As the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) returns for the fourth season on Saturday, there are 11 members of the U.S. Olympic hockey team that won the gold medal at the Winter Olympics last February skating in the league this winter.
None will be with the Stamford-based Connecticut Whale.
Connecticut’s second-year coach Ryan Equale is ready for the challenge, though.
The Whale have three international players with Olympic experience including goalie Merri Räisänen, who played for Finland in the 2014 and 2018 Olympics, Swedish forward Michelle Löwenhielm, who played in the 2014 Olympics and Korean forward Randi Griffin, the former Harvard skater, who suited up in South Korea a few months ago.
Connecticut returns the majority of their defense from a squad that struggled a year ago in a league that was missing Olympic-caliber players that were training with their respective national teams. The Whale were 3-12-1 last season, setting new NWHL single season records for fewest goals (25) and victories (three).
Equale is optimistic though. He is counting on good hard-nosed competition in practice to sharpen his team. There will be 50 practices this season but the Whale play just 16 games. Only 15 skaters and two goalies can dress.
“When you’re not deep, the challenge is complacency,” Equale said. “If you want to be a starter, show it. If you want to play in game, show it.
“It will be interesting to see who is fit, who takes care of their body in terms of strength and nutrition and who can make a play in a tense situation,” Equale said.
Connecticut opens their fourth season on Sunday when they host the Buffalo Beauts at the Terry Connors Rink in Stamford at 3 p.m. The NWHL campaign opens on Saturday night when the expansion Minnesota Whitecaps host the defending Isobel Cup champion Metropolitan Riveters at 4 p.m.
The NWHL actually purchased the Whitecaps, who have been in existence since 2004, in May. They will be the NWHL’s fifth team.
The Whitecaps have been playing as an independent team for the past seven years. They will have three players who have played on two U.S. Olympic teams – Lee Stecklein and Hannah Brandt and Kendal Coyne-Schofield. They also signed former Whale goalie Sydney Rossman, who was 3-12-1 in net for Connecticut a year ago, and another former Whale defenseman Amanda Boulier, an All-NWHL defenseman who had three goals and five assists for the Whale a year ago.
Another key loss for the Whale was forward Kelly Babstock, Connecticut’s all-time leader in career goals (23) and points (50), who signed with Buffalo after three seasons with the Whale.
Connecticut’s leading scorer from a year ago – Emily Fulke (4 goals, 7 assists, 11 points) — returns along all five defensemen from a year ago, veterans Shannon Doyle and Jordan Brickner, who are each returning for the fourth and third season with Connecticut, respectively, along with Rachael Ade, Elena Orlando and Hanna Beattie.
“Our biggest improvement on paper is depth,” Equale said. “The depth of our skill and the depth of speed. It is a major improvement for us. We’ve been able to elevate our overall speed and skill level.”
The Whale picked up an impressive group of international players. They have the first Swedish player (Löwenhielm), the first Finnish player (Räisänen) and first Russian goalie (Maria Sorokina) to play in the league. They also signed Katerina Mrázová, a forward from the Czech Republic who scored 25 goals and had 50 assists in four years with Minnesota-Duluth.
Mrázová, a member of the Czech Republic national team, won a Clarkson Cup with the Boston Blades in the CWHL in 2013 as a 20-year old.
“I always have the highest goals and it will not be different with Connecticut Whale,” said Mrázová. “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.”
A few days before the season opener, Equale didn’t have a starting lineup yet. Players have continued to arrive this week. Räisänen was signed earlier this week.
“We’ve put together a team that we think can compete with any team on a given night,” Equale said.
The Whale will play six of their first seven games on the road. However, beginning December 30, the Whale will play six of their final nine games at home at the Terry Conners Rink in Stamford.
There is one neutral site game with Connecticut hosting the Riveters and their Olympic team forward Amanda Kessel on December 2 at the state-of-the-art practice facility of the Pittsburgh Penguins at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. Kessel, who won a gold medal with the United States at the 2018 Olympics, is the sister of Penguins wing Phil Kessel.
Connecticut hosts Boston on December 30 and the defending NWHL champion Riveters on January 13. Minnesota comes to Connecticut for back-to-back games on January 19 and 20 in Stamford.
After the All-Star break on February 9-10, the Whale will have their final three games at home against Boston, Buffalo and Minnesota.
NOTES — Buffalo has four U.S. Olympians on the team – Emily Pfalzer, Dani Cameranesi and Nicole Hensley and Lisa Chesson, who was on the 2010 U.S. team. … Boston has three Olympians – Gigi Marvin, Haley Skarupa and Amanda Pelkey. Skarupa played her first year in the NWHL (2016) with Connecticut. … Defending champion Metropolitan, who plays in Newark, N.J., had three Olympians on the roster including two-time Olympian Amanda Kessel, Shelly Picard (2014) and Erika Lawler (2010).
Connecticut Whale 2018-19 schedule
Home games at Terry Conners Rink, Stamford
Sunday, Oct. 7: Buffalo at CONNECTICUT, 3 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 13: Connecticut at Buffalo, 1:30 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 20: Connecticut at Boston, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 18: Connecticut at Metropolitan (Newark NJ), 2 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 25: Connecticut at Metropolitan (Newark NJ), 2 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 2: Metropolitan vs. Connecticut at Pittsburgh, 3:30 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 8: Connecticut at Buffalo, 6 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 30: Boston at CONNECTICUT, 3 p.m.
Sunday, January 6: Metropolitan at CONNECTICUT, 1 p.m.
Sunday, January 13: Minnesota at CONNECTICUT, 3 p.m.
Saturday, January 19: Connecticut at Minnesota, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, January 20: Connecticut at Minnesota, 2 p.m.
Saturday, February 2: Connecticut at Boston, 7:30 p.m.
NWHL All-Star Weekend, February 9-10
Sunday, February 17: Boston at CONNECTICUT, 3 p.m.
Saturday, March 2: Buffalo at CONNECTICUT, 6 p.m.
Sunday, March 3: Minnesota at CONNECTICUT, 3 p.m.
2018 NWHL final standings
Isobel Cup Playoffs
Saturday, March 17
Buffalo 3, Boston 2
Sunday, March 18
Metropolitan 5, Connecticut 0
Sunday, March 25
Metropolitan 1, Buffalo 0