Tatiana Rafter joins growing number of Canadians with the Buffalo Beauts

One of the most talented players to have suited up for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, Tatiana Rafter continues her career as one of the increasing number of Canadian star players to join the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).

Along with Mercyhurst alum Shelby Bram, the two were signed on the same day by the Buffalo Beauts, their fourth and fifth signings this off-season.

Although Rafter and Bram represented a great pair of Manitoba-raised hockey heroes that could have provided the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno with great strides in their Clarkson Cup ambitions. Instead, they join Laurier alum Dawn Skeats, fresh off a scoring title in the EWHL, as Canadian stars ready to propel the Beauts towards the inaugural Isobel Cup.

Under the tutelage of elite coach Graham Thomas, Rafter became a game changer for the Thunderbirds, ushering in a new era of unprecedented glory for the program. Of note, Rafter was a key contributor to the Thunderbirds qualifying for the 2013 Canadian Interuniversity Sport national championships, part of the greatest single season turnaround in Canada West conference history.

Recognized with the first of her two Canada West Second Team All-Star nods, she would end a memorable 2013 as a member of Canada’s gold-medal winning roster in women’s ice hockey at the Winter Universiade. She would finish the event as one of Canada’s leading scorers, logging 15 points.
Heading into the 2013-14 Canada West women’s hockey season, Rafter recorded 38 points on the strength of a conference-high 20 goals to grab the conference scoring title. Not only did her efforts contribute to UBC enjoying their first 20-win season in program history, it culminated with recognition as the recipient of the 2014 Canada West Player of the Year Award.

Among some of the notable players that she competed with at UBC were the likes of international sports stars such as Amanda Asay and Danielle Dube. A two-sport star, Asay was a member of the Canadian women’s baseball team that captured the silver medal in the inaugural women’s baseball event held at the 2015 Pan American Games. Dube was also a part of Canadian women’s sporting history, competing in the first-ever women’s ice hockey tournament at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

Joined on the Beauts by the likes of two-time Winter Games silver medalist Brianne McLaughlin, there will be no shortage of star players that Rafter will call new teammates. Having contributed to the greatest chapter in UBC hockey history, the chance to make history with the incipient NWHL is one that she could not resist. Graduating with 116 points, plus a Second Team Canada West All-Star nod in 2015, Rafter is ready to continue her high scoring ways with the Beauts, while giving back to the community with charitable work.

Sam Faber on the ground floor of another New England hockey revolution

As the NWHL becomes the first professional hockey league for women in the United States, there is a feeling of relevance with the on-ice involvement of veteran star forward Sam Faber. One of the first players to sign with the Connecticut Whale, she is part of a new era of promise for the hockey-mad state. On the momentum of strong women’s hockey programs at the NCAA level such as Storrs’ UConn Huskies, New Haven’s Yale Bulldogs and Hamden’s Connecticut Bobcats, Faber shall be the cornerstone of an offense looking to capture the inaugural Isobel Cup.

Raised in Mount Sinai, New York, Faber’s first brush with New England women’s hockey came as a member of the University of New Hampshire’s Huskies. With an astounding 51 points in her freshman season, she would compile 189 points (on the strength of 112 assists) and an astonishing 23 game winning goals during her distinguished NCAA career. In addition, she would skate with the US National Team in a gold medal effort at the 2008 IIHF Women’s Worlds.

Perhaps an element of greater importance may be her experience at the professional level in New England women’s hockey. Of note, the Whale does not reflect her first sojourn into pro hockey. When the Boston Blades became the first American-based in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, Faber was one of the club’s charter members.

Playing alongside the likes of CWHL co-founder Mandy Cronin, All-World blueliners Caitlin Cahow and Angela Ruggiero, along with current Boston Pride GM Hayley Moore plus Huskies leading scorer Jaclyn Hawkins, Faber was part of a remarkable chapter in American women’s hockey.

During that inaugural Blades season (2010-11), Faber brought an offensive flair and playmaking ability that resulted in finishing said season as the Blades scoring leader. Although Montreal’s Caroline Ouellette captured the scoring title that season, Faber’s 30 points helped propel the Blades into the postseason, simultaneously demonstrating that there was a market in the United States for professional women’s hockey. As a side note, she ranked second to Julie Chu that season among American-born scoring leaders in CWHL play.

Faber’s first career point with the Blades came in their inaugural game. Along with Karen Thatcher, both would earn the assists on Jessica Koizumi’s third period goal, the first in Blades franchise history, part of a 3-0 win against the Burlington Barracudas. The following day, Faber would contribute 4 points, including her first career goal with the Blades, sweeping the Barracudas.

