Whitecaps go to the desert with goal of bringing home women’s hockey title
The Minnesota Whitecaps and Toronto 6 travel to the desert to play a game on ice one time Sunday for the Premier Hockey League's Isobel Cup in Tempe, Ariz.
The Whitecaps have been here before, beating Buffalo in overtime at home in St. Paul in 2019, their first season in the league. They lost at Boston in 2021.
Well, here, as in the PHF's championship game.
Not here, as in Arizona State's shiny new 5,000-seat Mullett Arena that is home to the university hockey teams and the NHL's Arizona Coyotes.
"I'm pumped, I think we're super excited," said Whitecaps captain and forward Sydney Brodt, a former Mounds View High and UMD star. "It's fun to play somewhere warm because we play in Minnesota. Also, I think it's cool to grow the game in kind of a non-traditional market down in Arizona."
The title game goes to a state where the Coyotes' Kachinas girls hockey association is working to grow its competitive program for girls through high school.
Another sign of the game's growth: This is the first time in the Isobel Cup's seven years that two women — the Whitecaps' Ronda Engelhardt and Toronto 6's Geraldine Heaney — will coach against each other in the final.
"It definitely shows the growth and what females can do," Engelhardt said. "You see what the athletes do on the ice. It just shows leaders can do the same thing. I was shocked to hear this is the first time, but hopefully we can continue to see this more and more and more."
The Whitecaps and Toronto 6 won best-of-three playoff series last weekend to reach this one championship game Sunday night televised on ESPN2.
The fourth-seeded Whitecaps (10-14) did so by upsetting the Boston Pride, the two-time defending Isobel Cup winners and this year's top seed. Minnesota traveled to Boston and swept two games by a combined 9-3 score.
Second-seeded Toronto 6 (17-7) advanced at home by beating third-seeded Connecticut in a deciding third game on Monday.
Until last weekend, the Whitecaps had lost eight consecutive games to end the regular season after they had gone 10-2 before that. They lost star goaltender Amanda Leveille to injury for six games during that losing streak and were briefly without three players, including Brodt, who were called to the U.S. national team to play Canada in the Rivalry Series.
Engelhardt says she's "happy to say" Leveille is healthy and her team is ready.
"With the season we've had — the ups and downs — it has shown our resilience," Engelhardt said. "The performance you saw against Boston, you saw throughout the season. It just wasn't consistent.
"All those little habits we emphasized all year long, we needed the players to commit to that and they did. They exceeded everything we asked of them."
Engelhardt said her team went to Boston last week intending to win the series in two games.
"Watching the players, they weren't nervous," Engelhardt said. "They came out determined and ready to make it to the next game, and here's the next game. I do think there's one more level they're going to find."
Her team lost all four regular-season games against Toronto 6, including an overtime loss in the season opener on the road. The Whitecaps were beaten by a single goal the first three times before losing 7-1 in late February. The Whitecaps were 0-4 in the regular season against Boston, too.
Unlike last week, it's one game.
"We have a lot of experience in big games," Brodt said. "We have Isobel Cup champions. We have Olympic champions. We have [NCAA] national champions. I think we'll lean on that."
Toronto 6 is playing in a Isobel Cup — named after the daughter of Lord Stanley, who had his own Cup as well — for the first time. The Whitecaps have been there twice and had a third time against Boston cancelled by COVID-19 in 2020.
Leveille and forward Jonna Albers both played in that 2019 game, which Minnesota won 49 seconds into overtime.
"We both know what it feels like to throw our gloves in the air and tackle each other," Leveille said. "But we've also been on the flip side and know what it feels like to see the other team throw their gloves."
Albers, an Elk River native, leads the PHF in goals these playoffs with four, including a hat trick in semifinal Game 1.
"It's a great memory, " Albers said about 2019. "It's also the first time I won anything. It's so special to me, and I hope we can do it again with this team here. I know we can do it."
Isobel Cup Final
Minnesota Whitecaps vs. Toronto 6
Sunday: 8 p.m. at Mullett Arena in Tempe, Ariz. * ESPN2