NWHL proudly represented at NYC Pride Parade

Originally published on Women Talk Sports

In a remarkable show of solidarity, eight competitors from the NWHL, along with Commissioner Dani Rylan, supported league partner You Can Play (YCP), by taking part in the New York City Pride March. For Rylan, it was an eventful weekend as she was also part of a panel including Gabrielle Reece that spoke at #Blogher17, an event sponsored by She Knows Media.

Along with the NWHL, the sporting community saw the likes of competitors from the WNBA Players’ Association and Major League Soccer also took part. Beginning at 36th Street and 5th Avenue, culminating at Christopher and Greenwich Streets, the Parade was an opportunity for the league to support the positive message of YCP, which sees one player from each of its teams serve as an YCP ambassador.

Dedicated towards ensuring that sports venues are free from homophobia, with athletes judged on talent and not sexual orientation and/or gender identity, the core mission of YCP is one that brings great meaning to the NWHL. Prior to the launch of their second season in the autumn of 2016, Buffalo Beauts competitor Harrison Browne publicly announced a transgender status, becoming the first athlete in modern professional sport to do so.

Having started in 1970, the New York City Pride Parade saw over 350 unique groups participate in the March in 2016. This year, proudly garbed members of the NWHL wore white T-shirts with the league’s logo in all colors of the rainbow. The smiling players were waving flags with the You Can Play logo, while giving out stickers to the onlookers.

As the NWHL proudly stood behind Browne, while also showing the courage of its conviction by working on a policy for transgender athletes, the opportunity to march in the Pride Parade was an extension of its welcoming culture.

Among the players from the NWHL’s clubs that participated, the most prominent included Anya Battaglino, who is the head of the NWHL Players Association. While her presence certainly represents the beginning of a strong working relationship between the league and its PA, there was also an emotional component.

A charter member of the Connecticut Whale, Battaglino had come out while she was still a competitor at the NCAA level with the Boston University Terriers. Such a defining moment in her life is one that has gained luster through the support friends and teammates alike.

Through participation in the Pride Parade, it was an opportunity for Battaglino to give back. Her efforts may save lives, inspiring others that are enduring their own personal struggles with orientation, while giving a voice through example that fosters the sense of encouragement that comprises the essence of this event. Many hockey fans also expressed their support for her on social media, admiring and appreciating such courageous leadership. Of note, one fan expressed her gratitude by creating a hashtag in her honor: #IStandWithAnya

Two other teammates from the Connecticut Whale joined Battaglino in the March. Kelly Babstock, the first Canadian-born player to score a goal in the history of the NWHL, along with Elena Orlando also represented the franchise. As a side note, both played at the NCAA level with the Quinnipiac Bobcats.

The New York Riveters, who played their inaugural season in nearby Brooklyn, also made their presence felt on this day. Among the Riveters members gracing the streets of New York on this day included Sarah Bryant, Courtney Burke, a first round pick in the inaugural NWHL Draft, Harvard alum Miye D’Oench, Alexa Gruschow and Rebecca Russo, a competitor in the 2017 NWHL All-Star Game.

While these wondrous women deserve to be admired for their heroics on the ice, their amazing efforts off it have only enhanced their status as role models, setting a positive tone for the third season to come.

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NWHL to return to Pittsburgh in upcoming season

Among the highlights of the second NWHL season was a highly successful All-Star weekend hosted in Pittsburgh. With Amanda Kessel scoring the first hat trick in NWHL All-Star Game history, it capped an amazing weekend which saw the first professional women’s ice hockey game contested in the state of Pennsylvania.

With the NWHL planning to host a series of neutral site games for the 2017-18 season, Pittsburgh has been confirmed as one of said sites. Considering the success of last season’s All-Star Game, a sold out venue which saw Brianne McLaughlin (who competed collegiately at nearby Robert Morris University) return to a standing ovation, it was one of the highlights of the 2016-17 season.

In collaboration with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the budding league shall host both a regular season game, and a hockey clinic, on January 14, 2018. The UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, which was also the home of the 2017 NWHL All-Star Game and Skills Competition, shall be the site for the January event.