Accumulating at least one point in 15 games played, Faber also registered eight multi-point efforts. Her finest single-game performance was a five-point output which included her first career hat trick in a 6-5 win against eventual Clarkson Cup champions Montreal on January 30, 2011. Earlier that season, Montreal would provide another memorable moment for Faber.

Just six days before Christmas, the Blades did more than just spoil Montreal’s bid for an undefeated season. Fighting back from a 2-0 deficit, Faber would score Boston’s first goal of the game, signifying a shift in momentum. Ruggiero would score the dramatic game-winning tally in overtime while Cronin made an astounding 74 saves in one of the greatest goaltending performances in league history.

Such experience shall place Faber into a key leadership position with the Whale this season, as she also holds the unique distinction of being the first player signed in franchise history. Taking into account that former Blades teammate (and two-time Clarkson Cup champion) Jessica Koizumi shall be joining her on the Whale, it only adds to the veteran impact that should contribute to a fundamentally sound game on the ice. As a side note, both have also worked as coaches, with Koizumi serving on the Yale Bulldogs staff and Faber with the Connecticut Jr. Rangers.

Among the crop of youthful free agents that should benefit most positively from their leadership includes the likes of Quinnipiac grads such as Shiann Darkangelo and Kelly Babstock, plus Clarkson Cup champion Kaleigh Fratkin. The younger players shall definitely reciprocate as they bring enthusiasm and high energy, strong motivational factors for Faber.

Having last played during the Blades inaugural season, Faber has remained in the game off the ice as the Chelsea Piers Youth Hockey Director in Stamford, Connecticut. Among her accomplishments with Chelsea Piers includes the fact that she oversees the largest Mite League program in the state. The chance to return to the rink for the first time since 2011 shall serve as an opportunity to inspire the young players that have passed through Chelsea Piers. Being part of the NWHL’s inaugural season as a member of the Connecticut Whale presents Faber (and Koizumi) with the rare opportunity to make history twice in New England women’s hockey.

Brittany Ott continues New England women’s hockey legacy with Boston Pride

As the free agent freezy continues for the incipient NWHL, a key element involves which player shall stand between the pipes for the inaugural puck drop. While the Buffalo Beauts won the Brianne McLaughlin sweepstakes, the Boston Pride may have found a dark horse in accomplished backstop Brittany Ott.

Ott’s first brush with women’s hockey in New England involved four stellar seasons with the Maine Black Bears in Hockey East conference play. Not only would she set a new program record for most saves in a regular season game (accomplished in 2010), she would break her own record in 2013 with a sterling 72 save performance against Boston College in a 2-1 overtime loss.

Although her final season at Maine did not translate in a lot of wins, that was attributed to a rebuilding year for the program. Had Ott not been between the pipes for the Black Bears, the potential for a disastrous season was highly possible, testament to her superlative skills.

Selected in the fifth round, 25th overall, in the 2013 CWHL Draft, Ott would prove to be one of the steals of the draft. No other goalie drafted past the fifth round in draft history enjoyed as many wins, let alone play in the Clarkson Cup championship game.

With Genevieve Lacasse placed on reserves that season, due to her commitments with the Canadian national team at the Winter Games in Sochi, Ott proved to be a blessing in disguise, allowing the club to maintain its great standard of superlative goaltending. Taking to the ice in her powder blue goalie pads, it was not only endearing, but a fitting reminder of what made her an elite goaltender in Hockey East play.

Heading into the final month of the 2013-14 CWHL season, Lacasse returned to the Blades but Ott has established herself as one of the league’s finest goaltenders. Her 10 wins ranked second in league play to rival Catherine Herron of the Montreal Stars, while her .921 save percentage and 475 saves were tops in the league.

In the aftermath of the golden outcome at the Sochi Winter Games, Lacasse earned some playing time with the Blades, but Ott had proven that she belonged among the elites of the game. Such effort was reflected in the fact that Ott became only the fourth rookie goalie to get the start in the Clarkson Cup championship game. The decision was a show of gratitude, testament to her dedication and perseverance during the season.

Despite the Furies by a narrow 1-0 margin in overtime, Ott provided a valiant performance with three solid periods of shutout hockey, stopping 23 shots. The following season, Ott contributed a 10-6-0 mark, establishing herself as the finest backup goaltender in CWHL play. Complemented by a Blades’ Clarkson Cup victory, it represented redemption.

Such solid numbers are what the Pride is hoping that Ott can provide for the inaugural season. With the aim of winning the first-ever Isobel Cup, it would only solidify Ott’s standing as one of the finest American-born goaltenders in hockey today. It would also make her the first goaltender to have won both the Clarkson and Isobel Cups.

