When the 2018-2019 NWHL season began, the Connecticut Whale had players on their roster that had competed in international play for seven nations. Not just with either the United States or Canada, but also from the Czech Republic, Finland, South Korea, Russia, and Sweden. While this is historic and unprecedented, it is not an anomaly. It is the future. The New Ice Age if you will, the Ice Age of Professional Women’s Hockey. And it is most evident in what we refer to as the United Nation of Whale.
This New Ice Age has been most recently conceived and presented and nurtured by Founder/Commissioner Dani Rylan as the NWHL. And just as geological ice ages change the landscape of our planet, the New Ice Age of Hockey is changing the landscape of the sport we love. The rise of women’s hockey has begun to flow like a glacier. Slowly but inexorably, unstoppable and inevitable, a reckoning both of nature and society. Ice ages do not come and go overnight, they are multi millennium events. Once begun, they last forever, in human terms. So will women’s hockey. If you need another metaphor to nudge you in the direction the cosmos are pointing, try this. Thousands of young girls, our Future Draft Picks, will be skating this winter on frozen ponds and lakes worldwide, across much of the northern hemisphere, all of them part of hockey’s New Ice Age.
And those frozen lakes and ponds were carved out by the massive glaciation that occurred in the previous Ice Age during the Pleistocene Era a couple of million years ago. And we now believe, that some 14,000 years ago, the first humans began to appear in North America. It is not hard to imagine, that at some point while crossing a frozen stretch of water, one of those early humans may have struck at a chunk of ice with a club or staff, and watched it skitter across the smooth surface. What wonder did she experience, watching that, and how much of that moment was imprinted on her DNA. We will never know for sure, but we are glad we inherited that strand from her. It keeps us returning to frozen surfaces in greater numbers each year, to watch pucks slide, sticks swing and blades flash. And it is happening all over the world, and the NWHL is reaping the benefits, especially the Connecticut Whale.
The Whale signed Dr. Randi Griffin last off-season, a former Harvard standout, who remained on their roster until mid January, although she had not suited up. Randi’s mom is Korean, and her dual citizenship provided her the opportunity to play in the Pyeongchang Olympics. As Randi explained “Team Korea reached out to me in 2015, which was five years after my college career ended. They were hoping to add a handful of Korean-heritage players from North America to their roster because they had been granted an automatic spot in the Olympics, but they were short on players. I went over there to skate with them during the summer of 2015 and 2016, and then in January 2017 I moved to Korea and trained with the team full time for the Olympics.” The time and effort paid off. In spite of some on ice struggles early, the team began to jell, and they played some great hockey in their final two contests.. And the first goal ever scored in Korean Women’s Olympic history was by Randi Griffin. The puck now resides in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
This past off season, the Whale added goalie Mariya Sorokina (since dealt to the Metropolitan Riveters) from the Russian National team. At the time, Mariya’s signing increased the United Nation of Whale to six. And even in her short tenure, I believe that the mix of styles and experiences she brought have had far reaching benefits for the Whale and the NWHL, especially in light of her performance during the league’s Goalie Development Camp in December. Mariya agreed, saying, “It's true.This can bring something new and different into the team's game. A zest which is not present in other teams.” Just as the North American players who have traveled overseas to pursue hockey careers, have added to the on ice personality of their new teams.
The other five Nations are represented by Whale players have certainly added zest as Mariya Sorokina referenced, and they are going to the NWHL All-Star game in Nashville this winter. Canadian Shannon Doyle, a blue liner, is a player we refer to as an “OW” short for Original Whale. She has been a member of the Pod since the league’s historic game one. Shannon remembers it well and reminiscing said “I think my favorite season and favorite memory belong to season one. Everything was so exciting about year one, the players, the fans, the endless possibilities- the energy was electric! I also had the chance to play with some teammates that I hadn't played with (but played against!) in a long time. My favorite memory was the first time that we stepped on the ice for the first ever game of the NWHL. The arena was sold out, we had our uniforms on for the first time and it was an amazing game- winning helped make it even better!”
Two of the most exciting players in the NWHL this season have been our All Star from the Czech Republic, Katerina “Katka” Mrazova, and Sweden’s Michelle “M-Lo” Lowenhielm. Both came to the Whale from the University of Minnesota-Duluth where they had been teammates as well. They were also teammates there with former Whale Meghan “Huey” Huertas who offered this. “ I was fortunate to play with both Lowenhielm and Katka. They are both hard working, talented hockey players and even better people off the ice. I’d tell the fans that they are both very fun players to watch.” As Huey predicted, our two Euros have provided some incredibly entertaining shifts of skating, stickhandling, passing and shooting for the fans. And I think they have helped remind their teammates that they too are all great hockey talents, who have had a career of highlight film moments. We’ve seen speed, sick hands and aggressive offense from many more conservative players as a result. Even pros can sometimes forget just how great they are.
Katka shared these thoughts about how the Czech style might benefit her new team. “I think that Czech hockey has certain skills that are something like a tradition. And it is a past that connects a team together and forces players to have high skill with the stick. Also, I think creativity and intelligence are another Czech hockey culture sign. It is an honor for me and I am very happy to have this opportunity (with the Whale)” Michelle added ”The hockey culture and the level of compete here is outstanding I think. I wanted to play against the best players in the world and that’s what the NWHL has given me. I wish the league could add some more teams and get some more attention, cause the league got a lot of potential.”
Our third Euro, Finnish goaltender, (or maalivahti as we call her), Meeri Raisanen came to us as an Olympic & World Championship medalist, Finland Women’s Hockey League Champion, and a multiple time All-Star and Best Goalie honoree. Meeri was just voted the 2nd Best Hockey Player in Finland (M or F) by the Finnish hockey media:
She has been outstanding so far, literally making acrobatic saves every period she has been between the pipes. She has also registered only the second shutout in franchise history for the Whale. Meeri offered this comment about the United Nation of Whale. “ I love that we have such an international team. We all are in the same spot: new league, new team and new city. So we get support from each other in new situations. We have all loved it so far! “ And so far, as we have just seen, is at least as far as Nashville and the All-Star game, for these five members of the United Nation of Whale.
The American delegate from the United Nation of Whale is their Captain, Emily Fluke. Emily led the team in scoring last season, and quickly became the face of the franchise, the team taking on her personality on the ice, She is not just a scorer, but one of the best three zone players in hockey. If you watch her, she will do some little thing every shift to help her hockey team. Blocking shots, clearing the zone, tipping passes to interrupt rushes, digging the puck out of the corner or creating chances with her skating and stick work. She leads the special teams as well, and although only of average stature, she also plays as physical a brand of hockey as the rules allow. Emily told Dan Rice in an interview for the NWHL ”There are so many things to be excited about like the Skills Competition, the game, all of the new fans, playing at Bridgestone Arena. And then, it’s Nashville! I’ve never been there and it’s been on my bucket list for a very long time. It’s a great excuse to check out a great city, I love country music and some of my family and friends are coming so I’m really looking forward to it”