There was a moment when the momentum shifted in the PHF’s favor. I’m not quite sure of the exact moment, but I know it happened. Sometime after the disaster in Lake Placid that wasn’t a bubble but sold as one (and a success, which it really couldn’t be when people were getting sick) things changed for the PHF.
They started attracting big-name talent that made everyone in the women’s hockey sphere, stop for a second and say - whoa?! They got INSERT NAME HERE?!?! Perhaps one of the first of those was Olympic gold medalist and defender Kali Flanagan who signed with the Boston Pride in December 2021. This summer she re-signed with the defending champs for not one, but two more seasons.
“The biggest thing for me was (Head Coach) Paul Mara and his familiarity with me, he was one of my Olympic coaches in 2018 and he’s a great coach,“ Flanagan explained. The girls here - they are great players, great people. Having that structure, that week-to-week experience with practices and games, playing for something, all things that go into being a part of a league - they were all attractive to me.”
One of the more recent names that made us all say ‘they signed who?’ was this summer when Boston signed two-time NCAA champion and 2019 Patty Kaz winner Loren Gabel for not one, but the next two seasons. I remember getting a text from a source telling me that she was signing with the Pride for real and thinking about how much the PHF community was going to react when the news broke. Gabel had played in the PWHPA since 2019 and was looking for a new challenge.
“For me, it was just the structure. Once I graduated from Clarkson, I missed playing games every weekend and practicing every day. Boston had a lot to offer, and they made offers to me a couple of years in a row, I finally took their offer this year and I’m happy I did, I’ve had a great time here,” Gabel revealed following a recent game in New Jersey.
“Yeah, there were other teams/offers. But it was an easy choice. I had my sights set on Boston for a couple of years now, and when I was offered a roster spot I took it,” she added. “Obviously, there are a lot of amazing teams throughout this league, but this was the best fit for me. A two-year contract was offered to me and I took it.”
For the players, unlike fans, media members, and casual observers who like to pounce when there is ‘big news’, it’s never been about one side vs. the other side. It’s been about - where is the best place for them to develop, and grow, as a player. Gabel and Flanagan are two of the best players in the game at their positions, and joining a team that practices, and plays games with actual meaning has given them exactly what they wanted - a chance to get better, and the chance to play for something.
I didn’t think Boston needed reinforcements after either of the last two Isobel Cup wins, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Flanagan was one of the best, if not the best player in last season’s PHF playoffs, and is tied for third among all defenders in points (12) this season. Gabel, well all she’s done is light the league on fire with four multi-goal games, and leads the league in or is second in nearly every major category; her 24 points on Jan. 23 is the most in the PHF.
“Maybe the structure has surprised me. The game has grown immensely over the past few years in the NWHL, now the PHF,” Gabel said, giving us an insight into her thoughts. “Being able to be on the ice every day and play alongside amazing players has been a really great experience for me.”
Gabel also gives the Pride more flexibility, as she can play center in a pinch if needed, which I noticed in Boston’s visit to the American Dream Mall when they beat the Riveters 4-1. “If Jillian’s having a tough time on face-offs I’ll just go in and take a couple of them and see where it goes from there. That’s how we handle that.”
For Flanagan, she’s had to play a lot this season after fellow defender Lauren Kelly suffered a season-ending lower-body injury in the preseason and the Pride has dressed only five defenders most games, and in a few games, they only used four! Which is wild to think about, but when you have players like Flanagan, Kaleigh Fratkin, Jenna Rheault, Olivia Zafuto, and Aneta Tejralová on your back end - they can handle the extra ice time. And probably welcome it.
One of the best, most fun parts of Flanagan’s game is her ability to skate end-to-end with the puck, weaving in-and-out of defenders’ attempted poke checks before she snaps a shot on goal or finds an open teammate with a precision pass. Next time she does it, watch for her jersey flapping in the wind behind her. It’s neat.
“I would say it’s the biggest part of my game - my speed, my skating - my dad was a great skater and the one who taught me how to skate,” Flanagan explained with a smile. “So I spent a lot of hours on the ice growing up and working on edges, crossovers, and footwork, and all of that stuff.”
“It’s become a huge part of my game and I have fun with it. Paul is a huge advocate of my skating and if I’m not skating he’s running down the bench telling me to start skating,” she continued with a laugh, “it's definitely my biggest asset. If I dump it in, he’s usually like what are you doing? Ha-ha.”
Flanagan plays the game with a confidence. She knows she’s really good at what she does, and if her opponents give her an inch she is going to take it and usually exploits them as well. In Gabel’s case, she plays with confidence too. Some people might think she’s cocky, but I prefer to call it swagger. Like, she knows she’s really good, and when she scores, you know she scored because the celly is usually top-notch enthusiasm. Naturally, I had to ask the 25-year-old about it.
“Yeah, I’ve been told I play with some swagger,” Gabel replied with a grin. “I think I’m a dynamic forward, I can use my speed and my shot is obviously a threat when I use it, and when I’m in those tight areas. I’ve been told I have swagger,” she said through a laugh, “and I just go along with it. My celebrations after I score - could be crazy, but it just happens. I know it gets the bench fired up.”
The Boston Pride have had much to be fired up about this season. The two-time defending champs have dominated and are showing no signs of slowing down. With Flanagan and Gabel on the roster for the next two seasons, the Pride will be a force to be reckoned with. And it’s gonna be fun to watch, too.