There will certainly be some familiar faces surrounding Ott in this quest for history. Joining her on the Pride include several former Blades teammates that were part of the run for the 2015 Clarkson Cup. Players such as Jillian Dempsey, Alyssa Gagliardi and Jordan Smelker (the first player from Alaska to win the Clarkson) are joined by three other Blades that have represented historic signings.

From Blake Bolden becoming the first African-American player to sign with the NWHL, to Kaleigh Fratkin becoming the first Canadian-born player to join the league, there is another exciting acquisition. Jessica Koizumi, the first player to register 50 points with the Blades (she also scored the first power play goal in Blades history), has become the first signee to have played in the former Western Women’s Hockey League. Such familiarity should enable the Pride to have the strongest on-ice chemistry of all NWHL clubs while Ott’s presence between the pipes maintains the high standard of goaltending that she has established during her stellar hockey career in New England.

Upon the Pride’s first faceoff, Ott should retain her powder blue pads from Maine. Taking into account how goaltenders are some of the game’s most unique characters, identified by the creative artwork on their masks, or the style of their equipment, Ott’s powder blues make her instantly identifiable, an element that should establish her as a fan favorite in Boston and throughout the NWHL.

High profile free agent Brianne McLaughlin lands with NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts

As the NWHL free agency signing period heads into high gear, the Buffalo Beauts addressed their goaltending with one of the finest free agent acquisitions so far. Two-time Winter Games silver medalist Brianne McLaughlin has committed to the club, providing them with a recognizable name and star attraction.

The first player to sign a contract in Buffalo Beauts history, such an acquisition complements the Beauts’ selection of two-time Frozen Four champion goaltender Amanda Leveille in the inaugural CWHL Draft. Should Leveille sign with the club after her senior season of NCAA hockey, the two have the potential to possibly anchor the Beauts’ goaltending for the remainder of the decade.

As a side note, the Beauts free agent camp had several accomplished goaltenders, including former Clarkson Golden Knights backstops Lauren Dahm and Frozen Four champion Erica Howe. Both have also played on their respective countries national teams at the Under-22 level. Neither has been officially signed by the Beauts, but in all likelihood, McLaughlin shall be made the de facto starter.

Having spent several seasons as a volunteer coach with the Robert Morris Colonials women’s ice hockey program, where set several goaltending records as a player, McLaughlin’s most significant activity in hockey this decade has involved her stints with the US national team. Serving as a backup goaltender to Jessie Vetter at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games, she was part of two silver medal results, along with a pair of golds at the 2011 and 2013 IIHF Women’s Worlds.

Of note, this is not McLaughlin’s first brush with pro hockey. Selected by the Burlington Barracudas in the 2011 CWHL Draft, she opted not to play for the club. It was a move that would certainly have ramifications for the Barracudas, as the club won only one game during the 2011-12 season. After the Barracudas folded, she was claimed by the Brampton Thunder in the 2012 CWHL Dispersal Draft. Once again, she opted not to grace CWHL ice, and the result was that the Thunder acquired Florence Schelling, who led the club to a playoff berth.

Plenty of future franchise players selected in historic NWHL Draft

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As the dream of a true professional women’s hockey league continues to take shape, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) Draft served as a key ingredient in helping fulfill such promise. With its four charter franchises each having five picks, there was no shortage of outstanding talent to choose from.

Selecting first overall was the New York Riveters, contemplating between 2015 Patty Kazmaier Award winner Alexandra Carpenter and 2015 Frozen Four champion Hannah Brandt. Considering that both were also teammates on the US national team that captured the gold medal at the 2015 IIHF Women’s Worlds in Malmo, Sweden, one agreeable aspect was that both are truly world-class talents.

Opting to acquire Carpenter with the first pick, it would prove to be the beginning of a pattern for the Riveters. Considering that Carpenter is a member of the Boston College Eagles, the Riveters grabbed two of her teammates as well. Having also played with Carpenter on the US team in Malmo, Haley Skarupa and Dana Trivigno were selected 5th and 13th overall, respectively.

Although every draft pick has one year of NCAA eligibility remaining, the challenge is signing those players upon graduation.
There is no question that attempting to select players from the same school may prove to be a key strategy in helping ensure that such picks do not go to waste.

The Connecticut Whale employed the same strategy as well. Wisely selecting Brandt with the second pick overall, the Whale opted to draft two of Brandt’s teammates from the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Picked 10th overall was Milica McMillen, while Maryanne Menefee, who has served as Brandt’s linemate for the past three season was surprisingly still available at the 14th spot.

