Around the Rink in the PHF: Week 3

This week we find out who bleeds Beauts blue, who’s living with the enemy and more!

Welcome back to Around the Rink!

Three weeks into this I hope everyone is as happy with how these have turned out as I am. With no games this upcoming weekend I won’t have a column until the week after the next games (Dec. 4-5), but I promise some other cool and fun PHF content exclusive to The Ice Garden. Thanks again to all of my teammates, and especially the players and staff of the six teams for all of your support, time, and help.

And here, we, go!

Point Shots

1 * The Toronto Six finally got to play a real deal home game this past weekend, and it was a rousing success as they swept the two-game set against the Whale to remain the PHF’s lone unbeaten team for yet another week. Unfortunately, I was unable to be there in person, but who better to find out what the weekend was like than from one of the players.

“The atmosphere was awesome this weekend, it’s been a long time coming and we couldn’t have asked for more. The rink was packed and the fans were behind us all weekend, helping us secure all six points,” Emma Woods said via email.

“It’s incredible to see the passion and support the fans have for this team and this organization. As a player, it’s extremely motivating when you get to play in front of a crowd like that,” she added. “We’ve been waiting for our first home game since 2020, so to say we were excited would be an understatement.”

And why have the Six been so successful? What secret sauce is in that recipe for success for a team that has only lost three of its first ten games (playoff included)?

“The secret sauce eh? I would have to say it was sticking to the game plan. We knew we were prepared going into the games against the Whale, and we trusted the game plan all weekend. It’s how we had success, and it’s how we will continue to.”

Up next for the Six is a trip back to the site of their playoff loss, Warrior Ice Arena in Boston for two games with the Pride on Dec. 4-5.

2* Lots of eyebrows were raised this off-season when goaltender Brooke Wolejko signed with the Metropolitan Riveters, reuniting her with goaltending partner Sonjia Shelly. The two were partners and split time in the crease in Connecticut during Season 5. So how’d that all come about? Was it weird, or welcomed?

“When free agency started I had some talks with Coach Ivo (Mocek) and there was a mutual interest. Now I have this great opportunity to play for the Riveters,” Wolejko said the night before making her first start with the franchise. “I enjoyed being on the Whale - my hometown team, no hard feelings there. But this is a new, exciting opportunity for me. The girls here have been super welcoming and I’m having a lot of fun here.”

“I’m really happy to be her partner again. We’re such good friends and we have a good partnership. I can’t speak for his conversation with Sonjia, but I can say that he did ask me how my relationship with her is because that is something really important - a strong goalie partnership,” explained Wolejko. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told him: we work well together and we keep good vibes no matter what; we do a good job pushing each other.”

Wolejko walked away from her first start as a Riv with a win this past Sunday, stopping 29 of 32 shots in a 5-3 triumph over Buffalo.

2.1* Here’s something I was clued into during opening weekend that you don’t see often and couldn’t wait to share with y’all. Wolejko is still living in Connecticut, and her roommates are now ex-teammates. Naturally, I had to ask what the mood was like following the opening weekend in the PHF that saw the Rivs and Whale square off. Obviously, my first question was: Did they write ‘Whale Rule, Rivs Drool’ on the refrigerator Sunday night/Monday morning or something of that ilk (because that’s how I think) after Connecticut won the second of the two games between the rivals?

“Haha no, it wasn’t anything like that. No tension,” she said while laughing. “It wasn’t weird at all the next day, or at any time. I’ve lived with (current CTW players) Hanna Beattie, Taylor Marchin, and (former CTW) Sarah Hughson for the past two years. They didn’t rub it in my face or anything. I told them they played a great game and we continued on living together. Sorry, hate to break it to, but you that there was no fistfight or anything haha.”

3* How did the Buffalo Beauts choose their leadership group prior to the season? Head Coach Rhea Coad gave us a glimpse into the process during PHF Media Day. “For this season we have co-captains: Taylor Accursi and Marie-Jo Pelletier. Taylor has been our captain (since Season 5) and we thought that MJ deserves that C too. She’s been here for a while now - and her work ethic, on and off the ice - she’s a Beaut.”

