‘The NWHL has reignited that fire in me’: Elena Orlando on her five seasons in the NWHL

An Original NWHL player, the league has taken her to from New York to Japan to Danbury.

Defender Elena Orlando has played 84 games over five seasons in the NWHL and she has yet to score a goal. But let’s be real - she’s a defense-first player, who isn’t relied upon for putting pucks in the net - she helps keep them out.

“Oh gosh, I don’t wanna jinx it!” She exclaimed when asked if we could get her on the record saying that this will be the year she finally breaks through.

“You would think six years in the making that it would be bound to happen at this point (laughs). Let’s say it will happen this year,” she said during our phone call in early September.

The last goal she scored? The season prior to the birth of the NWHL, Orlando scored not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, but six (!) goals while playing for Sundsvall/Timara in 2014-15 after completing her collegiate career at Quinnipiac University.

“I was a goal-scoring machine in Sweden! I’m going to need to get some of that Swedish chocolate sent over before the start of the season haha,” Orlando said via text when asked to verify the information.

“Now this is going to be in the back of my head every game - I promised this would happen! Now I’m going to be ripping a ton of shots. After I score I’m going to point at you: that one’s for you,” the 28-year-old added with a laugh.

In any normal season or year, Orlando would be just starting training camp with the Connecticut Whale in preparation for the league’s sixth season. But we are in the middle of a global pandemic and the start of the season has been pushed back to January.

“I remember our last road trip when we went to Buffalo and Boston for the playoff games (Mar. 6-8); when I think back to that now - what a different lifestyle we were living: everyone on a bus, no masks,” she recalled.

“It’s weird to think back about that and to see where we are now. Hopefully, everyone can continue to take care of what they need to take care of in order for everyone to get and stay healthy going forward.”

When she’s not absorbing pucks to various parts of her body in defense of her team’s goal, she is an RN Consultant - and she has definitely been busy.

“I’m technically not supposed to talk about work that much, but in general terms, it’s been very busy and hectic,” said Orlando. “But lately things have been going well and hoping to keep everybody safe and healthy.”

On the ice, Orlando is one of only eight players left that have played in every season of the NWHL. “This group has been there from the beginning and even though we all have slight variations in our experiences - together we have all kept chugging along and pushing to make this league what it is now.”

Over the course of our 20-minute conversation, we touched on a plethora of topics including the growth of the NWHL from Season 1 to the present day, the Riveters trip to Japan, the Whale’s upcoming season, and more.

The Ice Garden: You’ve been in the NWHL since Day 1. What has changed in your mind since then?

Elena Orlando: I think it’s just been continuing to grow and on the ice, we’ve gotten a lot of great, new talent coming in. Off the ice - new sponsorships and stuff like that, contract negotiations - where we have a 50/50 split - all of those things are a huge advancement for the league. You can literally see the coverage growing. Our Twitch partnership for example, where you can see the fan interaction in real-time. There are tons of fans in the stands, but now you can see the viewer counts on Twitch too and I think that is super awesome.

Also, the visibility of the league. The first year everything was so brand new, a lot of it was getting the word out there about our existence and what we were all about. Now when I go to youth tournaments (because of my coaching), if I mention I’m on the Connecticut Whale someone will say: oh I’m a big Whale fan or a Boston Pride fan. So I think visibility has definitely changed since that first year. Seeing that effect on the younger generations - it’s really cool to show up to a game and see someone wearing a Connecticut Whale t-shirt - that really shows me that we’re doing something and making a difference. That is the biggest thing for me.

TIG: Five years may seem like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things it’s a short period of time. It must be very satisfying to see the growth, especially with sponsorships that seem to have exploded this past season?

EO: It’s definitely rewarding to see how far we have come and exciting to see how much further it can go. Seeing how it is growing, how things are changing, knowing how it is going to continue on this uphill swing - it’s exciting to be a part of that and somewhat see the fruits of our labor.

TIG: For someone who doesn’t know you or is new to the NWHL maybe, how would you describe your style of play?

EO: I’d say that I’m a stay-at-home defender. I like to play a nice, physical game - play the body, block a lot of shots, not afraid to get in the mix of things. Just play sound defense and do whatever I can to make sure the puck doesn’t go in our net.

TIG: Have you always played that way? Players often change or adapt their style to help teams however they can, but is that the case for you?

EO: I’d say my style has evolved over time. I think I went from being solely in a defensive focus to now where I’m trying to contribute more offensively each year. That’s the change I’m looking to make in my game (laughs).

TIG: In 84 career regular-season games and six playoff games you have six points (all assists) in the regular season and one assist in the postseason. But blocked shots are your stat, which has been a tricky thing to keep track of. We do know you had 26 this past year. Do you have any idea how many blocks you’ve had in five years?

EO: I’d like to think a lot! It’s not something I really keep track of, it’s just part of the game. I’m not out there on the ice trying to up my stats. Whenever it happens and it’s the right decision to make at that time I’m more than happy to lay out.

I don’t know what the exact number is, but I would assume with all of the bruises I’ve had it would be pretty high!