Still available at the third overall, the Boston Pride were ecstatic to obtain Kendall Coyne. Although Illinois is her home state, she did attend prep school in Massachusetts, where her hockey skills first shone. Having played three seasons of NCAA hockey with Boston’s Northeastern University, she is definitely looked upon as a homegrown talent by New England hockey fans. The chance to extend her career at the NWHL level in Boston shall only cement her legacy as one of the most talented women’s hockey players to play in the hockey mad city.

Of note, Coyne was part of a Pride draft class that featured three other players from New England-based schools. Selected seventh overall, Harvard’s Emerance Maschmeyer ended up making history twice. Not only was she the first Canadian-born player selected in the history of the draft, she was also its first-ever goaltender. Joined by Harvard teammate Miye D’Oench (15th overall) and Boston College’s Lexi Bender, it will be a unique experience for these Beanpot rivals to play for the same club at the professional level.

Surprisingly, the Buffalo Beauts passed on talent such as Maschmeyer (many polls speculated she would go in the first round), Skarupa, Erin Ambrose and Michelle Picard with the fourth overall pick. Opting for Wisconsin’s Courtney Burke, it was the most surprising pick of the entire draft. In the second round, with Ambrose still available, along with Bender and the high-scoring Menefee, Buffalo once again went off the board, grabbing French-Canadian player Sarah Lefort, currently of Boston University.

Picking Lefort did create another unique chapter in NWHL Draft history, as Lefort became the first Canadian-born player who was not a goaltender to be drafted. Ironically, Buffalo’s next pick involved a Canadian-born goaltender. Drafting Amanda Leveille with the 12th pick overall, it was a very shrewd acquisition. Having won an NCAA Frozen Four title with the Golden Gophers, Leveille may be their franchise goaltender.

Following the selection of Leveille, Buffalo employed the same pattern of every other club by selecting college teammates. Located nearby in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mercyhurst University’s combination of high scoring forwards Jenna Dingeldein and Emily Janiga found new homes in Buffalo. Considering Mercyhurst’s reputation for producing elite talent, many more players may soon find their careers extended in Buffalo.

Janine Weber’s magical hockey journey continues in the NWHL

No player in women’s hockey has enjoyed as remarkable a year in 2015 as Janine Weber. Since becoming the first European-born player to score a Clarkson Cup-winning goal, it has led to increased attention wherever she plays.

With a newfound hockey hero status, Weber was among a group of players that attended the Connecticut Whale’s free agent camp. Other notable names at said camp included the likes of Brooke Ammerman, Kelly Babstock, Anya Battaglino, Sam Faber and Kaliegh Fratkin, among others.

Weber’s presence at the camp added a feeling of relevance for one of the NWHL’s charter franchises. Despite the return of professional hockey to the Nutmeg State, it would be the New York Riveters and not the Stamford-based Whale that signed Weber to a contract.

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In doing so, Weber not only became the first player in the history of the Riveters franchise to sign a contract with the team, she became the first free agent signing in the entire history of the NWHL, a shrewd acquisition by Riveters general manager Dani Rylan. Taking into account that the Riveters also won the Draft Lottery, earning the first pick overall in the upcoming NWHL Draft, Weber’s acquisition adds momentum towards the team’s inaugural puck drop.

Considering that the NWHL shall be the first women’s hockey league to compensate its players, Weber’s presence becomes very symbolic. After helping the Boston Blades capture its second Clarkson Cup, the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto wanted to display Weber’s game-used stick. Unfortunately, she only had two sticks in her possession, and required them as she was going to represent Austria at the 2015 IIHF Div. 1A Women’s World Hockey Championships.

Wanting to acquiesce to the Hall’s request, the sad economic realities meant that Weber would have to find the means to replace her stick. Luckily, an outpouring of support via social media resulted in the stick manufacturer (STX Hockey) graciously supplying her with a new stick.

Although the stick story has taken on a life of its own, adding to Weber’s growing legend, such a conundrum shall not be part of her experience in the NWHL. The promise of compensation shall alleviate the financial worries that unnecessarily burdened so many in seasons past.

Another meaningful element that adds remarkable relevance towards the acquisition of Weber is the fact that the NWHL is committed towards providing European players with the opportunity to extend their careers past NCAA hockey by competing in its league. With a camp in late July designated for European players, the signing of Weber is testament to the league’s efforts, adding a very important credibility.

While the opportunity to score the Isobel Cup-clinching goal would only contribute to Weber’s growing mythology, the remarkable support on social media has certainly ensured that she shall be one of the NWHL’s fan favorites. Ready to continue her magical hockey journey in a league that is ready to embrace her status as a world-class hockey player, the real victory is the chance to showcase her skills for a group of jubilant fans ready to appreciate her contributions to the game.