During the weekend, the Penguins shall serve as the host for the “NHL Girls Youth Cup.” Undoubtedly, the NWHL’s presence shall add luster to this event, providing the competing youngsters with an opportunity to meet their role models. With an on-ice clinic also taking place, it will allow the league’s players an opportunity to inspire and encourage the participants to pursue their hockey dreams, while providing them with instruction from some of the game’s finest.

Although the two teams that shall grace the ice will only be confirmed upon the release of the NWHL’s schedule, the defending Isobel Cup champion Buffalo Beauts are the franchise in the closest geographic proximity to the Iron City. As a side note, the league has confirmed that the third NWHL All-Star Game shall be contested in 2018 at a neutral site event. This will mark the second consecutive season that an All-Star Game is hosted at a neutral site, extending the reach of the game and its brand to other markets.

Kaliya Johnson part of historic signing for Connecticut Whale

Fresh off a record-breaking season for the Boston College Eagles, one that saw the club enjoy an undefeated regular season, the first in Hockey East play to do so, blueliner Kaliya Johnson signed a one-year offer worth $13,000 with the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale. Of note, Kaliya Johnson becomes the first African-American player to sign with the Whale.

During the NWHL’s inaugural season, Blake Bolden became the first African-American to appear in a regular season game, doing so with the Boston Pride. Not only would she become the first African-American to appear in the league’s All-Star Game, she would also become the first to capture the Clarkson Cup.

The New York Riveters also featured an African-American player on their roster. Despite being assigned as a practice player, Cherie Stewart, who also played with the US national ball hockey team at the 2015 ISBHF Worlds, managed to see some ice time in the regular season. Johnson, who was raised in Arizona, now adds to a growing legacy in NWHL hockey, as visible minorities, both male and female, continue to make significant inroads in the game.

Johnson already brings a solid hockey resume that includes more than just four sensational seasons with the Eagles. Having competed with the US national team at the 2012 IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds, she would capture a silver medal. In the same year, she would win the North American Hockey Academy win the JWHL national championship.

With a Whale roster that lost Kaleigh Fratkin, the league’s leading scorer among blueliners to free agency, Johnson shall be a welcome addition. Considering that the Whale also signed blueliner Cydney Roesler from the ECAC champion Quinnipiac Bobcats, their blueline shall be significantly bolstered for the upcoming season.

Having graduated as one of the top ten career scorers among Eagles blueliners, she would display remarkable consistency and durability in her final season, appearing in all 41 games, as career benchmarks were set for points, goals and assists. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment was the fact that she helped the Eagles set a program record for most shutouts in one season with 14.

As a sophomore, Johnson came into her own as she did not miss a game with the Eagles. Leading the team in plus-minus rating (+29), while ranking sceond with an impressive 43 blocked shots, she was also named to the Hockey East All-Tournament Team, displaying an ability to excel in high pressure situations.

Statistically, her senior season would be her strongest, registering a career-high 17 points on the strength of 13 assists. Among her goals, one would prove to be the game-winning tally against Northeastern on November 20, 2015 while another was scored in the Beanpot against Harvard.

Recording at least one point in 15 regular season games, her final goal as a member of the Eagles came against Clarkson during the Frozen Four, advancing to the national championship for the first time in program history. Although the club would lose to the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the national championsnhip game at the Frozen Four, the efforts of seniors such as Johnson will be sorely missed.

Throughout her exceptional Eagles career, Johnson showed tremendous leadership on campus. Not only was she a representative for the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at BC, she was also on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee for the Atlantic Coast Conference, attending conference meetings twice a year in North Carolina. The focus of said meetings included rules and regulations, the welfare of student athletes and community service.

Such service was definitely a part of what defined Johnson’s efforts, for she was just as dedicatred to giving back to the community and setting a positive example on and off the ice. In addition to helping Boston College Athletics raise money for programs and academic services, she was also trained as a team health representative to assist students in need. Majoring in psychology, Johnson displayed a heart of gold, helping guide student athletes to different resources available on campus.

