The NWHL returned to Minnesota for the first time in three years, and it was almost like it had never left.
A packed house at TRIARink in downtown St. Paul cheered on league and hometown heroes alike, both at the Skills Showdown Saturday evening and at the All-Star Game itself Sunday morning. In case you missed it, here’s what went down:
Team Leveille comes through to pull out a win at Skills Showdown
It took an extra goalie race to make it happen, but Team Leveille was able to hold off Team Ott at the Skills Showdown Saturday, winning the night 4-3.
Team Leveille proved to be faster overall, with Amanda Leveille and Katie Fitzgerald winning both goalie rounds and Leveille’s Beauts teammate Kristin Lewicki winning the overall Fastest Skater contest with a time of 13.41 seconds. Kelsey Koelzer also won the Hardest Shot competition with a slapshot reading 81 mph.
Team Ott had the flashier shooters, however, taking both the Breakaway Contest and the final shootout challenge at the end of the competition . Sam Faber stole the show with a great moment, switching gear and positions with Sydney Rossman, then bringing out “Little Sam Faber” for a goal on Brittany Ott. Corinne Buie also won the Shot Accuracy contest, hitting all four targets in 12.6 seconds (five attempts).
Captains Amanda Leveille and Brittany Ott faced off for the tiebreaker, with Leveille pulling ahead out of the curve unfazed by a shower of gloves being thrown at her by the opposing team’s skaters in an attempt at sabotage. She won easily, and Team Leveille came through with the edge heading into Sunday morning’s game.
Koelzer dominates, but Team Ott wins the day at All-Star Game
The stands were jam-packed Sunday morning for the All-Star Game. Some friends and family, some former NWHLers, and the Minnesota Whitecaps team all turned out for the event as Team Ott started off slow, but gained momentum and eventually won 8-6.
But it was Kelsey Koelzer who stole the show in the second half of the game, scoring four goals and skating away with MVP honors alongside Hayley Scamurra.
Team Leveille started the scoring, with Beauts rookie Kristin Lewicki getting a goal on a nice little break after her squad got some good momentum.
“That was definitely a big moment, it felt pretty great,” she said of her goal. “It was nice to be the first one and get it out of the way.”
Alexa Gruschow and Kelly Babstock traded goals before Team Ott began pulling away, outshooting Team Leveille 23-15 and getting tallies from Corinne Buie and Hayley Scamurra before the end of the first half. Leveille started out strong and made a few good saves before being burned by her Beauts teammates.
The second half was beginning to look like a blowout, with Ott growing their lead to 6-3 on more goals by Scamurra and Buie, plus Jordan Smelker.
Then Koelzer happened.
A dive for the puck at the doorstep and a beautifully placed blast over Sydney Rossman’s shoulder cut Ott’s lead to 6-5, and only Amanda Boulier’s goal stood in the way of a natural hat trick for No. 55. After that, it was right back to the Koelzer show, as she deflected a floater from the point to get the hatty and then added one on the power play for good measure, demonstrating why she won Hardest Shot the night before.
Scamurra got her own hat trick with 1:45 remaining in the half to give Team Ott the last laugh and the 8-6 final.
“I feel awesome,” Koelzer said post-game. “It was such a great atmosphere. I’m so grateful to all of the people who made this happen… the atmosphere was just electric and I think it helped me feed off of that, so it was just really exciting.”
Koelzer wasn’t the only one who was excited; Buie, a native of Edina, was pumped to be able to put on a show back home.
“To have my friends and family here and have it in the State of Hockey and have the Wild be a part of it, my team that I’ve loved watching growing up and I’m still a fan of now, just meant a lot,” she said. “Last year obviously meant a lot, in Pittsburgh, but to have it in my home state with my family here couldn’t have been better.”
Indeed, Buie, like many other players The Ice Garden spoke to, was excited at the prospect of the NWHL perhaps one day making Minnesota a permanent fixture in the league. The Whitecaps players who participated, Kate Schipper and Sadie Lundquist, shared that enthusiasm.
“I think it would be a great opportunity,” Schipper said. “I think there’s a lot of people in Minnesota that would love to continue playing hockey, especially at a competitive level… As you can see from today, I think if there was a team, there’d be a lot of fans, a lot of girls who want to come play and check it out.”
NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan has been vague about efforts to expand, only saying that the league will look at all options in the near future. For now this weekend looks like an interesting glimpse into what could happen, but either way, the fans in Minnesota were not disappointed.