“With the alternate captains we have four of them and the team voted on that, that was all them. Carly Jackson, Erin Gehen, Cassidy Vinkle, and Dominique Kremer.”

3.1* It was a slight surprise (at least for me?) that Vinkle, in her first year with the franchise, was voted as an alternate. But after seeing what she brings to the table in person - on and off the ice - twice this weekend, it made a lot of sense. She’s a strong center, really smart with and without the puck, and knows how to score - as evidenced by her game-winning overtime goal on Saturday. Early in the game, I watched her kill off about 20-30 seconds of a penalty kill on her own, just skating and shielding the puck from zone-to-zone. She’s also not here just to play hockey. From talking to her after each game I’d be very shocked if she wasn’t a Beaut for a long time.

“There’s definitely a lot of honor and pride in wearing that A on your jersey, especially as a first-year player here,” said Vinkle. “I knew I wanted to come in and make an impact on this team, buy into the culture, and help to grow it on and off the ice. It’s something I’m really proud of and, it’s humbling looking at the girls here now with As and the ones that have come before us. It’s definitely not something I take lightly.”

4* Last week the University of Minnesota announced that their Gophers team will play an exhibition against the Minnesota Whitecaps on January 4, 2022. The two teams had originally planned to play in late Sept./early Oct., but I believe there was an insurance issue (from the professional team) that prevented the game from happening. That left the Whitecaps as the only PHF team without any preseason action under their belt before the season started.

The game vs. the Gophers will split up yet another stretch of four Whitecaps games against the same opponent - this time the Toronto Six. Minnesota just finished their season series with Boston…three weeks into the season.

5* You may remember about a week after the Riveters’ Lake Placid season ended, Theresa Knutson was popping water bottles over in Germany. How’d that all come about?

“That was some of the most stressful times in my life,” she revealed. “So, when we found out our season was done I was talking with one of my German friends and she said their team needed/had roster space available for imports. Our season ended Thursday, and Sunday was the cutoff date for no new players in Germany. I had to be in Germany, contract signed by Sunday.”

The Riveters forward suited up in eight regular-season games and two playoff games for Eisbaren Juniors Berlin and finished with 14 points (7g-7a).

“I had already had covid (last December), but I had to find a place to confirm my negative covid test and book a flight. I ended up driving from New Jersey all the way to Wisconsin (about 18 hours), went to bed, woke up the next day, and was on a plane to Germany. None of this was planned, but once our season ended and this opportunity came up I jumped on it. I’m very blessed to have the chance to go over there, and our team did really well.”

Knutson had played over in Germany previously, for two seasons with EKU Mannheim in Frauen-Bundesliga (putting up a measly 63 goals in 42 games) after finishing her collegiate career at UConn. On Sunday her goal stood up as the game-winner, and in seven games with the Rivs, she has four points (2g-2a) and two game-winning goals.

5.1* UConn is turning into a pipeline for PHF teams these days, as there were three alumnae on rosters opening weekend - and all three played in the opening series between the Riveters and Whale. Knutson and Nora MacLaine suited up for the Rivs, while Catherine Crawley played for the visitors. TK confirmed that it was a very prideful moment for the former Huskies.

“Not gonna lie, it feels pretty awesome. When I got to UConn the team was definitely rebuilding at that time, and we all prided ourselves on hard work, grittiness, and showing up to the rink every day with that attitude of let’s get to work and get stuff done,” said Knutson. “Being on a line with Nora when she got her first PHF goal was so satisfying and very exciting.”

6* The last time we saw Whale forward Janine Weber it was a scary situation. The perennial star was helped off the ice on Jan. 31 with a right leg injury that prevented her from being on the ice with her team in the Isobel Cup semifinal two months later. It was so great to see her back on the ice for Team Austria in their bid to qualify for the Olympics, and back with the Whale when they tangled with Toronto this past weekend.

Weber, speaking at the PHF Media Day, assured us that she is all healed up. “It definitely took some time for me to rehab it, go through physical therapy to build the strength back up in my knee,” said the Austrian star. “I’m feeling very good and excited to play again.” She’ll wear a knee brace this season. “It definitely was a long off-season, even longer than usual. That gave me time to recover (in full) and get back to where I was.”