As a side note, she also served as a student teacher in Boston Public Schools. Among her efforts in such a capacity, she worked in classrooms teaching English as a Second Language.

Although the Whale have definitely signed a promising talent with a fundamentally sound game, the most important aspect may be that they signed a person with great character. In September 2014, Johnson underwent brain surgery after suffering from concussion related syndromes.

Returning on November 8, 2014, she would log an assist against Northeastern. The momentum would continue the following day, as she notched her second point in as many days, another assist, against the Vermont Catamounts. Her first goal that season would also take place in November, scoring on the 22nd against Connecticut.

While Johnson defied the odds and made a heroic comeback, concussions have proven to be a tremendous point of concern in the game, as the injury has brought an abrupt end to many careers. Hopefully, the strain that Johnson endured shall become an example of addressing the need for concussion research and preventing such injuries from plaguing these exceptional women.

As Johnson stated in her own words on the Eagles website, the presence of a Chiari malformation, which meant that her brain was sitting below the base of her skull, applied pressure on her spinal cord. Such exposure was causing many of the headaches that plagued her in the previous offseason.

Despite being unable to start her junior season in 2014-15 due to brain surgery, Johnson would be back on the ice by Christmas, a heroic return for an individual who took on adversity with remarkable courage and dignity. Not only did a return to the ice make Johnson learn to not take the game for granted, it allowed her an empathic approach to other players that are injured, understanding the emotional strain that takes place. It is a somewhat reciprocal experience for Johnson as she saw the true meaning of teamwork when teammates, coaches and her mother showed their support, believing in her abilities and the strength to come back. It is that type of strength and maturity which not only makes Johnson a role model, but is poised to make her one worth watching when the Whale return in the autumn of 2016.

Riveters make big splash on opening day of NWHL free agency

In the brief history of the New York Riveters, May 1, 2016 may be remembered as the $50,000 day. Spending approximately 20 per cent of their salary cap on a trio of free agents, general manager Chad Wiseman has made a bold statement about ensuring that the Riveters do not end up in the basement for the second consecutive season.

After trading away the rights to Alex Carpenter, a possible franchise player and potential face for the league, to the Boston Pride, Riveters fans were briefly left to ponder what might have been. Wiseman would ensure that such grief would not last as he acquired one of the most coveted free agents in all of hockey.

Signing Amanda Kessel to a one-year deal worth $26,000, she now surpassed Kelli Stack as the highest paid player in the NWHL. Following such an acquisition, the Riveters would welcome a pair of Connecticut Whale stars into the fold.

Elite blueliner Kaleigh Fratkin was signed to a deal worth $19,500 while goaltender Jaimie Leonoff agreed on a one-year contract worth $10,000, making the team’s grand total $55,500 for a trio of free agents that will be expected to turn the franchise’s fortunes around.

With any free agent signing, there is an element of risk, making such acquisitions a gamble. Taking into account that Kessel was shelved for close to two years due to concussion related problems, there is definitely a fear that such woes may resurface in the NWHL. Should Kessel suffer another concussion, it will be another sad chapter in the ravage that the injury has caused, abruptly cutting many playing careers short

Undoubtedly, a healthy Kessel is good for the game overall. Should she remain healthy, she will clearly be the marquee player for the Riveters, helping add an element of excitement for women’s hockey in the New York market. Kessel has demonstrated a readiness to play, as demonstrated by her heroics as she scored the game-winning goal for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the 2016 NCAA Frozen Four title game.

Strategically, the acquisition of Kessel may prove to pay positive dividends for the Riveters. During a week filled with many trades, Wiseman also acquired the playing rights to Hannah Brandt on April 27. Selected second overall in the 2015 NWHL Draft, the first-ever selection in Connecticut Whale draft history, it was a shrewd acquisition on the part of the franchise.

Considering that Brandt and Kessel were linemates with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the chance to extend careers as linemates in the NWHL may prove to be the elixir to remedy the Riveters’ offensive woes. From a draft standpoint, their involvement with the Riveters may prove to be even more important.

