STAMFORD, Oct. 11 – He stood along the glass at the Chelesa Piers rink dressed in his Green Bay Packer top with his two young daughters, ages 11 and 8, waiting for Sunday’s first National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) game to begin.
Sean Martinson and his two daughters live in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “The minute I knew we could afford the flight here, we got tickets,” he said. “It’s not too far to see the first-ever game. It’s never too far to come and witness history.”
Martinson and his daughters were part of a loud, sellout crowd of more than 600 fans crammed into the rink to watch the Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters play the initial NWHL contest Sunday. Two-time U.S. Olympian Kelli Stack of Connecticut had the game-winning goal and two assists as the Whale won, 4-1.
“It was so loud in there you couldn’t hear each other on the ice,” Stack said. “It was so much fun to play in front of loud fans like that.”
The Whale players were just thrilled with the reception from the fans. Some younger fans would high five the players as they made their way from the dressing room to the home bench.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Whale goalie Jaimie Leonoff, who grew up in Montreal and played her collegiate hockey at Yale. Leonoff wore her old Yale facemask in net, stopping 35 New York shots. “Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine 800 tickets sold, kids screaming (in the stands) and girls on the ice. We had so much support.”
Dani Rylan, the founder and commissioner of the NWHL, attended the contest in Stamford and dropped the ceremonial first puck.
“It’s been such an emotional roller coaster all day,” she said afterward. “I think had goosebumps throughout the game. I was trying not to cry when I walked out onto the ice for the first puck drop. This was really special.”
Players from two youth girls hockey teams in Greenwich and a program in Mamaroneck, N.Y., attended the game and were in the ice for pre-game introductions.
All four teams in the league will play an 18-game schedule – once a week on Sunday. The league is the first women’s pro hockey league in North America to offer paid contracts. Salaries range from $10,000 to $25,000. Stack has the league’s highest salary.
The Whale put the first goal in league history into the back of the net on the power play. Forward Jessica Koizumi ripped a shot past New York goalie Nana Fujimoto with just 2:28 gone in the game. Stack and forward Kelly Babstock picked up the assist.
In the net, Leonoff made two nice saves on breakaway attempts by the Riverters, who outshot Connecticut, 13-9 in the first period.
New York tied the game at 1-1 in the second period on a goal from Brooke Ammerman but the Whale responded quickly, scoring less than a minute later. Stack was open in front of the net and took the nice pass from Jordan Brickner and Kaleigh Fratkin to put Connecticut in front for good.
“I was wide open on the back door and I saw the whole net,” Stack said. “I really just had to direct it over the goalie’s leg.”
Connecticut added two more goals in the third period, showing off some of their quickness. Shiann Darkangelo and Kelly Babstock scored goals in a span of 1:38.
“We weathered their physical plan,” Whale coach Jake Mastel said. “We used our speed. Eventually, you get tired of chasing that rabbit around and in the third period, we went back to hard work.”
After every goal, the Brass Bonanza theme made famous by the former Hartford Whalers thundered across the arena. The Whale’s blue and green uniforms are in homage to the Whalers.
Several fans dressed in Whaler green uniforms and Connecticut Whale AHL jerseys made the trip to Stamford. Hartford’s Jeremiah Rufini and his eight-year-old son Michael came to the game. Jeremiah had an old Whalers jersey while Michael had a Whale AHL jersey.
“Part of it was because this is another version of the Whalers. The face that the program is a Connecticut team is really cool, too,” Jeremiah Rufini said.
After the game was over, Martinson and his daughters were in the middle of a long line of fans waiting to get autographs from every Whaler player. Even Rylan, the commissioner, was signing autographs for fans. Was the trip from Minnesota worth it? Yes, he quickly responded with a smile. “It was good hockey,” he said. “They didn’t take it easy on each other.”
The Whale return to action next Sunday in Buffalo. The game will be available free on the league’s website. Connecticut returns home on December 6 at 4:30 p.m. against the Buffalo Beauts.
Connecticut 4, New York 1
New York (0-1) 0 1 0 – 1
Connecticut (1-0) 1 1 2 – 4
First period: CT: Jessica Koizumi, 2:28 (Kelli Stack, Kelly Babstock)
Second period: NY: Brooke Ammerman, 4:15 (Lyudmila Belyakova); CT: Stack (Jordan Brickner, Kaleigh Fratkin), 5:25
Third period: CT: Shiann Darkangelo (Micaela Long), 11:38; Babstock (Stack), 10:08
Saves: Jamie Leonoff (CT) 35; Nana Fujimoto 25; Shots: New York, 36-29; Attendance: 623
Below is the first goal in NWHL history and the Whale by Jessica Koizumi on a power play in the first period.
— NWHL Gifs (@nwhlgifs) October 11, 2015