The Whale are a fascinating team, and a lot of us think that this is finally when they take that next step. All of the pieces appear to be in place for a successful season there. “I’m excited with the team we have this year,” said Weber. “We’ve made a lot of progress over the last year, year and a half. We’ve added some rookies, kept a veteran core, and added some veteran players too.”

“This team looks good on paper, has looked good in practice. We need to bring that to the ice when the actual games get started. I’m confident that we can start this thing well and then build from there.”

Just over ten minutes into her season debut on Saturday in Toronto, Weber recorded an assist.

7* When’s the last time (in any league or federation anywhere) that a player scored the only two goals in a game - and both goals were unassisted? Well I know it happened on Saturday night when Jonna Curtis did it for the Whitecaps, but when’s the last time before that? Truly a remarkable accomplishment.

“I think we’ve played really great defensively, and that contributed a ton to our success (this weekend),” Curtis told us via text. “The goals I scored were on the penalty kill and during a 6-on-5, so I think that shows right there how well we played as a team. It was a great, and a much-needed, team win. We are happy with our game, and our improvement from the first weekend. The first of many more wins this season!”

Curtis often seems overlooked (like another player that will be mentioned in a bit) when talking about the best players in the PHF, but she is most definitely in that conversation. Her speed is a game-changer and she is definitely good for at least 2-3 breakaway goals per season (may also involve crashing into the net!). As we break for the holidays, Curtis ranks seventh all-time with 59 points (26g-33a) in just 45 games.

8* In the second game of that two-game set between the two-time reigning Isobel Cup Finalists, the Pride came away victorious in overtime when former Whitecap Amanda Boulier netted the winner. But can we talk about the effort by (Minnesota native) McKenna Brand on that play?

Not only did she pickpocket Ashleigh Brykaliuk in the defensive zone to start the winning play, but then she carried the puck - seemingly effortlessly - coast-to-coast like buttered toast before wiring a bullseye pass to a wide-open Boulier. Just another magnificent play that we can add to the uber-long highlight reel for Brand. Y’all can keep your Connor McJesus highlights. Me, I prefer McKenna #OnBrand.

“We always have such great games against the Whitecaps, and it’s always so fun for me to play in my home state! I actually thought we played really well (this weekend),” Brand told us via text. “We had 40+ shots in both games, but we just couldn’t seem to find the back of the net very often. I’m very proud of our team’s defensive play, and how we got the job done on Sunday.”

“Definitely looking forward to having a weekend off, and then getting back at it against Toronto!” Brand also confirmed that yeah, the plane ride home is a lot less of a nuisance after a thrilling win like that. She is now ranked fourth all-time with a crisp 65 points (30g-35a) in 53 games.

9* File these under the category of assists that won’t show up on any score sheet. Beauts GM Nate Oliver reacted quickly in late September when defender Lisa Chesson opted out of Season 7, bringing in one of the NWHL’s OGs in Elena Orlando, who had played the past five seasons in Connecticut after spending Season 1 with the New York Riveters.

I asked Orlando if she had reached out to her teammate on the Whale, Grace Klienbach (who joined Buffalo in August) and she said she actually hadn’t. Oliver reached out to her in hopes to lure her out of retirement. Whatever he said to Orlando worked because she didn’t need to seek out any opinions other than her own about Buffalo and she’s commuting from Connecticut for practices and games.

Early in Sunday’s game against the Riveters, Oliver earned another assist when he saw a potential goal scored against his team that shouldn’t have counted. The second-year GM was sitting along the goal line, watched the play unfold, and then sprinted to the glass next to the Beauts’ bench to ask them to challenge the play. After a somewhat lengthy delay, they got the call right and the game remained 0-0.

I’m not sure what the exact rules are regarding challenges. But I think it’s something like this that Riveters GM Anya Packer told me later during that game: each team gets a maximum of three challenges. If you actually challenge three times there could be two-minute penalties assessed for each play that isn’t overturned. If you only challenge once, or twice, there is no penalty given for being wrong. Challengeable plays are goals, and offside.

I like it. I wish it was included in the rules that we received prior to the season. But I like the concept. The idea is to get the plays right, all the time, right?