With the first overall pick in the 2016 NWHL Draft, the Riveters shall likely turn to Minnesota once again for another piece of the puzzle. Forward Dani Cameranesi and blueliner Lee Stecklein are definitely the top prospects in this year’s draft. Should the Riveters select one of them, they shall be known colloquially as “Minnesota East.”

Adding to the momentum of acquiring Kessel are a pair of Canadian-born players that made their mark with the Connecticut Whale during its inaugural season. In becoming the first free agents to actually change alleagiances and sign with another team, Kaleigh Fratkin and Jaimie Leonoff become part of a unique chapter in league history.

For these two distinguished competitors, they have been making history since they first signed with the Whale. From the outset, Fratkin, a native of British Columbia, became the first Canadian-born blueliner to sign an NWHL contract. In addition to participating in the league’s inaugural All-Star Game, Fratkin would also play with the Boston Pride for one day, gracing the ice at the Women’s Winter Classic.

Having led all NWHL blueliners in scoring during the league’s inaugural campaign, Fratkin displayed a scoring proficiency that will prove crucial for the Riveters. In a season where the Riveters struggled to assemble any offensive attack, the club lacked an offensive minded blueliner. The arrival of Fratkin should also provide the Riveters with a quarterback on the power play, likely adding more W’s to the wins column.

Standing between the pipes in 10 games for the Whale, Jaimie Leonoff not only gained the first win in franchise history, she would also be credited with the first win in league history. The Montreal-raised Leonoff would also gain the start in the NWHL All-Star Game, allowing the first goal in all-star history.

Finishing her season with a 7-3-0 mark, complemented by a solid .936 save percentage, Leonoff will be given every opportunity to earn the starting goaltenders job. As a side note, Nana Fujimoto, the Riveters starter in 2015-16 was Leonoff’s teammate at the All-Star Game.

Heartwarming rally of support for Denna Laing highly encouraging

In what has proven to be Boston hockey’s finest hour, the remarkable outpouring of support for one of its own has proven to be nothing short of heartwarming. After Denna Laing crashed into the boards at the Women’s Winter Classic in Foxboro, Massachusetts, no one could have foreseen that it would be the final game of her season, let alone the beginning of a long recovery.

Suffering from a spinal cord injury, Laing has been in hospital since December 31, 2015 (the day of the Women’s Winter Classic), as the hockey community has been distraught over such a tragic outcome. With significant sporting figures such as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Boston Bruins alum Cam Neely all issuing public statements of well wishes, the result has been a wave of encouragement.

Marissa Gedman is one of many Pride players that have visited Laing in hospital. Not only is she a teammate, but also one of her best friends. Having first played together for the Assabet Valley club team at the age of 12, the two would become teammates at Noble and Greenough prep school, growing up together around hockey. Visiting her in hospital has only added to an unbreakable bond, as Gedman draws admiration from her strong spirit.

During the week of January 17, 2016, the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins have both shown their support. This is attributed to the fact that both teams competed on New Year’s Day at Foxboro, in the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. The day prior, Les Canadiennes de Montreal from the CWHL competed against the Boston Pride, Laing’s club team.

The Canadiens have shown great compassion, honoring Laing with a tribute video prior to their January 19 contest with the Boston Bruins. As both teams wore the same jerseys from the Classic, it was a stunning visual that resulted in a show of solidarity from both teams.

In the aftermath of the 4-1 final for the Bruins, said jerseys were auctioned online to benefit Laing. For Montreal goaltender Mike Condon, the game had a more profound impact. Both Condon and Laing attended Princeton University and competed in NCAA hockey. Having seen a member of the Tigers family suffer such a life-changing injury, he was proud of the way the Bruins and Canadiens worked together for such a great cause.

Following the accident, the Princeton team engaged in a show of support that became commonplace throughout many NCAA programs. Although Laing wore #24 with the Pride, her number with the Tigers was #14. The Tigers roster formed the number 14 on the ice, with a photo posted on social media.

Princeton players form the #14 (Laing's number when she played there) as a show of support. Image obtained from: https://twitter.com/pwih?lang=en

Princeton players form the #14 (Laing’s number when she played there) as a show of support. Image obtained from: https://twitter.com/pwih?lang=en

Adding to this momentum was the fact that several of Laing’s former teammates at Princeton went to social media with thoughts and prayers. One of the most notable was Gabie Figueroa. A former captain at Princeton during Laing’s time there, she was one of the first to post messages of support online.

