First, let’s be frank: Last Saturday night’s home opener against the Calgary Inferno was a difficult game to watch if you were rooting for the home team. The Inferno scored seven goals, a boggling six of those during the second period, while the Blades remained scoreless throughout. The audience, crammed onto a narrow balcony high over the rink, seemed distant from the players, and the paltry media presence was a stark contrast to the NWHL’s media day in September. In the space of a few months, the Boston Blades have gone from the CWHL’s champions to the underdogs. They’re still hoisting the Clarkson Cup–the team posed for photos with the Cup before and after the game–but most of the players who won it this March are gone.
The NWHL went unmentioned in my conversations with general manager Krista Patronick and coach Brian McCloskey, as did the NWHL’s role in shakeup in the Blades’ formerly star-filled roster. The Blades have retained only five members of last year’s Clarkson Cup winning team: defense Tara Watchorn (this year’s captain) and Dru Burns, forwards Ashley Cottrell and Megan Myers, and goalie Genevieve Lacasse. The new league isn’t the only source of changes–Monique Lamoreaux has joined her sister Joceyln on the Minnesota Whitecaps, while Jenny Potter has transitioned to coaching–but it has claimed over half of last season’s roster, including all of Team USA’s active players. Both coach Digit Murphy and general manager Aronda Kirby have departed for the green fields of lacrosse after a less-than-amicable break with the Blades. As they enter a comprehensive and unanticipated rebuild, the Blades’ newest iteration has inherited both impossibly high expectations and a complicated relationship with the CWHL as its only US franchise.
The Boston Blades opened the 2015-2016 season at home on fresh ice at the New England Sports Center (NESC) in Marlborough, MA, which will be their home rink this season. GM Patronick said that the free parking, dedicated locker room, and improved connectivity offered by NESC were major incentives. There are, indeed, a lot of things to like about NESC–it’s a big facility with six indoor rinks, concessions, and an elevator-accessible upper floor which allows viewing from warmer/heated hallways. That said, Saturday’s game was displaced by the Beantown Fall Classic to Rink 6, which has no bleacher seating, only a long balcony that stretches the length of the rink. There were a few benches for seating, but the majority of people attending the game had to stand. From ice level, where I was filming throughout the game, it was hard to hear the fans or see them. The rink felt surreally empty.
Still, this doesn’t tell you much about the team’s play against Calgary. Calgary’s roster hasn’t experienced as much turnover, and they’ve been joined by the legendary Hayley Wickenheiser in her first year of CWHL play. The Inferno kept most of the play in the Blades’ zone for the duration of the game and they spent a lot of time scrapping around the crease. Despite their aggressive play, Calgary only racked up 2:00 PIM to Boston’s 8:00 by the end of the game. Lacasse’s net was unmoored twice during gameplay, once on either end of the rink; the Blades rarely got close enough to Delayne Brian to test the purchase of the net behind the Inferno’s crease. The Blades got 18 shots on goal, less than a third of the Inferno’s 60.
If they weren’t successful, the Blades were at least determined. Alternate captain Kristina Brown fistbumped each player as they stepped back onto the ice for the third period, exhorting her teammates to “Get some fire out there, get hungry.” Indeed, they finished out the final period without allowing another goal. Goaltender Lacasse deflected 53 of the 60 shots leveled on goal on Saturday. The Blades played a second game against Calgary at Tsongas Arena in Lowell at 10:30 on Sunday, during which Lacasse allowed only 4 of 50 shots. That’s a .900 SVP on 110 SOG in less than 24 hours.
What does this mean for the players who posed around the Clarkson Cup on Saturday night? These Blades are playing against the odds, that’s for sure–against four Canadian teams whose rosters haven’t received a massive shakeup, under the shadow of a hotshot new league with a franchise in the same city, and without most of the players who lifted the Cup in March. Replicating that success will be an uphill success, and it won’t happen overnight. That said, some of those expectations rest on an underlying assumption that Blades’ past success was solely on the merits of their players. When the Blades became the pinnacle of elite women’s hockey talent in the United States as the Western Women’s Hockey League dissolved, there were no alternative professional teams for US-based players who had outlasted their time as NCAA to play and continue to develop. Only the best and brightest stars of women’s hockey–and those with the financial resources and spare time to devote to the sport without pay–could land a place on the Blades’ roster. While it’s tempting to frame the relationship between the NWHL and the CWHL as a rivalry (and, indeed, the one between the Pride and the Blades), the reality is more complex. Going from one professional women’s hockey team in the US to six will only grow (eventually) both the sport and the field of players from which both leagues can pick for their rosters. I’m excited to see how this season’s players develop on the ice. That doesn’t mean that the Blades are poised to capture the Clarkson cup this year, or even the next.
Fortunately for the Blades, Boston loves underdogs.