NWHL, Don’t Put All Your Olympians In One Basket

First things firsts: I love having the US Olympians in the NWHL and I can’t wait for them to come back. I’m glad the league (and the CWHL for Canada) lets these elite players take the season off to centralize and work together to put forth the best teams for PyeongChang 2018. But one thing that their absence this season has shown us, is that the NWHL has done itself a disservice in allowing the US Olympians in the league to lopsidedly play for the Boston Pride.

I admit, I’m a Riveters fan, and so maybe that perspective marks me as biased. After all in the first season, the Riveters had no current Olympians; even last year, while we did have #BestKessel, one of the best Olympians possible, she was hurt for a big part of the season, and she was still just one skater. Buffalo and Connecticut each had a few. And then there’s Boston, hoarding their Olympians like a dragon, and not surprisingly racking up the wins just as greedily.

Look, I get it. From a purely logistical standpoint, it makes sense. The trainer most of these players used from before the NWHL existed was based in Boston. Why mess with a good thing after such an impressive (if ultimately heartbreaking and soul-destroying) result in Sochi? Plus, many of them had been part of the CWHL’s Boston Blades, which meant they all had housing and jobs in the Boston area. It’s logical that they would stay there. But logic doesn’t always make for the best product, and here’s why.

Overloaded Pride

The Boston Pride went on a winning streak from January 10, 2016 to March 12, 2017, including 4 playoff games. They outscored their opponents a total 126-46. When the Pride were on the schedule for the week, you didn’t hold out much hope. And why not, when they were stacked with Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Meghan Duggan, and Alex Carpenter, just to name a few. While the Pride only had 4 shutouts in that timeframe, scoring a couple goals was never going to be enough to win. The other three teams could sometimes give the Pride a tough game, but on average the Pride beat their opponents by just about 3 goals per game. It finally took the scrappy Riveters to win 3-2 on the last game of the 2016-2017 regular season to end the Pride’s streak of 27 games (23 regular season, 4 playoff).

Good teams are great to see, but it’s different in a league of 4 teams total, and when the good team is that way from being overloaded with top talent rather than the team having chemistry that rocketed them to the top. That’s not to say that the Pride didn’t have chemistry, but it’s chemistry that was helped by playing for the US as well as the Blades. It’s a chemistry the other 3 teams didn’t get to experience. Of the 10 members of the 2017-2018 USWNT who were in the NWHL last season, 7 of them were on the Pride. (Of the other 3, two were Buffalo Beauts, and 1 was a New York Riveter.) Imagine the 10 players spread out more, around 2-3 per team.

Dismantled Pride

The 2017-2018 season, however, is markedly different. The members of the USWNT are not signed with NWHL teams at this time, as they centralize and focus on preparing for the Olympics–and this means that things are very different for the Boston Pride. With 7 elite players gone, along with the normal losses that can happen between seasons with free agency, the Pride have a lot of new faces on the ice. These players are all still very good, to be sure, but after four weeks, the Pride currently sit in last place at 0-3-1.

This year so far they’ve been outscored 8-14, losing by an average of 1.5 goals per game. It’s early, though, and their last two games saw them score 3 goals in each. Their last game against the Whale they held a 3-1 lead late in the third before losing in a shootout. So there’s chemistry starting, and I doubt this losing streak will last much longer.

In comparison, look at the Metropolitan Riveters. They’ve started the year perfectly, 4-0-0. They have the most goals of the four teams, and they certainly benefit from the fact that their turnover from last season was the least of all the teams. And they also only lost one skater to the Olympic centralization. So they have that chemistry that has built over the previous seasons.

As much as some fans of the other three teams might enjoy getting some W’s against the Pride, Boston’s fans certainly can’t be thrilled by the start, not when they’re so used to easy success from their team.

For the Fans

We hear the league and its players tout the “Grow the Game” phrase, reaching out to inspire young girls to play hockey and reach for their dreams. For the first two years of the league, though, most of the top players were only going to be seen by fans when they came to town. In 2015 we were coming off Sochi, which was a perfect time to start the league, but the players I’d gotten to know in February I could only see a few times when they came to New York. I didn’t get to know any of them like I did my home team.

So what if young players could see their Olympic heroes not 2-3 times a season, but 8 times? What if they could visit them in the autograph line after every game, become friendly with them, really form a bond that can inspire them to not only play the game, but to aspire higher than ever? You don’t get that with the players spread around.

We don’t know if any of the players will be back in the NWHL after the Winter Olympics are over, but at the very least, next season they’ll probably be back. I’m happy to have as many of them in the league as possible, but I really hope they spread out more evenly. It’ll make the competition in the league better, and it’ll be better for fans to have their “own” elite players to get to know well.

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