Every emerging franchise needs an identity — a set of values and ideals that are embraced by players and fans alike. Some might rush to identify the Connecticut Whale as the NWHL’s perennial underdog, but that is not the team’s identity. Since their inception, the Whale have put defense first and have taken pride in being a nightmare to play against. They play hard. They put in the work. They stand together.
The Whale play Shannon Doyle Hockey.
And now they’ll have to find a way to do it without her. After 89 games of regular-season hockey across six years with the Whale, Doyle is hanging up her skates.
I started writing about the NWHL on the beat of the then New York Riveters back in 2015. I knew the big names in women’s hockey but was otherwise relatively naive. It didn’t take me long to appreciate just much talent there was beyond the 50 or so players on the U.S. and Canadian national teams. One of the players who immediately stood out to me was Doyle. And, despite my best efforts to be unbiased and objective, she became one of my favorites to watch.
At 5-foot-4, Doyle is a fierce defender who has confidence with the puck on her stick in all three zones. She’s fearless. She’s a battler — as evidenced by her PIMs and blocked shot totals — with a gift for making high-risk, high-reward exit passes that can turn the tide of the game. In other words, she was a joy to watch. You can fall in love with hockey watching her play.
So, what is Shannon Doyle Hockey? I think it’s stepping in front of a shot in the final moments of a period regardless of what the scoreboard says. I think it’s getting in someone’s face when they take an extra whack at a puck that your goalie has covered up. I think it’s showing up every day ready to battle, ready to lead, and willing to leave everything out on the ice.
Doyle retires as the Whale’s franchise leader in games played (89), assists (31), penalty minutes (100), and points among defenders (38). But Doyle’s legacy in the league and in Connecticut goes far beyond the accumulation of her counting stats after six years of hockey. With any luck, each of her records will be matched and eclipsed. And, really, that would only be appropriate.
Doyle’s real legacy is what she helped build through bruises, sweat, and sacrifice. She has left the game better than she found it.
She’s inspired countless kids with her play on the ice, by taking the time to meet them after big wins and heartwrenching losses, and by coaching them. Now, as the head coach of the Greenwich Country Day School’s girls’ varsity team, she’ll continue to build towards that better future for the next generation.
“The opportunities are there for you,” Doyle told the media after her final game. “Hockey can take you to some pretty amazing places. It will let you meet some pretty amazing people, but it comes with hard work.
“You don’t see all the hard work, you see the game on TV,” she continued. “You don’t see all the extra reps, you see the nice, pretty goal in the game. The opportunities are there now because people are working really hard to make sure that they’re for you. Do everything you can to seize those opportunities with your own hard work when no one’s watching.”
Doyle’s dedication to the game and her teammates has shaped the identity of the Whale. It’s kept fans engaged and full of passion even when wins were few and far between. It has also left a lasting impression on those who have followed her NWHL career closely and those who shared a bench and a locker room with her.
“I can tell you that she is the heart and the soul of this team,” assistant coach Laura Brennan shared with Doyle sitting next to her following the captain’s final game. “She’s been with the team since the beginning. She’s our OG. She’s been through it all, the ups and the downs, and has seen the growth of the program and really helped build the team and the culture. She’s a huge voice in our locker room and a great leader.
“We’re so lucky to have her and to have her be a part of our organization,” Brennan continued. “I can’t say enough about her and her leadership. She’s just a tremendous person and I know that you guys know that. There’s nothing more to say other than we love her. If this is her last game she should be super proud of everything she’s accomplished.”
Yes, she should.
Something that Tobin Kelly’s ownership group needs to consider is retiring Doyle’s number. Her number should be honored because she’s earned it. Because she always put her team first. It should be retired because of what she meant and continues to mean to the Whale and Connecticut fans. It should be retired because of the message it sends to the next wave of Whale players: we recognize greatness.