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.
— Kikuchi Sato (@satochin30) September 16, 2016
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.”