TIG: So how long does it take you to recover from those kinds of days?

EO: It could take quite a bit of time. It all depends on where it hits, sometimes it gets you where you have no padding - and it’s like Fratty (Kaleigh Fratkin) who’s ripping her wicked hard slap shot at me. Those take quite a bit of time to heal.

TIG: Is she one of the hardest shots that you’ve faced and blocked?

EO: I’d say so. She is definitely up there….yeah, I’d say number one. Also (Madison) Packer has a good shot. That’s a laser, those always sting. Those always find the hole that doesn’t have padding.

TIG: This past season, you had four assists or one more than your previous seasons combined. That speaks to what you were mentioning about trying to open your game up a bit more, right?

EO: Yup! There you go, trending up. The stats don’t lie! But I’m not a big stat follower, I just wanna do what helps the team. If it’s me being more offensive and I get assists - great. That means the team is scoring.

TIG: When you’re not playing are you someone who will tune into the other team’s games - whether it be to support the league or to scout an upcoming opponent?

EO: Oh yeah, definitely. I like to creep on their games and I think it’s a little bit of everything you mentioned. I enjoy watching the other teams play, and whenever I can watch hockey - I’m all about it. But also a bit of scouting, seeing how they’re doing. Maybe we’re playing Boston the next week and want to see how they’re doing, maybe find some pointers and tips that we can pick up on.

TIG: How long do you plan on playing and why do you keep on playing? Not that we want you to ever stop!

EO: I don’t know, I feel good! I’m going to keep on playing until the body taps out for me. I still feel good and I love the game. I feel like the NWHL has reignited that fire in me, so I haven’t lost that love for the game yet. I just want to keep competing every day and I wanna win an Isobel Cup! I gotta stay around for that.

TIG: This upcoming season the Whale has the potential to be a real contender for that Isobel Cup. A lot of great incoming players as well as holdovers. What is your outlook for the season?

EO: I’m really excited. I think that we are building on that end of season success we had last year. We were on the upswing and I think we added pieces that will continue that momentum going forward and really be game-changers for us. So yeah, I’m really excited.

TIG: What kind of a difference has Colton Orr made from your point of view since he took over as the head coach of the Whale?

EO: Colton is great, he is a true professional who loves the game and the league. He’s very committed and so prepared for every game which is a big help for our team. We have scouting reports and we watch game videos together, a true professional. He has brought another level to our team with everything he has done. A great coach.

I don’t want to talk poorly of anyone, but his style is so much more different than what I’ve experienced in the past. His style meshes well with the players that we have on this team and he seems to be able to pull a little bit more out of everybody.

TIG: Alright, let’s have some fun to finish this off. You wear no. 14 with the Whale and wore no. 4 with the Riveters. Any significance to that?

EO: I was a big Jonathan Cheechoo fan a while back when he was with the San Jose Sharks. So that’s where I got number 14. I was no. 4 that first year with the Rivs because Packer had taken 14, so I tried to get something as close as possible.

I do still have my Riveters jersey. I’m looking forward to when I retire, whenever that is, to get a shadowbox set up with all of my NWHL jerseys so I can have a little display.

TIG: This past season you got to be a part of the NWHL All-Star Weekend, which isn’t usually where you can find shot-blocking demons like yourself. It had to be nice to get some recognition for your longevity in the league as one of the last eight remaining trailblazers, right?

EO: That weekend was just super special and I was really grateful for the opportunity that (commissioner and founder) Dani Rylan Kearney presented to the original players. Just being able to experience that and interact with people on other teams that I don’t normally interact with outside of the rink was really a great experience. I had a lot of fun.

TIG: Now, when the game starts do you start thinking ‘what am I doing out here?’ Am I supposed to block shots?

EO: Yeah, (laughs) it was kind of weird. I’m a defensive player, I’m going to block shots and then I think ‘welllll I don’t really need to block shots out here.’ But I had fun and I think we put on a good show for the fans. I don’t think I came home with any bruises that weekend!

TIG: What can you tell me and what do you recall about the trip to Japan in S1 with the Rivs?

EO: Oh gosh, that is still one of the highlights of my NWHL career. It was so much fun, and I had always wanted to go to Japan. Just a great experience and we had such a great team that year. It was a blast. Being able to explore Japan and play hockey out there - overall just one of the best experiences of my life.

It was a little weird that we had to play against Nana (Fujimoto) at one point and we’re thinking - hey that’s our goalie! She helped us so much off the ice. She walked us through meals because there was a lot of food there that we weren’t familiar with. The food was great and I had a great time trying new things.

TIG: Now, legend has it that Dani suited up for a game while you were in Japan. Is that true?

EO: Ahh, I don’t know if I’m supposed to reveal this secret... but yes it’s true.

TIG: Legend also has it that Coach Wiseman kept saying that she was the best player on the ice. Is that true?

EO: Hahaha! I didn’t hear that personally, but I could see him definitely saying that. Dani was good and had a great time, she was a little rusty, but she was great out there.