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To win a championship five years apart means there is going to be a lot of turnover. The Boston Pride know how that feels more than most.
From year one of the National Women’s Hockey League, where the Pride took the first ever Isobel Cup, to their 2021 edition, just one player remains from the original roster in captain Jillian Dempsey.
That’s a heck of a change, especially considering the first Isobel Cup — a win over Buffalo, which appeared in every title game until 2020 — included Olympians like Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker.
The Pride have been through three coaches since then and plenty of changes. Current head coach Paul Mara has seen what the organization has gone through first hand.
“In the last two years, we’ve built a winning culture on and off the ice,” said Mara, who is one of just two NWHL coaches with at least 30 career wins. “We want strong character people in the locker room and now we’re trying to build on that. The best teams off the ice always carry onto the ice.”
That isn’t to say there’s no veteran presence behind what the Pride have built. Kaleigh Fratkin was one of six original NWHL players to suit up in the league’s sixth season, but began her career with Connecticut and Metropolitan before signing with the Pride.
She won her first Isobel Cup with this year’s Pride team.
“She’s been the heart and soul of the team and the defense the past three years,” said Mara. “The hard work she’s put in all six years (in the league), it’s so rewarding and so well deserved.”
Fratkin plays alongside Mallory Souliotis and Lauren Kelly, who completed their third seasons in the league, all with Boston. They’ve been leaders for the culture shift, along with third-year scorer McKenna Brand and second year winger Christina Putigna.
The Pride went 11-5-0 in 2018-19 and lost in shutout fashion to Buffalo in the semi-finals. That was Mara’s first year with the team, and he inherited a group of part holdovers from the original title team, part players who were making a pitstop in Boston, and part the future core of the team.
That’s the group that brought the most recent title to Boston.
The Pride were coming off the worst season in franchise history when they went 4-8-4 and still managed to take Buffalo to overtime in the semi-final the year before Mara came to Boston.
There was a turn in 2019-20. The Pride went on a historic run, losing a single game all season before they would have faced Minnesota at home for the Isobel Cup if not for Covid. That run included many of the players who were a part of the 11-5-0 season the year prior, like Brand and Kelly and Souliotis, but there was something different, something that group cited all year about everyone wanting to be there.
It showed, and that effort didn’t get rewarded quit yet with the pause. At the start of season six, in one location at Lake Placid, something was missing.
The Pride brought in eight rookies, and before they got their feet under them, it didn’t look at all like the dominance of the season prior.
“The first three or four games were definitely a learning curve,” said Mara. “They stepped up and performed extremely well. The caliber of this league is so strong, it took them a few games. People don’t realize that.”
Once they got their feet under them — Tereza Vanisova scored the opening goal in the semi-final win over Toronto, and Taylor Wenczkowski what ended up being the game winner over Minnesota — it looked strikingly familiar to the team that seemed all but destined the year before.
What was different from the team’s third season, and even fourth, into years five and six has been universally credited to, among the talent they’ve accumulated, a culture that changed from the time Mara took over, and Dempsey and Fratkin’s leadership and buy in.
“From when I joined the team in season three, and Paul joining us on board in season four, we’ve been really building a culture and winning organization,” said Fratkin after the Pride won the Isobel Cup. “It’s been awesome to be alongside Jill and Mary Parker and some of the other players who have been around for a while.”
After Dempsey, Parker is the next longest tenured player on the Pride, signing out of Boston University at the tail end of the 2016-17 season. She’s been with them through all the ups and downs, and she left the Lake Placid season before it was postponed out of safety concerns.
She was on the ice when the Pride won the Cup at home two months later.
Young players step up
Aside from veteran players, rookies and second-year players have emerged as leaders as well. Goalie Lovisa Selander was in just her second season, taking over from 2018-19’s rookie of the year Katie Burt, who left for the PWHPA. She won a Cup in her second year.
Jenna Rheaut, a second year defender, broke her wrist in Lake Placid but was able to raise the Cup on home ice, alongside her veteran blueliner teammates, where she’s taken on a leadership role early in her career.
How the Pride went from a dominant, Olympic-sized roster of stardom, into a few years of finding an identity, to the clear cut best team in the league all over again under Mara, and general manager Karilyn Pilch, doesn’t happen over night.
In perhaps the most difficult road to becoming a champion the league has ever seen, from 16 Pride players contracting Covid after questionable league policies and enforcement leading to the postponement at all, the Pride ended up with a title that could have happened a year ago.
This time though, they can say they won it for real, entirely differently than how they did the first time.
“I think it took us a while to find out identity and we had high expectations,” said Dempsey. “When we went into Lake Placid we were tested right away…. We were able to bounce back. I’m so proud of every single person on this team and in the entire organization.”
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Boston Pride made big strides from first Isobel Cup to 2021 originally appeared on NBCSports.com