SB Nation

ekbartus | February 24, 2016

Growing the game: The Boston Blades' road back to the top

The 2014-2015 Blades dominated the CWHL. This year's team won one single game. Can we use them as a barometer for the future of expansion in Women's Hockey?

"Grow the game" is something you’ll hear everywhere in and around women’s hockey. Sometimes it’s a nod to the phrase’s origin within youth sports; sometimes it’s a euphemism for marketing. Grow the players. Grow the crowd. Grow the interest. Sell the game.

On the third weekend in January, the Boston Blades stepped onto home ice for the final time in the 2015-2016 Canadian Women’s Hockey League season. Two-thirds of the way through the league’s 24-game season, the defending champions of the Clarkson Cup were 1-17-0 and pitted against Montreal’s Les Canadiennes, one of the league’s strongest and most decorated teams.

Throughout the season, they had struggled both offensively and defensively, relying heavily on Olympian goaltender Genevieve Lacasse. This set of games was no exception. Even without their star goaltender Charline Labonte, Les Canadiennes took home two shut-outs, and the Blades closed out their last home weekend without a win - or a goal.

The rise and fall of the Boston Blades has overshadowed media coverage of their performance and their current players throughout the 2015-2016 season. There are a number of reasons for their struggles this season, but their gutted roster and management turnover are the easiest to point to. However, the main issues plaguing the Blades are ones that every professional women’s hockey team will experience if the sport continues the rapid and decentralized expansion that it experienced in North America last year.

There were five active teams last year, all of them in the CWHL. This year, they are joined by five more: four in the new National Women’s Hockey League and the revived independent Minnesota Whitecaps, formerly of the Western Women’s Hockey League. For the next few years, these teams, especially those in the United States, will depend on an artificially limited talent pool. With no support and few opportunities after their NCAA eligibility expires, many women’s hockey players’ careers terminate after collegiate success.

Last year, the Boston Blades were an elite team of superstars. This year, they’re the future of women’s hockey.

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The CWHL was founded in 2007 as a place for national team members to play in non-Olympic years, covering travel costs, ice time, and sometimes equipment for players. The NWHL, which emerged last April, has distinguished itself with savvy marketing and a commitment to paying players. Boston is the one city where the two leagues overlap.

The Boston Blades of the CWHL play primarily at New England Sports Center in Marlborough, while the Boston Pride of the NWHL play at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center. The most notable relationship between the two teams is the 2014-2015 Boston Blades roster: of those 25 players, 11 now play for the Pride, nine have departed for other teams and opportunities, and five remain active on the Blades.

Tara Watchorn skates against the Calgary Inferno. Photo Credit: Andrew Cardinale.

The person behind the newest iteration of the Boston Blades is general manager Krista Patronick. Last season, Patronick was a volunteer for the Boston Blades; this season, she’s the front office. Since she took the reins, she’s hired veteran UNH coach Brian McCloskey to replace former coach Digit Murphy and rebuilt the team’s depleted roster. While the returning players are some of the team’s strongest—captain Tara Watchorn, goaltender Lacasse, defense Dru Burns, forwards Megan Myers and Ashley Cottrell—they were hardly enough to fill out the team’s bench.

"The roster came together through a series of professional and personal connections in the women’s hockey world," Patronick said. "Katie King at Boston College was a huge help. A lot of my friends who I’ve met while playing ice and ball hockey helped, which is how I was connected with a number of the players - Sadie and Clara [St. Germain], Desiree Casian, Gray, Flores, Gore."

"My co-worker introduced me to Megan Shea, who has been a huge part of our roster this season. So, a lot of people in my personal life had a hand in helping the Blades get off the ground this season, and I’m very grateful for that. The players themselves also help. Lacasse introduced us to Olivia Keefe. The players themselves are the best advocates for the program, so I’m happy to have had their help as well."

"Everybody is just very happy to be here and be playing again," said Sadie St. Germain, who graduated from Syracuse in 2014. Her sister Clara, like other players on the team, stayed active during her time away from the game through coaching. Alternate captain Kristina Brown went to Europe to continue her professional career, playing with the DEC Salzburg Eagles in Austria and HPK in Finland. Megan Shea, a Boston College alum, thought her playing career was over when she graduated in 2012. "I wasn’t on the USA hockey radar, so there weren’t really too many opportunities for me to continue playing competitively," she said.

