STAMFORD, Conn. – Goalie Jaime Leonoff stood in the Connecticut Whale locker room, her hair drenched in sweat and the newly sewn logo on her jersey scuffed up with black streaks from flying pucks.
The 22-year-old Montreal native had experienced cheers and victories before as a goalie for Yale and for national teams. But on Sunday afternoon at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Conn., she experienced them for the first time as a paid professional hockey player.
“It’s honestly a dream come true. Because never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this,” said Leonoff, who made 35 saves in the Whale’s 4-1 win over the New York Riveters in the first ever National Women’s Hockey League game.
“As a kid, you think about playing in the NHL. As you get older, you kind of realize that it doesn’t exist for women.”
Now it does.
The NWHL opened with its four teams – the Whale vs. the Riveters, and the Boston Pride at the Buffalo Beauts – in action, playing fast-paced games in front of the rapt attention of hockey fans that have waited a lifetime to see women earn a salary in a pro hockey league, and young girls that suddenly have a slew of role models to aspire to emulate.
“They sold over 800 tickets, and you had people screaming at the girls on the ice,” said Leonoff. “It’s what every girl dreams of. Every. Hockey. Girl.”
There was a large line outside the rink before the afternoon game, as fans waited for their chance to witness history. The capacity wasn’t enormous – it’s a high-school hockey-sized arena – but the anticipation was.
“It was awesome. The atmosphere was amazing, because everyone came here excited. We all fed off that,” said forward Kelly Babstock, who scored the Whale’s fourth goal.
That was evident when the Whale left their locker room and skated onto the ice, the piercing screams of young girls in the stands acting as their soundtrack. The Riveters followed, getting their own ovation from the faithful who trekked up from New York for the game.
“I don’t know about you guys, but …” Whale forward Shiann Darkangelo said, indicating she had goosebumps. “It was so cool seeing all of those young girls at the game, knowing they have role models now.”
Right away, the League distinguished itself by its uniforms. There were the green and blue Whale, evoking the Hartford Whalers in look and name.
“Oh, yeah, these colors,” Leonoff said. “We have the best jerseys, the best fans, the best facilities. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t want to play with us.”
There was the “Rosy The Riveter” inspired crest on the New York jerseys. There were the flags on the shoulders, signifying the countries of origin for the NWHL’s players. (Nana Fujimoto’s Japanese flag was evident and awesome for New York.)
Then there were the nameplates on the jerseys, which weren’t found between the shoulders, but rather near the waist.
Why? So the long hair of the players flapping behind their helmets didn't cover their names.
“That’s what’s really fun about this league. We can be fun. We can be creative and different,” said Dani Rylan, the founder of the NWHL who doubles as the Riveters’ general manager.
“I just need the players to not tuck their jerseys in.”
Rylan dropped the ceremonial first puck for the game, and literally never stopped moving the rest of the day. She met with league officials, with fans. She studied the League’s live stream video to ensure the free service worked without a hitch. She did an NHL Network Radio interview in the middle of a staff meeting.
“I was thinking about Dani before the game,” said Whale GM Harry Rosenholtz. “It’s her brainchild. She put so much energy, so much effort into this. So I was really happy for her.”
For Rylan, the effort paid off on opening day.
“The product on the ice was exactly what we wanted. It was a professional hockey game. The home team won, so that made it even better,” she said.
“If this was someone’s first women’s hockey game, I guarantee you it’s not going to be their last.”
There are some people that simply don’t watch women’s hockey. It’s a fact acknowledged by the NHWL players themselves. It can be a more deliberate pace than the men’s game. The lack of physicality leaves some disinterested.
So the best thing that could happen in the Whale’s opening game against New York was that the hockey was everything cynics say it’s not.
The pace was quick, with Jessica Koizumi netting the first goal in NWHL history just 2:28 into the game for Connecticut. The chances were plentiful, especially as they arrived from the Whale’s potent top line of Babstock, Koizumi and U.S. Olympian Kelli Stack.
