Whale bucking the trend by bringing in international talent

Are we seeing the first signs of a resurgence of international talent in the NWHL?

In the NWHL’s inaugural season the Connecticut Whale had two Russian icons on their roster: Yekaterina Smolentseva and Katia Pashkevich. But in the following two seasons the Whale’s roster was comprised of only North American players. In fact, the Boston Pride’s Janine Weber was the only player born outside of North America in the NWHL last season. So, it’s safe to say that there’s been something of a trend away from international players in the last few years.

The Connecticut Whale are bucking that trend this summer.

The Whale started free agency quietly — Connecticut didn’t make its first signing until July 6 — but lately, they have been grabbing all of the headlines. On July 10, the Whale signed Harvard alumna Randi Griffin, who represented Team Korea at the PyeongChang Olympics. Griffin scored the first Olympic goal — men’s or women’s — in the history of Korean hockey. The puck that she squeaked past Akane Konishi is currently residing in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Whale followed the Griffin signing by adding Michelle Löwenhielm from Sweden and Katerina Mrázová from the Czech Republic. They are the first players from their home countries to play in the NWHL. Löwenhielm and Mrázová were teammates at the University of Minnesota-Duluth last season.

That’s three new faces on the Whale who have experience playing for national teams in major tournaments. Together, the triumvirate represents the potential for center depth and scoring depth for Connecticut — both were areas of concern for last year’s team.

The trio of forwards should bring a lot of experience to what is shaping up to be a young Whale locker room. Griffin will be 30 when the season starts and is coming off of a unique whirlwind journey to the PyeongChang Olympics; Löwenhielm won an SDHL championship with AIK in 2013 and Mrázová won a Clarkson Cup with the Boston Blades in that same year.

All three forwards believe that the NWHL is the best place for them to develop their games while they work to gain or hold on to their spots on their respective national teams.

“I always have the highest goals and it will not be different with Connecticut Whale,” Mrázová shared in the league’s press release. “I want to help the team to win the Isobel Cup. On the international scene, I want to help our National team qualify for the Olympics. It might look far away, but competing in the NWHL against incredibly talented players should help me further develop as a player and hopefully help the National team in the future.”

The NWHL’s reputation as a proving ground for players with aspirations to play for or remain on the United States women’s national team is definitely a factor at play here. Players from all over the world want to test themselves and learn by playing against the best. If more players from outside of North America can find a way to navigate the challenging waters of work visas and find employment away from the rink, we might just see a resurgence in international talent in the NWHL next season.

Are Griffin, Löwenhielm, and Mrázová just the first wave of new international talent in the NWHL next season? We’ll just have to wait and see.