"When I first heard that the Blades were looking for players, I was apprehensive about playing - I hadn’t been on the ice in three years, let alone playing in a game against some of the most talented female hockey players in the world! I did not want to get involved with something unless I knew for certain I would be able to fully commit to giving it my best effort every day at the rink. I am so glad I did! It definitely took a few practices to get my wind, legs, and timing back to playing shape, but I feel more and more comfortable on the ice every day. The pace of the games is unbelievable, which is to be expected when you’re facing off against the best players in the world." Shea is one of the Blades’ leading goal scorers this season.

Forward Erin Kickham came straight from the NCAA, having graduated from Boston College this spring. "I was really late to join the Boston Blades for this season, because I started a graduate school program in Nursing at BC this fall and I did not think I would be able to balance the school work with professional hockey," she said.

"My parents reminded me that I had balanced hockey and school my whole life…as a little girl I had the dream of playing professional hockey. I could not let this opportunity pass me by."

"After getting a couple weeks of school under my belt, a few conversations with my parents (who reminded me that I had balanced hockey and school my whole life) and with some convincing from old BC teammates Dru Burns and Kristina Brown I decided to join the Blades. As a little girl like most little kids I had the dream of playing professional hockey, so when it came down to it, I could not let this opportunity pass me by."

While Kickham had a modest collegiate career, she’s emerged to become one of the most dominant players on the Blades: with one goal and six assists, she has finished the season tied with Myers for the team lead in points. She’s one of the players that Patronick mentions by name when talking about the Blades’ role in player development. "My favorite part about this team is that while a lot of players have college hockey experience, some of them ‘rode the bench,’ so to speak, during their college careers. It’s been great to see players like Kickham and Shea put up points."

Watchorn echoed Patronick’s comments. "There’s a lot of girls who played college and played not as a big a role for four years," she said after the Blades’ December 6 game against the Brampton Thunder, where the Blades held the Thunder to a tie for the majority of the game. "Now they’re here, they get a lot of ice and get to be a bigger impact on the team and they’re really thriving in that role."

Watchorn, a member of Canada’s Olympic team, is also making a big impact. While she’s played in the CWHL since 2012, her first two seasons were with Team Alberta, which became the Calgary Inferno: her first season with the Blades was 2014-2015. Now she’s the team captain. Watchorn speaks highly and affectionately of her team; her teammates feel the same about her.

"I was nervous going from a place and a team like BC where I had been for four years and had become so comfortable to the Boston Blades where I did not know the team, the coach, or what playing in the CWHL would be like," Kickham said. "It was really after the first away trip to Toronto when I really got to know the team that allowed me to transition well. We all got to know each other, and click as a group. The veterans on the team like Tara Watchorn, Genevieve Lacasse, Dru Burns and Megan Myers have been a big help in making the transition from BC to the Blades smooth."

Gen Lacasse broke the CWHL’s regular season save record in December with nine games to go.

Speaking of Lacasse, the elite goaltender has rapidly become the Blades’ standout player. Last season, she alternated with Brittany Ott, who now players for the Pride; this season, Lacasse has started in every game. Lacasse took the record for saves in the regular CWHL season in December and has logged 1,083 minutes in goal over 18 games with a 0.915 SVP. Along with Watchorn, Burns, and Brown, she represented the Blades at the CWHL’s All-Star Game in Toronto.

"Our top two lines can really move the puck and I’ve been happy with what they’ve been able to pull off in so many tough situations," said Patronick of the team’s current lineup. "But what I think is strongest is their character… There have been so many times when it feels like the win is close and the game just slips away from them. It’s understandably frustrating, but still they move forward, they give it their all every shift they take… They know what they’re up against and still they fight. That says a lot."

★ ★ ★

When the Boston Blades stepped onto home ice for the final time in the 2014-2015 CWHL season, they were 13-6-1 in the league and poised to sweep the last four games on their regular season schedule. The only active professional women’s hockey team affiliated with a league in the US at the time, the Blades had one of the most stacked rosters in the five-team league.

A page of the comic posted by Hilary Knight in February 2015.

Yet, as Olympian Hilary Knight shared in a memorable comic on Twitter, they were still struggling with ticket sales, both in meeting their individual ticket quotas and paying their way to the Clarkson Cup. Knight’s comic, as well as her suggestions that people purchase tickets under her and Decker’s names, drew some fire for both the players and the team. Criticism couldn’t obscure the reality: the biggest names in women’s hockey had trouble drawing a crowd in one of the largest hockey markets in North America.

