Prior to August, Katie Fitzgerald assumed her hockey career was over after four seasons with St. Cloud State University of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). In 78 games, Fitzgerald posted 2,209 saves, ranking her fourth in career saves for the Huskies. Additionally, her .908% save percentage is ranked third in the program’s history.
Just when Fitzgerald thought the door had closed on elite ice hockey, Chad Wiseman of the New York Riveters came knocking. “I’ve been called up from the beer league,” Fitzgerald told reporter Mick Hatten of the St. Cloud Times in August.
Although Fitzgerald was not officially announced to the New York roster by the league until after free agency had ended , it seems Wiseman had known he needed another goalie for some time. At the conclusion of NWHL free agency on July 31, former Connecticut Whale goalie, Jaime Leonoff and South Korean Nation Team goalie, Sojung Shin were signed. That left room for just one more practice goalie, Sarah Bryant.
However, in August, Fitzgerald spoke to Hatten and her alma mater about inking a contract with New York. In that same article, it was mentioned that visa issues were the reason Wiseman needed to find another net minder. Assumptions were it was Sojung having troubles, since Leonoff had played in the league during its first season. By the time preseason rolled around, it was Leonoff, not Shin, who was absent.
In the Hatten article, Fitzgerald states she and Wiseman communicated “week-to-week” leading up to the hiring of head goalie coach Rebecca Ruegsegger Baker. The league announced Baker would join the Riveters on July 25. Shin was announced to the roster two days later; Fitzgerald was signed three weeks later.
It seems likely that adding Baker to the coaching staff was influential in brining both Shin and Fitzgerald to the Riveters. Fitzgerald worked under Baker for the past two years at St. Cloud State University. Baker also worked with Sojung Shin during her time coaching the South Korean national team.
On September 30 the NWHL officially announced that Leonoff would miss the season due to injury. The league also announced that Fitzgerald would take the second roster spot, and that Bryant would serve as the Riveters practice goalie. “It was kind of like musical chairs with goalies,” said Fitzgerald after her first start in net in the 4-1 preseason loss to Team Russia. “It was a strange occurrence, but it worked out well for me.”
Fitzgerald’s Early Test
Despite the double-dutch act, Fitzgerald showed up ready for work. Russia scored within the first three minutes of the game to make it 1-0. Fitzgerald and the Riveters maintained the score through the conclusion of the second period. Just over seven minutes into the third, former Riveter forward Lyudmila Belyakova beat Fitzgerald to make it 2-0 Russia. Eight minutes later, New York defender Kaleigh Fratkin found Amanda Kessel for a power play goal to make it a 2-1 affair.
In the 19th minute, Belyakova again punished her former team, lighting the lamp for an empty net goal. Russia would score once again in the waning seconds of the game. Fitzgerald made an excellent stop on a shot from Fanuza Kadirova. However, the shot ricocheted off Katie’s pads, flying up and over her shoulder, and just barely landing over the line.
Fitzgerald was thrilled after the game about finally getting a chance to play for the Riveters. “I was excited! It was a milestone, a kind of ‘pinch me’ moment; (my) first professional start.” She admitted to being jittery at first, but managed to settle in quickly. The final outcome was not the one she, nor the team wanted, and Fitzgerald was eager to get back to work leading up to opening weekend.
“I thought she was good,” said Wiseman of Fitzgerald’s performance. “Unfortunately for her, there (were) a lot of times where she wasn’t facing any shots.” Fitzgerald faced 10 shots on goal in the opening and closing periods of the game. Team Russia only got 4 shots on goal in the second period. Of Russia’s 24 shots on target, Fitzgerald made 20 saves. That won’t be a problem when Fitzgerald starts playing against NWHL teams like the Boston Pride, who are known for peppering goalies.
Leading up to opening weekend in Buffalo, the Riveters will work to improve in several areas.
“I thought we did a lot of good things tonight. We’ve got a lot of things to work on, obviously,” said Wiseman. Continuing to build “good hockey habits”, limiting the amount of scoring chances allowed, and working up to peak fitness were on the top of his list. As for Fitzgerald, she hopes the team can come together and continue to build chemistry.
“It’s a little different than college, I heard Fritzy [Morgan Fritz-Ward] saying,” she said. “We’ve got to get chemistry going … I think that will really help settle everyone’s nerves.”
Fitzgerald’s entrance into the league might not have been the fairytale beginning to a professional career, but it has provided her with an important lesson.
“It’s kinda humbling to know how lucky you are to be where you are; with a spot on a team like this,” she said. “I’m really honored to be a part of (the league)”
New York’s goaltending is one of the questions marks for the team with Leonoff’s injury. Fitzgerald and Shin are both new to the league, but that could be an advantage for Fitzgerald- she will get a chance to seize a starting role or possibly play a 1a-1b role with Shin. That’s an opportunity she might not have on another team like Boston, who has an established starter in Brittany Ott.
It’s been a wild few months for Fitzgerald, and the whirlwind is continuing into the opening weekend: Fitzgerald got her first taste of regular season action in New York’s first game of the season, taking over the net after Sojung Shin allowed five goals.
Only time will tell if she can stay there.