Heck, there was even the fabled “Brass Bonanza” blaring after Whale goals, as it did when the Hartford Whalers competed in the NHL.
“These kids can play. And it’s a testament to their fitness and to their desire,” said Rosenholtz.
Leonoff had a great view of the pace, and she said it’s a notch ahead from what you see in the women’s college hockey ranks.
“It was a step up from the NCAA. There are a lot of college teams out there, but this is the NWHL. This is much better hockey. We all played in the NCAA. We were the best players on our team. And now we’re in this league,” she said.
“It was much faster than college, I’ll say that. And a lot more physical. Fans like that.”
The NHWL doesn’t allow checking, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t allow “bumping” or some feistiness after the whistle. And the fans rose their voices whenever the players engaged with each other.
In the middle of a few of those scrums was Madison Packer, a Riveters forward who attended Wisconsin.
“I don’t like when people take liberties. I don’t like people taking shots at my teammates,” she said. “They let us play. It’s no contact, but they let us get feisty.
So is she, like, the team’s enforcer?
Packer laughs. “I’m not an enforcer. But I like to toss it around in there a little bit. I’m not an enforcer, but I don’t take crap,” she said. “Because we’re such a small league, it’s going to be a special rivalry with everyone. It’s been one game and some players are already on each other’s nerves.”
With four teams, the regular season for the NWHL is about jockeying for seeding rather than being concerned with missing the postseason. Everyone gets in, and there’s a round-robin format. But the coaches and players don’t believe that’ll mean a lack of intensity or desperation.
“The great things about having four teams in the league is that everyone knows each other. It’s going to be like a playoff game every game,” said Rosenholtz.
Packer said being the first women’s pro hockey league to pay its players is motivation enough.
“A lot of us never thought we’d be here. But to be recognized as a professional to be paid for what you’re doing … there’s a different mentality when you know there’s a paycheck behind it,” she said.
“When it’s not a hobby but a job.”
JOB WELL DONE
The Whale skated away with a 4-1 win over New York. Koizumi, Stack, Darkangelo and Babstock had the goals for the home team; Brooke Ammerman had the first goal in Riveters’ history.
After the game, the work wasn’t done. Whale players walked out to a large table set up outside the rink where … well, it seemed like every fan that had planted themselves in a seat during the game was waiting to collect their autographs.
“It’s remarkable. There was a line before the game started, just to enter the building. Then the line for autographs. Nice bow around the event,” said Rylan.
Many of the fans waiting to meet the Whale were girls youth hockey players, wearing their teams’ jerseys to the game. That included Molly Roth, a 10 year old that’s played hockey for a year and a half. “I play every position but goalie,” she said, adding that, “It’s so cool” to have pro women’s players to watch at her home arena.
Christina Hadala of Yonkers was wearing a different jersey: That of the New York Rangers, one of a few dozen fans to represent their NHL allegiances at the NWHL game.
She also counts herself among Riveters fans, and she said she’ll soon count herself among NWHL season ticket holders.
“I came here to see what it’s like, and I think it’s a worthwhile investment,” said Hadala.
As an NWHL fan, Hadala has some high hopes for the league. Like, for example, the notion that it might one day combine its efforts with that of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, a competitor that’s been around for a few years already but doesn’t pay its players.
But in the short term, Hadala said, “I just want that it’s successful enough to keep going. And that it’s not a joke. I don’t want it to be the XFL or something. One and done,” she said.
That’s because for Hadala, like it was for Leonoff and so many others on Sunday, the NWHL is something more than just another startup sports league.
“When I was a kid, kids would play baseball and imagine that it was two outs in the bottom on the ninth in the World Series. [As a hockey player], I would only imagine the Olympics,” she said.
“I think it’s amazing that my future children and all these girls now have this opportunity. I didn’t have that opportunity. I think it’s amazing.”
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