Bizarre decade for Minnesota Whitecaps culminates with Isobel Cup

Having begun the 2010s as the first American-based team to capture the Clarkson Cup, the decade ends with the Minnesota Whitecaps becoming the inaugural first-year team in the NWHL to win the Isobel Cup. Becoming the first team to win both prestigious championships, this brush with history bookends a bizarre decade for the longest running club team in American women’s ice hockey.

Following a highly emotional Clarkson Cup victory over the Brampton Thunder in 2010, becoming the first American-based team, and first from the Western Women’s Hockey League, to hoist the coveted chalice, such success proved to be a peak, rather than the springboard towards an upward projection.

Despite qualifying for the Clarkson Cup playoffs in 2011, their third straight appearance, it also proved to be the last for the Whitecaps. With a strange off-season that saw the dissolution of the WWHL, their three Alberta-based clubs, the Calgary Oval X-Tremen, Edmonton Chimos and Strathmore Rockies, amalgamated into Team Alberta, adopting navy blue and gold as its official colors, while gaining status as the CWHL’s newest expansion team.

Meanwhile, speculation took place that the Manitoba Maple Leafs and Whitecaps would also merge. From there, a seemingly endless series of innuendos, along with the tossing of the word “collusion”, ran rampant, resulting in neither market hosting a CHWL franchise, one which proved to be a tactical error for the budding league.

Forced into independent status, the Whitecaps wandered from season to season, calling Ridder Arena home while scheduled against university teams from Minnesota, notably from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, unable to find a professional league.

Despite such unfortunate status, its roster read like a “Who’s Who of Women’s Hockey”, emerging as a destination for graduating NCAA players that grew up in the State of Hockey or neighboring Wisconsin. Throughout its years as an independent, the franchise managed to welcome players such as Jessie Vetter, Alex Rigsby and Finnish stars (and Golden Gopher alumnae) Noora Raty and Mira Jalosuo into the fold. Its relevance reached new heights when players such as Hannah Brandt and Kendall Coyne spurned the nascent NWHL in favor of remaining home.

The one constant throughout this time was inaugural member Winny Brodt-Brown, who evolved into the heartbeat of the franchise. Along with the leadership of General Manager Laura Halldorson, a former head coach with the Golden Gophers, the Whitecaps remained a darling of media attention, covered in Bleacher Report, Women’s Hockey Life, plus a feature in the prestigious New York Times.

Although its first two years involved struggle, especially financial in year two, the NWHL displayed an admirable respect for the Whitecaps, creating good karma and showcasing a group of well-deserved competitors whose imprint on American hockey is undisputed. Hosting the Whitecaps for preseason matches during its inaugural season, the NWHL also sent the Boston Pride to Ridder Arena for a pre-Christmas exhibition in December 2015, the first professional women’s ice hockey matches in the State of Hockey.

In 2018, the NWHL took their dedication to Minnesota one step further. Selecting Minneapolis as host city for its All-Star Game, the league took the unusual step of allowing several Whitecaps to participate in said Game, serving as, both, a season highlight, and a franchise high point.

Earlier that season, the Whitecaps even competed in exhibition matches against teams from Sweden, testament to their standing as a world-class team. Undoubtedly, further trips to Europe could have been a remote possibility had a landmark 2018 not included their welcome into the NWHL.

Such a welcome set the stage for a season filled with the promise of a more stable future for the league, likely opening the door for further expansion. Fittingly, numerous Whitecaps were among the competitors at the 2019 NWHL All-Star Game in Nashville, where over 6,000 fans set an attendance record for a professional women’s ice hockey game in the United States.

Finishing in first place with a 12-4-0 record, the Whitecaps, whose roster boasted Kendall Coyne-Schofield, Brooke White-Lancette, also a member of the 2010 Clarkson Cup champions, and highly touted Lee Stecklein, quickly emerged as the favorites for the fourth Isobel Cup. Taking into account that the Buffalo Beauts had an eventful off-season which saw the acquisitions of Blake Bolden, plus goaltenders Shannon Szabados and Nicole Hensley, the level of star power on both rosters to start the season foreshadowed the eventual postseason collision course.

Despite the Beauts looking to ride the brilliance of All-Star captain Szabados in their hopes for a second Cup title, she was unable to be the starting goaltender versus the Whitecaps, citing a lower body injury. After dumping the Boston Pride in the semi-finals, Nicole Hensley, a member of Team USA’s gold medal winning team at the 2018 Winter Games gained the start between the pipes for Buffalo, opposing University of Minnesota alum (and former Beauts goaltender) Amanda Leveille.

Both regulation goals were scored near the end of the first period as Emily Pfalzer scored the game’s first goal, capitalizing on a power play that saw her wrist shot beat former teammate Leveille for the 1-0 advantage. With 1:37 remaining, an unlikely hero emerged as Amy Menke was sent on a breakaway, with NHL All-Star Skills participant Kendall Coyne-Schofield feeding her the puck. Going top shelf, she tied the game at 1-apiece, scoring the last goal of regulation.

With the Whitecaps employing the forecheck, the remainder of the game was a defensive stalemate, as neither side relinquished. Despite strong scoring chances in the third period, the incredibly strong goaltending on both ends of the ice resulted in the first-ever overtime required to decide the Isobel Cup champions.

The Whitecaps peppered Hensley with 28 shots, while Leveille only required 22 saves. Their continued persistence paid off in the overtime frame, as Katie McGovern won a faceoff that found its way to elite blueliner, and Golden Gophers alum, Lee Stecklein. A Winter Games gold medalist from 2018, Stecklein buried the puck past Hensley for the Cup-clinching goal, a 2-1 final.

Fittingly, Stecklein gained MVP honors for her heroics, although she was not the only player to have made her mark in this game. Leveille gained her second Isobel Cup win, the first coming in 2017 with the Beauts. In addition, Corinne Buie made her fourth consecutive appearance in the Isobel Cup finals, the only player to do so.

Perhaps the greater victory was the fact that the Whitecaps proved to be the gem of the NWHL at the box office. With TRIA Rink supplying the home ice advantage, it also represented the tenth consecutive sellout at the venue, supplying the league with an important credibility and financial stability that haunted them in their second season.

Although such success was well-deserved, and long overdue, for the Whitecaps, it brings closure to a decade that saw the franchise endure numerous unnecessary years in the hockey wilderness. Their success, albeit not surprising, certainly presents a “What If?” scenario for the CWHL.

Had they welcomed the Whitecaps to their league (an opportunity that presented itself since 2012), it not only would have presented the Calgary Inferno with a Midwest-based rival, something that still plagues the franchise, but expanded their presence in the United States, raising awareness of their brand.

In addition, the strong fan base of the Whitecaps would likely have prevented the formation of the NWHL, while allowing the Worcester (formerly Boston) Blades with an American-based opponent. Undoubtedly, the presence of the Whitecaps would have benefitted the Blades, as the US national women’s team trains out of Boston, allowing for a team that would have remained in contention, rather than wither away in the doldrums, where one-win seasons and last place finished have become the standard.