Since then, programs have emulated the Tigers initiative, including the Pride, of course. The Concordia Stingers women’s ice hockey program, coached by Canadiennes forward Julie Chu have also paid tribute to Laing with the #14 formation on the ice. In addition, all teams in the NWHL have yellow-colored stickers with number 24 in black font on the back of their helmets. Adding to this momentum is a limited edition wool hat issued by the Bruins, with Laing’s #24 on the back. As a side note, players that competed at the 2016 IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds in St. Catharines, Ontario wore stickers on the backs of their helmets that read “DL”, Laing’s initials.

On January 21, the Bruins honored Laing with a pregame ceremony before facing off against the Vancouver Canucks. Of note, her image was also featured on the Bruins’ game-day posters issued to fans. Laing’s former teammates from Assabet Valley High School and current teammates with the Boston Pride were on-hand to sell 50/50 tickets, raising an astounding $20,063 to assist with medical expenses.

Boston Bruins blueliner Zdeno Chara visits Laing in hospital (Image obtained from Twitter)

Boston Bruins blueliner Zdeno Chara visits Laing in hospital (Image obtained from Twitter)

With Laing still in hospital, a message on video was aired on the scoreboard, resulting in a highly emotional standing ovation. The day prior to the match, Bruins captain (and 2011 Stanley Cup champion) Zdeno Chara visited Laing in hospital. Telling her to never give up, Chara’s words will have strong meaning as Laing has ambitions to go to law school, having balanced hockey with work as a witness advocate.

Laing’s sisters, Brianna and Lexie participated in the ceremonial face off. In addition, they were guests of Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs, who enjoyed the game from his suite. This was an extension of the strong support shown by the Jacobs Family, whom along with the Boston Bruins Foundation and TD Garden has offered a donation of $200,000 for The Denna Laing Foundation.

Another member of the Bruins that has also offered financial aid is Patrice Bergeron. Of note, he announced a raffle, in which the winner would see the January 26 contest against the Anaheim Ducks from his suite. With tickets at $5 each, he also declared that all proceeds would go towards the Foundation.

NWHL founder Dani Rylan part of The Hockey News Top 100

As the accolades and gratitude continue to grow for NWHL founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan, all are well deserved. Having revolutionized women’s hockey by introducing player compensation, the first of its kind in North America, Rylan is forging an empowering path forward.

Such effort alone is not the only reason that Rylan is gaining unprecedented recognition on The Hockey News list of the 100 Most Influential and Powerful People in Hockey, which also included NWHL competitor Kelli Stack being named. The reality is that Rylan’s efforts in the game have gone beyond just compensation.

(L-R): Hayley Moore, Erika Lawler and Dani Rylan at the Women's Winter Classic. Image obtained from Facebook

(L-R): Hayley Moore, Erika Lawler and Dani Rylan at the Women’s Winter Classic. Image obtained from Facebook

While the NWHL gained prominent attention in the media as the first of its kind to pay players, it has proven to be only the initial step in Rylan’s effort to create the finest hockey league for eilte female competitors. The hard work has continued past the inaugural puck drop.

Equally important is the need to give back to the community, establishing the league and its players as hockey humanitarians, a cause that Rylan was very passionate about when she helped to form the NWHL Foundation. Such initiative was met with outstanding results.

From fundraisers for military, cancer research, the admirable Do It for Daron mental health foundation, along with teams locally holding food drives and teddy bear toss events (for needy children during the holidays), one quickly gains the impression that the players enjoy participating in these events, truly a win-win for the game and the community.

Exhibition series have also proven to be another outstanding method of developing the game, while acknowledging the efforts of others in the hockey community. Rylan invited the Minnesota Whitecaps, the first American-based team to win the Clarkson Cup, to participate in a pair of pre-season exhibition matches with the New York Riveters and Connecticut Whale.

