Over the weekend, the media was offered a special viewing of “The 2015-16 Boston Pride: A Dream Born With Isobel.” The 30-minute documentary is an NWHL film, in association with 2 Twenty 2 Productions. The story begins mid-season, after the Pride dropped two games to the New York Riveters. Boston, the league’s best team on paper, was having difficulty finding its identity. The film then transitions to the tragic turning point of the Pride’s season.
Denna Laing and a number of her teammates participated in the Women’s Outdoor Classic, an exhibition game between the Pride and Les Canadiennes de Montréal of the CWHL. This marked the first time women participated in the annual NHL Winter Classic. It was also the first time teams from both women’s professional leagues faced off.
“It was such a big moment for women’s hockey, the first women’s winter classic,” Laing stated in the film. “It was just a beautiful day, my whole family was there. It was perfect. Stepping out on the ice I kept saying, ‘This is going to be the coolest day of my life.’ And it really, really was.”
During the game, Laing crashed into the boards and suffered a severe spinal injury. Laing’s positivity and commitment to battling back from trauma inspired her teammates to make a strong final run. The Pride won seven straight games to close the regular season, including a key road win against the Connecticut Whale to secure the top seed in the playoffs.
“This is one of those stories you just can’t make up,” noted Producer/Director Curtis Stiles by way of media release for the screening. “I have so much respect for the way the team battled through the adversity they faced with Denna’s injury, the way they came together as a group and then went on to win the first ever Isobel Cup in the NWHL. They did it for Denna.”
The idea for the film took shape after Laing’s injury, a few weeks before the playoffs. “We had so many high-skilled contributors chipping in, helping how they could, volunteering, sharing footage,” said Stiles. The creators partnered with 540 Films (who is set to put out a documentary on the entire first season of the league) for footage from the regular season. Other key contributors were editors formally associated with the NHL and former New York Riveters associate coach Mark DeSimone, who mixed the sound for the film.
Fans looking for a more in-depth examination of the NWHL’s first season will not find that here. Instead, the story is a celebratory glimpse into the Pride’s championship season. Laing’s demeanor since her accident is unquestionably inspiring and is the thread that ties the film, and the team, together.
Yet, there are others stories that can also be teased out of the film. In the documentary, Pride defender Blake Bolden alludes to the significance of the Isobel Cup for female hockey players. “It’s nice to be rewarded for all of the hard work that all of us are doing, and have been doing our whole lives,” she said. In women’s hockey, and women’s sports in general, there is a stark contrast between the level of support and sponsorship offered to men’s and women’s leagues.
Women’s sports fight for exposure, and ultimately legitimacy. Women’s leagues must prove to investors, sponsors, fans and even players that they are the real deal. With female athletes being paid small salaries in the NWHL, and no salary in the CWHL, the reality is that both leagues will continue to lose talent to higher-paying professions.
Recently retired Michelle Bonello told The Ice Garden, “I didn't want to quit.” However, the former Toronto Furies captain needed to think practically about her future. “When it came down to it, I had to pick one [career] over the other, which wasn't easy.” Bonello also added that while moving to the NWHL to play for a salary might have helped in the short-term, “That only lasts so long. For me, becoming a firefighter is a career. You're not going to be making millions like in the NHL.”
Writer/Producer Rich Furlong hopes the film will offer a bit of faith in the potential of women’s sports. “I honestly think [the film] brings credence to women’s sports,” Furlong said. “You see the amount of battle and passion in it. I’ve been there since the league’s inception and it was obvious to me.” Furlong hopes others less familiar with the league with see the hard work, too.
Whether it’s overcoming injury, fighting for equity and equality, or promoting acceptance, sports play a larger role than just entertainment. The NWHL kicked off season two on the same day that Harrison Browne of the Buffalo Beauts publicly came out as a transgender man. Browne penned a letter via The Ice Garden about his news, saying, “If I can be a role model for anyone like me, that’s a role I will embrace. But when all is said and done, I’m still Brownie: hockey player, teammate, friend, fan of the game.”
Athletes are often role models for fans of all ages and backgrounds. “A Dream Born with Isobel” is a short glimpse, a way to highlight one team’s journey to manage expectations and overcome adversity. May it be the first of many glimpses into the world of women’s hockey.