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2018-19 NWHL Preview: Minnesota Whitecaps

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Mike Murphy

Last Season

This is the Whitecaps’ first season in the NWHL, even though they’ve been around since 2004. They have an interesting past, so instead of looking at their last season, let’s instead take a look at their history as an introduction to the team.

History as a team

The Whitecaps were founded in 2004 by Jack Brodt and Dwayne Schmidgall to give their daughters a place to play after college. Their history aligns with the history of women’s professional hockey in North America. The Whitecaps played in the Western Women’s Hockey League, a Canadian league, from 2004-2011. Starting in 2008-09, the regular season WWHL champions would go on to play CWHL teams for the Clarkson Cup, which is how the Whitecaps competed for the Clarkson Cup three years in a row. They won the Cup in 2010, beating the Brampton Thunder in the finals.

Ahead of the 2011-12 season, it was announced that the WWHL and the CWHL would merge. However, the CWHL did not add the Whitecaps to the league, a move that some in the Whitecaps saw as intentional. The team has played as an independent team since then, with a schedule of exhibition games against high school, college, and NWHL teams.

History with the NWHL

Back in October of 2015, the Whitecaps played a weekend of exhibition games against two NWHL teams: the Whale and the Riveters. They split the weekend, falling to the Whale 8-4 but beating the Riveters 5-3. In December of 2015, the Pride traveled to Minnesota to play the Whitecaps. The Pride won, 5-1.

Kristen Burton courtesy of NWHL

Last season, the Whitecaps joined in the NWHL All-Star Weekend at TRIA Rink in St. Paul. Two players — Kate Schipper and Sadie Lundquist — played on the teams while Tricia (Dunn) Luoma and Winny (Brodt) Brown were coaches.

This set up the May 15 announcement that the Whitecaps would be the NWHL’s first expansion team. Other news out of Minnesota this summer has included a partnership with the Wild and the first-ever team-specific partnership with TRIA. They also redesigned their logo.

Offseason Moves

Mike Murphy took a look at how the Whitecaps built their roster this off season, noting that 16 players who were rostered last season made the team for the first NWHL season. Many of their signings were to be expected as the State of Hockey has produced a lot of big name talent in women’s hockey, such as Hannah Brandt, Lee Stecklein, and Amanda Leveille.

Three Players to Watch

Allie Thunstrom, Forward

Thunstrom, 30, is almost certainly the fastest woman in the NWHL — and that is really saying something because she’s playing on the same team as speedster Kendall Coyne Schofield.

The Minnesota native’s speed made her a dynamic and productive player at Boston College after she earned recognition for her excellence at North St. Paul High in the form of the 2006 Minnesota Ms. Hockey Award. Thunstrom had 139 points in 141 games during her collegiate career and was particularly dangerous while her team was shorthanded.

After her college hockey career Thunstrom shifted her focus to speed skating and had aspirations to represent USA at the 2014 and 2018 Olympics. Now she’s back on the ice with a stick in her hands and will surely play a big role in the Whitecaps’ offense and penalty kill. Thunstrom will keep NWHL blueliners on their heels all season long with her ability to turn on the jets and fly up the wing.

Amanda Leveille & Sydney Rossman, Goaltenders

These two NWHL alumna were both starting goaltenders on their former teams last season. But Leveille, a former Minnesota Golden Gopher, and Rossman, a Minnesota native, signed with a team that very much needed a strong goaltending duo. The Whitecaps will play all back-to-back games this season, due to the fact that travel is involved for every series. This pair is a strong 1A and 1B to have in this situation, or really on any team. It will be interesting to see how the Whitecaps coaching staff decides to deploy the two goaltenders who have experience in the league.

Leveille was the NWHL Goaltender of the Year last season and put a save percentage of .918. Rossman started in net as a rookie with the Whale, with a save percentage of .885 on a team that struggled a lot over the season.

Three Games to Watch

Home Opener vs Riveters | Saturday, Oct. 6, 4:00 p.m. CDT

The Whitecaps play their first regular season game in the NWHL against the defending Isobel Cup Champions on Oct. 6 at the TRIA Rink. It will be a big test for the Whitecaps, as the Metropolitan Riveters were able to bring back a significant portion of last year’s Isobel Cup-winning roster. It will also be the first time that the Whitecaps play a game in a rink that they can truly call their own. This will be can’t-miss hockey at its finest.

At KeyBank in Buffalo | Saturday, Dec. 29, 2:00 p.m. EST

Professional women’s hockey being played in an NHL arena. Seriously, do you really need any other reasons to mark this one down in your calendar? On Dec. 29, Minnesota will cross sticks with the Buffalo Beauts at the KeyBank Center, the home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. This will be the Whitecaps’ first game against NWHL competition in nearly a month and it will be the third meeting between Minnesota and the Buffalo Beauts in the 2018-19 season.

Return from February Break | Saturday, Mar. 2, 7:30 p.m. EST

There will be five weeks between the Whitecaps’ game against the Connecticut Whale on Jan. 20 and their final road trip of the regular season which begins on Mar. 2. The Whitecaps will be playing a single exhibition game against Minnesota State University on Feb. 2, but there will definitely be a lot of rust to shake off. This game will also be the fourth and final regular season matchup between the Whitecaps and Pride; both teams feature several players with ties to the USWNT.

Predictions

There’s a lot of hype with the Whitecaps, and rightfully so. They are in a great place in Minnesota that strongly supports women’s hockey, so much so that their first game is nearly sold out already!

However, I think their schedule is going to be their downfall. Because they or their opponents have to travel for every game, they play all back-to-back games. Between the travel schedule and most likely working full time, that’s a grind. In addition they have an extremely front loaded scheduled, most likely because of their exhibitions against NCAA teams. After Jan. 20, the Whitecaps won’t play a league game until the last weekend of the season: March 2.

They’ve got a strong team with a lot of veterans — both in age and experience — which I think will help adjust for the strange schedule. If they come out hot, teams might have trouble catching up because the NWHL season is short.

Final Thoughts

The addition of the Whitecaps is huge for the NWHL. In the press conference to announce the expansion, commissioner Dani Rylan stressed the number 28. That is the number of players from Minnesota’s five Division I programs this year that graduated in May and also the number that will graduate this May. In NWHL roster numbers, that’s more than whole team. The NWHL values homegrown talent (just look at the hometowns of the other teams). Acquiring the Whitecaps only affirms that.