PWHL Minnesota’s celebration includes captain's speech atop a bar

LOWELL, MASS. — A little less than six months ago, Kendall Coyne Schofield pulled out her phone and captured the moment. The PWHL Minnesota captain was at Tsongas Center in the Boston suburbs, holding her son, Drew, on a landmark day for women's hockey.

"I took a picture with him, right here, on Jan. 3," she said Wednesday, amid the chaos of Minnesota's Walter Cup celebration. "I said to him, 'Mommy's going to play in her first professional hockey game.' And now we're in the same spot, as champions."

Drew, now 11 months old, posed for many more photos after Minnesota won the PWHL title with a 3-0 victory over Boston in Game 5. He and his mom shed some tears, too. While her baby fussed when she plopped him in the Walter Cup, Coyne Schofield began to cry as she spoke about Minnesota's journey to the PWHL's first championship.

It started in September, when she was among the first three players to sign with the team. The league's first draft brought No. 1 pick Taylor Heise, goaltender Nicole Hensley and 13 others. General manager Natalie Darwitz filled out the roster with a well-chosen mix of veterans and newcomers, and coach Ken Klee came on board at the last minute.

Minnesota won that season opener in Boston and stood among the league's top teams for much of the winter. It also endured a long, late losing streak that nearly sank its playoff hopes before they began.

On the season's final day, it won a title in Boston, writing a perfect ending to the first chapter of its PWHL story.

"I feel like I'm living in a fever dream right now," said Heise, who was named the most valuable player of the postseason.

"We've had so many amazing moments this season. I'm so excited to be part of this great group of girls. We came out and gave everything we had at the end of the year."

Party into the wee hours

The players reveled in their title for hours. Following the Cup presentation, their parents, spouses and children were allowed to walk out onto the ice to hold the trophy and take pictures. Players later returned to the locker room for champagne, most of which was sprayed around the room.

They eventually headed to an Irish bar in downtown Lowell. The team had rented the entire place for a postgame gathering, either to toast a title or drown their sorrows. The toasting and singing and dancing went on until 2 a.m., with Coyne Schofield delivering a speech while standing on top of the bar.

The players were still wearing their championship gear — giant silver chains and medallions, Walter Cup T-shirts and caps — when they boarded their Thursday morning flight, getting a shout-out from the crew and applause from the passengers. A gate agent at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport greeted them with a sign that said "Your fans love you," and TV cameras waited for them at baggage claim.

Few would have envisioned any of that a month ago. In April, Minnesota had a chance to earn the No. 1 seed for the playoff but lost the final five games of the regular season. It got into the playoffs only when Ottawa lost to Toronto on the last day.

Top-seeded Toronto chose Minnesota as its semifinal opponent, then opened the best-of-five series with 4-0 and 2-0 victories. From that moment, everything changed.

"This is a super resilient group," defender Lee Stecklein said. "Other people might have counted us out, but I don't think we ever felt our belief in each other dip. Everyone stuck together. Everyone did their job."

Minnesota won the final three games of the semifinals as Rooney shined in goal. Hensley took the baton in Game 2 of a back-and-forth finals series against Boston, going 3-1 while allowing only two goals on 89 shots.

The goaltenders each played five postseason games, combining for four shutouts and 12 goals allowed on 225 shots.

Walter Cup blueprint

When training camp began in November, Darwitz's aim was to build a team around speed and skill. While that defined Minnesota's roster, it also boasted depth, discipline, devotion and enough persistence to fill a dozen Walter Cups. Heise, Coyne Schofield and Michela Cava became the league's most dynamic line in the postseason, with 10 goals and 10 assists, but every line and defensive pairing played its role magnificently.

It culminated in an overpowering Game 5. In perhaps its best performance of the season, Minnesota overwhelmed Boston, taking over the game in the final two periods.

Last Sunday, PWHL advisor Billie Jean King was asked about the possibility of Coyne Schofield being the first player to raise the Walter Cup. Six years ago, Coyne Schofield planted the seeds for the PWHL when she asked King for support in creating a new women's pro hockey league.

King said she couldn't think of a more perfect outcome. Neither could Coyne Schofield, as she lifted the Cup for Minnesota on another historic night.

"When we got into the playoffs, we never looked back," she said. "It took an entire team effort from start to finish to be champions. We rose to the occasion."