10* “I knew this was going to be a question!,” replied Beauts co-captain Taylor Accursi when I asked if playing for Toronto was ever considered as an option for her, since the Six play in her home province. “Honestly, I’ve put so much time into the Beauts. I’m a Beaut.”

“Yeah, it’s a 90-minute ride for me to get to practices - sometimes after a 12 or 13-hour shift, and Toronto is probably only about 30-35 minutes away. But the drive doesn’t matter. I’m there for my teammates, my coaches, my organization; it's not about me. I’m a Beaut and we’ll leave it at that. I bleed Beauts blue.”

Try to say that three times fast. Bleed. Beauts. Blue.

I’ll have much more with Accursi, Wolejko, Vinkle, and Knutson on a plethora of topics in soon-to-be-released features for The Ice Garden, so keep your eyes peeled Beauts & Rivs fans!

It PHFeels Like the PHFirst Time

Welcome to the Federation! Hopefully, everyone was able to get some kind of puck or plaque for their achievements, stick taps to you all - hopefully they are the first of many.

PHFirst goals: Maegan Beres (T6), Anjelica Diffendal (BUF), Dominique Kremer (BUF), Cassidy Vinkle (BUF), Taylor Davison (T6), Emilie Harley (BUF), Catherine Crawley (CTW)

Come for the Kremer goal, stay till the very end for the smooth, yet subtle, stick twirl.

PHFirst points: Anjelica Diffendal (BUF), Janka Hlinka (CTW), Taylor Davison (T6), Maegan Beres (T6), Mak Langei (MIN), Kennedy Ganser (BUF), Emilie Harley (BUF)

PHFirst wins: Rhea Coad (BUF)

Cobra Kai Award of the Week

Awarded to a team or player who shows no mercy

Riveters captain Madison Packer was at her very best this weekend; not only putting up five points and firing 11 shots on goal, but she also showed no mercy in (perhaps) luring Buffalo players into taking penalties. Especially on Saturday when the game became a penalty-palooza at times, Packer kept her cool and was still able to be a very effective player. The CPR Line™ (you’re welcome) of Cornine-Packer-Russo has been lethal thus far this season, you can see their confidence growing with every shift, and they were a real problem for the Beauts at times over the weekend. After going pointless in Lake Placid, Packer already has seven in four games and now has 92 career points - a tidy 46g-46a - in 91 regular-season games.

Quote of the Week

“It’s an awesome feeling! You’re obviously really happy, but also very relieved. We got the win and I’m just so happy for our team because we really worked hard for that W. It shows what kind of team we are going to be going forward this season.” — Buffalo’s Cassidy Vinkle on what it feels like to be in the center of a walk-off win celebration.

My 3-Stars of the Week

* Madison Packer (MET) - no. 14 should have had a hat trick when she was tripped up carrying the puck toward the empty Buffalo net at the end of the game on Sunday, but the Rivs captain still finished off a dominant weekend against the Beauts with five points (2g-3a) in two games.

** Michela Cava (T6) - not only did she score the first home-ice goal in history for the Six on Saturday, but Cava finished the game with three points (2g-1a). On Sunday, she added two assists to help Toronto remain the PHF’s lone unbeaten team.

*** Amanda Leveille (MIN) - the best netminder in NWHL/PHF history added to her records - a 46th win, an eighth shutout - and allowed only two goals on 87 total shots by Boston. After giving up six goals in the season opener, Leveille has only given up three to Boston over the last three games. Lev Gonna Lev.

Did You Know?

Boston’s Kaleigh Fratkin became the first defender and second player (teammate Jillian Dempsey) in NWHL/PHF history to appear in 100 regular-season games. Fratty has played in 18 for Connecticut, 18 for the Riveters, and now 74 (and counting) for Boston.

The Buffalo Beauts played their 100th game as a franchise on Sunday and their all-time record is now 45-47-8.

Defender Emma Greco is apparently no longer with the Toronto Six. Her name is no longer on the roster, and rookie blueliner Stephanie Sucharda is wearing the no. 25 that Greco donned last season. Did she opt-out? Something we’ll look into going forward.