the Women’s Winter Classic left me wanting more. As the start of negotiations between the two leagues? For both the teams and the leagues involved, that’s a very promising opening.

While the Montreal-Boston animosity on which both cities thrive is the heart of the men’s game today, it followed neither NWHL nor CWHL players off the ice. “All these ladies have played with or against one another, whether it’s the Olympics, college—players on both teams from [Boston University], from Harvard, [Boston College], Wisconsin,” said Pride coach Bobby Jay. “They’ve all played each other.” Les Canadiennes’ Marie-Philip Poulin, who graduated from BU this spring, enjoyed playing against her Terriers teammates Shannon Doyle and Kaleigh Fratkin, both on loan to the Pride from the Connecticut Whale. Several members of the Boston Pride’s roster are former players for the CWHL’s Boston Blades, including Blake Bolden, who scored the Pride’s lone goal today and led the Blades to the Clarkson Cup in March of this year. (Les Canadiennes, then the Montreal Stars, lost to the Blades in the Clarkson Cup final.) “I was just really excited to get a chance to play against them again,” said Bolden.

For the players, an outdoor game is a callback to childhood, to the origin of what drew them to play hockey. Kelly Cooke spoke eloquently of her childhood rink at Philips Academy on Boston.com yesterday. Poulin, who took home Olympic gold from Sochi and Vancouver, said that compared to international play, the outdoor game was “a little more exciting.” “I didn’t get enough. It was so amazing, I could do this for the rest of my life,” said Bolden. Her Pride teammate Marissa Gedman agreed, “I really didn’t want to get off the ice.” Prior to the game, a member of the press questioned Rylan about the outdoor game’s impact for upcoming players like Gedman, as opposed to a veteran like Les Canadiennes’ Chu. “I wouldn’t even discount how Julie Chu and the players who’ve played on the Olympic stage feel, too, because the Olympics happen once every four years, and that was the whole point of starting this league, providing a stage and platform for them to shine between Olympic years,” said Rylan. “This is just another one of those platforms, and fortunately it’s 2015-16, so a non-Winter-Olympic year. So I think that it’s going to be huge for the Julie Chus of the world and also the Marissa Gedmans. They’re all on cloud nine.”

Another person on cloud nine was Cassie Campbell, the Vice-Chair of the CWHL board, who spoke to her own league’s focus on that same Olympic gap. “How do we bottle that Olympic movement in the other three years? How do we get that excitement?” Campbell said. “We do that with parity. You watch our leagues play—
you can’t bottle the Canada-US emotion, but you can bottle the caliber of play. We’ve got that now in our leagues, and it’s come a long way.” That caliber of play was evident out on the ice today, for all twenty-seven minutes the players got to shine.

Let’s talk about those twenty-seven minutes. Originally, the Women’s Winter Classic was intended to be two fifteen-minute periods with no stoppage of play, starting at 2:00pm and wrapping up well before the commencement of the Alumni Game at 3:30pm. According to Andress, that time was deliberately chosen to draw the attention of people as they came in to find their seats for the alumni game. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to draw the fans in for the women’s game, but people are going to come in early to see the alumni game, therefore coming in early for the alumni game, they get the opportunity to see the women’s game and go, ‘Oh, what’s that?'” she said. “Too early, you get no fans.” Ice quality was also a concern.

That same concern arose when Boston Pride forward Denna Laing fell on the ice behind Les Canadiennes’ net and didn’t get up. Play stopped while the clock on the first period ran out. Ultimately, Laing was removed from the ice on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she remains overnight with her family. While speculation that ice quality was the culprit began immediately—apparently some of the mens’ players had complained earlier in the day during practice—ultimately the answer given by Coach Jay was that Laing had stepped on a dropped stick and lost her footing. The clock for the second period was shortened from 15:00 to 12:00, but play resumed as soon as the ice was cleared. Kim Deschenes of Les Canadiennes had scored the first goal just a minute before Laing went down; Bolden tied it up for the Pride with just minutes to go in the period. The clock ran out, and that was it: the first Women’s Winter Classic was done.

The Women’s Winter Classic wasn’t shown on television or streamed, although it was watched by some via Periscope; it’s hard to judge just how many people it reached. Ultimately, its impact is likely to be greater backstage. Three NHL teams already partner with their CWHL counterparts; this is the NWHL’s first official connection to the men’s league. The NWHL and CWHL worked together to pull off this event. Additionally, despite the very short notice that prevented the attendance of many people who provide regular coverage of women’s hockey, there was a broad range of media in attendance at the Women’s Winter Classic. Many had questions about collaboration between the two leagues or a possible merger, which were met by polite demurrals by all parties.

For the CWHL and NWHL, the Winter Classic isn’t a merger, or a marriage, and maybe not even a true meeting of the minds. “It’s a first step,” as Rylan said. The three-month lead-up to the Women’s Winter Classic was frantic and fraught, as Patrick Burke related earlier this week in conversation with Jen Neale of Puck Daddy. Planning an event on a scale like this requires immense amount of logistical footwork, which is ambitious even before taking into account that two leagues with a short yet contentious relationship have to coordinate and cooperate. Yet, cooperate they did, negotiating teams, rosters, and the myriad of compromises necessary to get the game underway for New Year’s Eve. Andress and Rylan even posed for a photo together in front of the Women’s Winter Classic step and repeat. Did they seem particularly comfortable with each other? Well… that’s hard to say. Lines of communication, however, are open.

And, for now, the score between the two leagues is a tie.