Before the holidays, the Boston Pride would visit the Whitecaps at their home rink, providing Minnesota, also known as the state of hockey, with the first professional women’s hockey matches there. Ensuring that the Whitecaps were somehow part of the NWHL’s inaugural season is testament to Rylan’s respect for those who paved the way.

Another key highlight was the opportunity to land the league’s first corporate sponsor, Dunkin’ Donuts, an encouraging sign that the league is destined for growth. With the Dunkin’ Donuts logo featured on all NWHL jerseys, the names of the players on the back of said jerseys are nothing short of impressive.

Featuring world class talent, including an exceptional number of competitors from the United States national team, it injected instant credibility to the league. Rylan’s strong leadership has led to a credible reciprocation, one where players are given percentages of jersey sales. Such sales could grow as the league has enjoyed television exposure on the New England Sports Network and ESPN3, part of the expanding interest that the league has enjoyed.

The reality is that Rylan has brought more exposure and generated unprecedented interest in women’s hockey over the last six months than some people have managed in close to a decade. It can also be said that without Rylan and the presence of the NWHL, there would never have been a women’s outdoor game at the Winter Classic.

In addition, Rylan has been highly supportive of the formation of a player’s association. Led by Winter Games silver medalist and former Wisconsin Badgers scoring legend Erika Lawler, it is part of a commitment to build and develop player morale, part of proficiency for not only doing all the right things, but respecting the athletes who are equally committed to developing the NWHL brand.

Such mutual respect has proven to be among the ingredients towards a very successful future that should see Rylan, and hopefully other members of the NWHL family, as fixtures on the Top 100 for many seasons to come.

Riveters and Whale play for Mandi Schwartz Foundation

In continuing with the NWHL’s growing legacy of giving back to the community as hockey humanitarians, the Connecticut Whale hosted the New York Riveters in a highly emotional match on January 9. With proceeds raised for the Mandi Schwartz Foundation, it rekindled memories of a former competitor whose career was cut abruptly by cancer.

Having played her NCAA hockey with the Yale Bulldogs in New Haven, Connecticut, Mandi Schwartz lost her battle with leukemia at the age of 23. Led by Aleca Hughes, teammates showed a remarkable rally of support by hosting a bone marrow drive, in the hopes of finding a matching donor for Schwartz. Although such an outcome did not occur, a positive aspect was the fact that six matches were found for other patients.

In tribute to Schwartz and her lasting impact at Yale, the Whale took to the Bulldogs’ home ice at Ingalls Rink to host their fundraising match. Of note, $2 from every ticket and half of all 50/50 raffle proceeds were donated to the Mandi Schwartz Foundation.

Since her passing, the Bulldogs have named a team award in her honor, while the ECAC Conference has also introduced an award to commemorate Schwartz’s life. As a side note, it is only the second time that the ECAC named an award after a former player, also recognizing former Dartmouth three-sport star Sarah Devens.

The contest definitely had the feeling of a home game for Whale captain Jessica Koizumi, as she is one of the assistants on the Yale coaching staff. Tara Tomimoto, a member of Yale’s Class of 2014 was a member of their roster when Schwartz passed away in April 2011.

The fundraiser also held emotion for Bray Ketchum of the Riveters. A former teammate of Schwartz at Yale, Ketchum has helped organize several events as the Bulldogs honor her memory and continue to find suitable donors to save the lives of others affected by leukemia. Of note, Ketchum is a board member of the Mandi Schwartz Foundation and wears Schwartz’s #17 with the Riveters.

Adding to the impact of the event was the fact that NWHL founder and Riveters general manager Dani Rylan signed up for the bone marrow registry, representing her own dedication to bringing betterment to the community.

The Whale prevailed by a 4-3 margin with goals by Shiann Darkangelo, Kelli Stack and a pair by Danielle Ward. For Ward, it was a career milestone as it signified the first two-goal game of her career, garnering First Star of the Game honors in the process. Bulldogs alum Jaimie Leonoff took the win for the Whale in an emotional contest. During her career at Yale, she competed in several White Out for Mandi Games, which raised funds to find a cure for leukemia.

#WePlayForMandi