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All-Star Preview: who to watch, what to expect

The NWHL takes its gig to Minnesota for the first time ever as All-Star Weekend commences Feb. 10.

Team Kessel poses for a post-game photo at last year’s All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, Penn. This year’s events will be held in St. Paul, Minn. and involve Amanda Leveille and Brittany Ott as captains.
Al Saniuk

It’s about that time! The NWHL is gearing up for its All-Star Weekend, and there a lot of new faces in a very different place. This year, the festivities are taking place from Feb. 10 - 11 in St. Paul, Minn., at the Wild’s new practice facility, TRIA Rink. The captains this year are two NWHL goaltenders — Amanda Leveille of the Buffalo Beauts, and Brittany Ott of the Boston Pride — both with roots in the Midwest. The league has even invited the Minnesota Whitecaps to join in on the fun (more on that in a moment)

So what’s in store for the third annual All-Star celebration?

Format and where to watch

The only confirmed event for the All-Star Skills Competition so far is hardest shot. Traditionally, fastest skater, shot accuracy and a shootout challenge have all been included as well.

The All-Star Game itself will consist of two 25-minute halves, with teams consisting of 12 skaters and two goaltenders apiece. Teams will play 4-on-4 (plus a goalie).

The events will each be broadcast on Twitter Live. Matt Falkenbury and The Ice Garden’s own Erica Ayala are your broadcast team providing play-by-play and color, respectively, while Bemidji State radio broadcaster Kelly Schultz will provide bench reporting.

New faces, new names -- and who to watch on the ice

Sixteen of this year’s 26 NWHL All-Stars are first-time participants, which is both expected in an Olympic year and exciting to see what they’ll bring to the table. So many players have stepped up their game this season, like Alexa Gruschow (leading Metro with 19 points in 12 games played), or simply emerged from the shadows of their former teammates like Jillian Dempsey (who’s been a double-digit point scorer for the past three seasons). We also get to see players in their second (and in Brittany Ott’s case, third) go-around, like former Goaltender of the Year Katie Fitzgerald and two-time Isobel Cup winner Corinne Buie.

If Jan. 27’s goalie duel between the Beauts and Pride was any indication, this should be a great matchup between Leveille and Ott, though I must say I think Team Leveille has the upper hand with Fitzgerald alongside her Beauts counterpart. Leveille also has a strong defense she’ll be comfortable with, in Beauts teammates Lisa Chesson, Jordyn Burns and Sarah Edney, as well as Kelsey Koelzer and Lexi Bender.

In terms of offense, this could go Ott’s way. Still, Leveille’s offense includes Rebecca Russo and Kelly Babstock, who can’t be overlooked. Beauts forward Rebecca Vint has also been added to the offense for Team Leveille in the absence of Janine Weber (injury). Ott’s lineup includes Buie, Gruschow, Jordan Smelker and Hayley Scamurra, all of whom can pack a good offensive punch. Defensively, Team Ott has a lot of players who can pitch in on offense as well, including Amanda Boulier, Courtney Burke, and Pride teammate Alyssa Gagliardi.

Here are the rosters in full:

Team Leveille: (coached by Winny (Brodt) Brown)

G: Amanda Leveille, Katie Fitzgerald

D: Lexi Bender, Jordyn Burns, Lisa Chesson, Sarah Edney, Kelsey Koelzer

F: Kelly Babstock, Sam Faber, Kristen Lewicki, Meagan Mangene, Rebecca Russo, Kate Schipper (Minnesota)

Team Ott: (coached by Tricia (Dunn) Luoma)

G: Brittany Ott, Sydney Rossman

D: Amanda Boulier, Courtney Burke, Jenny Ryan, Alyssa Gagliardi, Michelle Picard

F: Corinne Buie, Jillian Dempsey, Emily Field, Alexa Gruschow, Hayley Scamurra, Jordan Smelker, Sadie Lundquist (Minnesota)

The State of Hockey: a new frontier for the NWHL

This is probably the most obvious point, and one the league is definitely driving home, with a lot of focus on location. 11 players selected to represent the league this weekend have ties to Minnesota, whether playing at the U (Leveille, Burns), at Shattuck- St. Mary’s (a handful of players including Burke and Gagliardi), or hailing from the State of Hockey itself (Buie and Rossman).

Moreover, there’s a new NHL partnership involved with the Minnesota Wild, who are being touted as hosts and have been promoting the festivities on social media:

With NHL teams continuing to get involved with the NWHL — the Penguins, the Devils, and now the Wild — one can only think the league is trying its best to establish long-term viability and set its sights on expansion in the next few seasons, potentially with a certain existing women’s team. Which leads us to...

Whitecaps’ participation: more than a passing fling?

The Minnesota Whitecaps have been asked to participate in the festivities this weekend, and have sent two representatives -- Kate Schipper and Sadie Lundquist -- to represent one of the longest-standing women’s hockey teams in North America (in existence since 2004).

Since the NWHL’s inception, there have been whispers of the Whitecaps potentially joining the league, but concerns over both travel expenses and long-term sustainability caused the Whitecaps to step back, saying they would “keep an eye” on what happens over the next few seasons. Which is completely fair: this team’s survived the folding of the original inception of the NWHL in the mid-2000s and the merger between the CWHL and the Western Women’s Hockey League (which excluded Minnesota) in the early 2010s, and it probably won’t want to go through a third fold.

Still, the fact that the Whitecaps have at least agreed to join in for All-Star Weekend is an indication that things are at least friendly between the organization and the league, and that’s a good thing. The Whitecaps offer a gateway to the Midwest, which is a hotbed for women’s hockey (as we’re all aware, and the league is too -- 11 of the 28 All-Stars heading to St. Paul this weekend have roots in the State of Hockey). They also have junior teams within the organization, which is a unique situation for the NWHL to encounter but could lay the blueprint for a developmental league along the way.

All of this is speculation right now, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the Whitecaps down the line (and stay tuned for a more in-depth profile on both the team and the players who participated as All-Star Weekend concludes).

The weekend begins with the Skills Competition Saturday evening at 6:45 p.m. CT. The game itself begins 11:30 a.m. CT Sunday. Players will participate in an autograph session after both events.

Tickets are still on sale for each event at nwhl.zone.