Heather Linstad and Lisa Giovanelli re-signed as the front office leaders for the Connecticut Whale this offseason. The League’s front office and the Whale players shared a sigh of relief. Finally, there was stability.
Or so they thought.
New Leadership, New Locker Room
In April, Kaleigh Fratkin signed with the New York Riveters and left behind her title as alternate captain. Then, less than a month before the start of the second season, Jessica Koizumi retired from professional hockey and left the position of captain unfilled. Still, the Whale stuck together and moved forward, designating new leadership in the locker room and on the ice.
“We did a team vote, so Molly [Engstrom] was voted as captain, and Kelli Stack is an alternate captain. An interesting situation is that Nicole Stock was voted as captain as well, but because she’s a goalie she can’t officially wear an A on her jersey. In the locker room, everyone knows that she is a captain as well. … The three of them have been working well together,” recounts GM and Assistant Coach Giovanelli.
With the new leadership in place, the coaches and captains took it upon themselves to instill a sense of accountability and discipline.
“We’re really working on making sure we always have a positive atmosphere in the locker room and on the ice. We want to hold people accountable. We don’t want to see them taking bad penalties or being a bad teammate. We want to make sure we hold people accountable and that should help us be successful,” stated Giovanelli. “We want everyone to be thinking about their teammates first.”
Giovanelli expanded on the issue of the Whale’s penalty problems last season, pointing out that the root cause was poor systems.
“A lot of [the penalties] last year had to do with if you get out of position and trying to get back into the play, you end up hooking or tripping somebody. If we’re disciplined in our systems, we won’t need to take penalties, and that’s what we’re working on, making sure we’re working well in our systems.”
The Whale’s new systems are built on the defense moving the puck up quickly to their forwards as well as making sure their shots get through to the goalie. This season, the Whale want to see more offensive production from their defense.
Regarding players having to adapt to the newly implemented systems she has put in play, Linstad explained, “I want them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
In a league where all four teams make the playoffs, both Linstad and Giovanelli are willing to take the time to see what works and what does not. For instance, in the last exhibition game against Team Russia, the coaches realized that they needed to continue to focus on their D-zone coverage.
A New Team and New Competition
Nevertheless, both coaches are confident with the team that they have reshaped in the offseason. Giovanelli had nothing but praise for each individual rookie, listing out the best qualities each brought to the table.
“We got the players that we wanted, and we think that we have the right people in the locker room that can take us to win the Isobel Cup.”
The journey to hoisting the Cup will be hard, however, as all four teams in the league made big moves in the offseason. With a talented class of players graduating last year, the skill level of league has only increased, and Giovanelli views each newly revamped team as a competitor.
“We always had a tough time with Buffalo last year, so I’m pretty excited to see how we do against them ... New York has picked up some good players, and they’re going to be better than they were last year. Obviously Boston is always a fun game to play because it’s good hockey. It’s a fast-paced game, especially with the US National Team players playing against each other.”
For the Good and Better
Ultimately, win-or-lose, the Connecticut Whale still focus on increasing exposure to women’s professional hockey by doing good work in their immediate community. The players regularly volunteer, whether it is teaching skills sections with youth hockey programs or doing Kick-a-thons at kickboxing facilities to raise money for breast cancer awareness.
In Giovanelli’s words, “We’re going to get out to some local elementary schools to interact with the kids. We really want to get into the community… get our names out there and get the kids excited for women’s professional hockey.”
The Whale have already started this preseason, hosting the NWHL’s Golf Tournament that featured Whale and Riveter players, friends, families, and fans. Linstad and Giovanelli organized the event that benefited the NWHL Foundation and were pleased with its success.
This is only the start for the Whale. Featuring a new charity at every home game, Giovanelli’s excitement and passion for these causes shone through as she listed the events. For some of these events, Giovanelli has personal interest as well.
“We’re going to partner up with the Epilepsy Foundation of Connecticut and Athletes vs Epilepsy. A good friend of mine, Shanda Gunn, a former Olympic hockey player who played with me at Northeastern has worked with the foundation for a while, and she has epilepsy.”
For the home opener on December 10th, the Whale will partner with A Hand Up to host a clothing drive for winter garments and accessories. Donate and get a chance to speak with the Whale after the game.
It is this outreach to the community and fans that transcends just women’s professional hockey. The Connecticut Whale have taken their role in the community to heart.
That will never change.