The last time I attended a Boston Blades game, it was the Blades’ home opener against the Calgary Inferno on October 31, a rout which ended 7-1 Calgary. I wasn’t hopeful about the Blades’ chances for the season by the game’s conclusion, and they’ve continued to struggle throughout the first half, netting a single shoutout victory over the Toronto Furies on October 18 with 11 losses in regulation. The Blades lost again on Sunday to the Brampton Thunder (4-2), but the vibe postgame couldn’t have been more different than when I spoke to team captain Tara Watchorn at the end of the home opener. Even fresh off another loss, all three players I spoke with were excited and hopeful, and by that point, so was I. The Boston Blades are doing great stuff, and I’m hoping they stick around for many seasons to come. Here’s why.
Back in May, the very first post I wrote for Watch This Hockey focused on the impending dissolution of the Boston Blades’ stacked roster and the impact of the National Women’s Hockey League on the state of professional women’s hockey in the United States. As the NWHL (and revived Minnesota Whitecaps) are showing, there’s a huge pool of untapped talent here as well as a sustainable market for women’s hockey. The United States can compete. This fledgling iteration of the Blades is no exception.
The Blades are having difficulty finding their footing for a number of reasons. Last year, cracking the Blades roster was a test of merit; with five competing teams, women’s hockey is now a marketplace that enables talented players to shop around. Since the CWHL does not pay players (although the league has announced a plan to start doing so in the 2017-2018 season), the Blades offer no financial incentive. Players who once had no option but Boston now have the option to live in several different metro areas–after last winter, I can’t blame anyone for fleeing south. Last, but not least, as Watchorn said to me on Sunday, “Before, there was only the one team… I think a lot of girls came out of college and it was tough, you had one roster to crack, so a lot of girls didn’t continue to play.”
Most of the Blades’ new roster have had a few years since they were regularly on the ice, and the team only has two weekly practices, one hour each on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. In addition to developing team cohesion after intense roster change and a complete turnover in management and coaching, the Boston Blades are also focusing on developing the players themselves. “There’s a lot of girls who played college and played not as a big a role for four years,” said Watchorn. “And now they’re here and they get a lot of ice and get to be a bigger impact on the team and they’re really thriving in that role. They’re getting a lot of confidence and it’s really showing.”
One of those thriving players is forward Sadie St. Germain, who graduated from Syracuse in 2014 and joined the Blades roster alongside her sister Clara this year. St. Germain scored her first professional goal on Sunday, an unassisted breakaway during the second period that was the Blades’ opening goal against the Thunder. “Our winger just poked it out, it was supposed to be a pass, she went a little far ahead with it, but I just poked it past the D or two D that were in front of me and then just won the footrace and I wasn’t going to miss the goal after that, so,” St. Germain said. Of the Blades, she said, “This is actually one of the most fun teams I’ve ever been on. Everybody is just very happy to be here and be playing again, and I think that just drives us all, we’re all on the same page and we all just click.”
Both Watchorn and defense Dru Burns stressed the team’s atmosphere as well as player development being important to the team. “Everyone gets along so well.. we’re having so much fun on and off the ice. It’s so much fun to be a part of [the Blades] and watch the team grow and girls get better every game,” Burns said. While some players did seem frustrated as they came off the ice on Sunday, for a team that had just seen their tenth loss in a row, the three players I spoke seemed to be having a good time. They had played a good game, after all: that loss against Brampton was closer than the score suggests.
Last Sunday’s game at Rodman Arena concluded the Boston Blades’ six-game series against the Brampton Thunder. This match was the Blades’ strongest showing yet. While the game ended 4-2, the scoreboard read 0-0 at the end of the first period and 1-1 at the end of the second. The crux of the Blades’ defensive success remains goaltender Genevieve Lacasse, who’s stood on her head almost every game this season. She blocked 46 of the 49 shots leveled on goal (Brampton’s final goal was an empty netter), finishing with a .938 SVP to Thunder goaltender Liz Knox’s .866 SVP. That said, the Blades continue to improve defensively. Burns credits the 1-2-2 system the Blades have been using, which she described as “more laidback” and easier for the team to work on with in limited practice time. While Brampton managed one goal at even strength and a concluding empty netter when Boston had six players on the ice, the remaining half of their goals were scored on powerplay. Considering the Blades spent 8 minutes with a player in the box and the Thunder only 4, the Blades need to work on both player discipline and their penalty kill. Also, they need to stop pulling Lacasse. That said, this was a close game. So close.
The Boston Blades I saw on Sunday were not the Blades that I saw at the end of October. They’re playing a much tighter game, and they’re far more competitive. The growing confidence Watchorn spoke of is becoming evident on the ice. “We’re getting better every day and we’ve just gotta find that win,” she said on Sunday. I believe they can.