By Shannon Doyle with Chris Botta
This weekend feels like the pinnacle to me. On Friday night, my Connecticut Whale will battle the Minnesota Whitecaps in front of a large audience watching on NBCSN and Twitch – all for a chance to play for the Isobel Cup the next night. I cannot wait.
This is the moment the longtime NWHL players have been working towards since the league started six years ago. Seeing how the league has progressed step by step, year after year, has been extremely rewarding for all of us. This is why we signed up, why we advocated for the NWHL and its leadership through the inevitable growing pains and glorious triumphs, and why we continue to believe a women’s professional hockey league in the U.S. and Canada can be a massive success.
These could be my final days as a player in the NWHL. As head coach of the Greenwich Country Day School’s girls’ varsity team, my commitment to advancing the game goes beyond myself. I’ve balanced playing in the NWHL with my coaching and a full-time job as a teacher for six seasons, but this could be the end.
The reason? I never want to come up short in giving my girls every chance to reach their dreams of playing college hockey, making their national team, or playing in an NWHL that’s only going to be stronger when it’s their turn. I don’t want to miss one of their games, or any practices, or even an important phone call from them.
People seem to forget that as recently as 2015, there wasn’t a women’s professional hockey league in the U.S. until Dani Rylan Kearney kicked the door open and the pioneering players signed up. Many of us from those first few seasons, including my Whale teammate Elena Orlando, are still here. It’s hard for me to believe we are now six seasons in, and yet we’ve come so far in brief time. Look at where any men’s leagues in North America were in their sixth season. The NWHL is moving a lot faster and I am hopeful there is a lot more ahead for the league.
If I do step away from playing for the Whale after this season, I will do so knowing my fellow OGs and I achieved many of our goals. Best of all, I will have left the game in a far better place.
Let’s talk hockey.
In terms of skill, I believe the 2021 Whale squad is comparable to our Season 1 group. Like the 2015-16 team, the Pod this season is a strong mixture of experienced players and rookies. Thanks to Ty Tumminia and the NWHL investors and partners making the resumption of this season possible, the Whale have the opportunity to take home our first Isobel Cup. We can do this. It’s the closest we have ever been to winning the championship, and we are determined to give it everything we’ve got.
The social dynamic among our coaches, players and staff is one of our biggest strengths. We have built a team on a culture of mutual respect. Every player brings something unique and valuable.
A lot of the credit goes to our coaching staff: Colton Orr and Laura Brennan, along with Jamie Goldsmith, who did a good job for us in Lake Placid. Our coaches know that the players at this stage have been in the game a long time, so it’s not about teaching or over-coaching, but making the little adjustments in each of our games. As a result, all of us – from the rookies to the vets – have become better players this year.
You have to hand it to our rookies. They have been amazing. The addition of Abbie Ives to a goalie group that already had Brooke Wolejko gives us high-level goaltending every game. That does a lot for a team’s confidence.
Maggie LaGue and Tori Howran have taken our strong and experienced defense to another level. Being partnered with Tori is wonderful. The coaches put us together soon after practices started in October. Tori is an outstanding player and so, so calm. In a lot of ways, we are opposites as defenders. She has the ability to step around an opponent and move the puck, so I’ll have her back. Tori is also a great communicator. We are constantly talking through situations, even from shift to shift. She has helped make this season a memorable one for me.
All of the first-year forwards have also made big contributions this season. They fit in seamlessly. People may not think about this much, but for these rookies, they’ve just left behind teammates they were with in college for four years. That’s an incredible bond you build with your college teammates, and when you move on, it can be really hard. One of the many things I’m proud of this season is how the veterans – Taylor Marchin, Elena Orlando, Hanna Beattie, Janine Weber and the entire group – dedicated themselves to making everyone feel safe, comfortable, and a part of the Whale.
If you saw our games in Lake Placid, you know this translated to our performance. Until COVID-19 did its thing, we were awesome.
Now we have to find a way to execute at the same level on Friday. It’s always a toss-up when the playoffs are single-elimination, and it’s going to be a unique challenge for all four teams in Boston to play one-and-done playoff hockey when we haven’t played games in seven weeks. Like a lot of things over the last year, this is unprecedented.
In our first in-house scrimmage many months ago, we realized how strong we are. I remember going up against Wohlfy’s (Alyssa Wohlfeiler) line with Pickles (Vlasic) and Katelynn Russ and thinking, “They’re going to be a handful.” Our entire team is, and that makes me really proud.
Everyone knows how good the Whitecaps are. Amanda Leveille’s record speaks for itself, but we’ll take our two goalies against anyone. Minnesota has some very slick and fast forwards, so we’ll have to play as a team to shut them down.
We are well aware that most people are picking the Whitecaps over us. They’re the last team to win the Isobel Cup and they reached the cancelled Final last year. They’ve got a track record.
But I would not bet against the Connecticut Whale. I believe in our team 100 percent. We do not question our abilities.
And we will battle until the very end.