During the last ten months, the Boston Blades became the only CWHL team to retain fewer than four of the previous season’s points leaders, gain direct competition within the same market, experience a total coaching and management turnover, and move from a stable home rink to a series of less accessible venues. The Blades have experienced rapid and dramatic change at all levels over a very short period of time. However, those changes don’t fully explain the difficulties the team is experiencing bouncing back. Underlying issues are limiting the team’s success in the face of aggressive, national competition.

Knight posted her comic on February 19, 2015, two months before the Blades’ own Twitter account was briefly suspended for meeting Twitter’s spam criteria. While the Blades have developed a solid presence on social media this year, they’re challenged with the task of creating a new strategy for the Blades’ brand. Last season, when a third of the 2014 United States Olympic Team was on the Blades roster in addition to Watchorn and Lacasse, they were the only game in town. This year, the team has to bank on past fans and previous success to draw in viewers, even though neither of those have helped the Blades put up great attendance numbers in the past.

Why have the Blades struggled since their first year to gain footing compared to other CWHL teams? The answer is clear when you look at the development of women’s hockey over the past decade. Through consolidation and dissolution, the number of elite women’s hockey teams in North America dwindled from 14 in the 2005-2006 season to just five in the 2014-2015 season.

The four Canadian CWHL teams today are sustained by local fanbases that date back to when senior women’s hockey was as far as women could progress in the sport, and three of those are descendants of teams that merged to combine split regional audiences. Prior to creation of the NWHL last year, there had only been a single professional women’s hockey team in the last decade created as an expansion into a new market, one without an established regional following for select or professional women’s hockey. That team is the Boston Blades.

The early success of the NWHL suggests that a broader market for professional women’s hockey in the United States exists; the CWHL announced this summer that it is planning its own midwest expansion. The Minnesota Whitecaps have played exhibition games with three NWHL teams, but remain independent of a league. While the audience may be there, the pool of elite players who can sustain a post-collegiate career will not be able to increase as rapidly as the league infrastructure. As the 2010-2011 Boston Blades were trailblazers for professional women’s hockey in the United States, so are the 2015-2016 Blades for expansion teams to come.

Take away the United States national team members, the veterans, the majority of a deep backup roster. What do the Blades have left? How are they facing the superstars of the CWHL every weekend, losing, and yet continuing to improve as the season goes on?

"They know what they’re up against and still they fight. That says a lot."

"The strongest part of the Blades’ game right now is our work ethic," says Kickham. The Blades can only swing two one-hour on-ice practices every week. Players supplement their team practice with independent workouts. Kickham’s current routine has carried over from her days at BC, which the team’s strength and conditioning coach Russ DeRosa helped her develop over her four years on the team. She lifts three times a week, attends spin classes, and plans to start boxing as well to improve her footwork, speed, strength, and "explosiveness." Like Kickham, her teammates juggle off-ice training with graduate school or full-time jobs in addition to giving up their weekends for games at home or on the road. (The team’s game-day staff—and Patronick—do the same.) "It has been incredible to be surrounded by such passionate and competitive teammates who go to battle every day," says Shea. "Although our record doesn’t reflect it, this has been one of the best teams I’ve been a part of throughout my hockey career."

The Boston Blades faced the Toronto Furies in Ontario at the beginning of February, where Burns broke a 390-minute scoreless streak for the team on Sunday; last weekend, they ended the regular season in Quebec with Les Canadiennes. The Blades recorded losses in all four of those games to finish the regular season with a 1-23-0 record. There is no postseason in store for the team this year.

★ ★ ★

Patronick has high hopes for 2016-2017 season, for which she will return as GM. The Blades are looking to move back into the city, to a venue more central and easily accessible than NESC and the other rinks that have served as the Blades’ home ice in this season. The 2016 CWHL draft this August will strengthen the team’s roster. In-house, the team should be on steadier footing.

Last season, there were five professional women’s hockey teams in North America; this season, there are ten. The majority of the Blades’ new players never saw a post-collegiate career in their future. In the vacancy created by the previous players’ departure, a group of players who never thought they’d have a chance to crack a professional roster are going up against Canadian legends (and Julie Chu) on the ice every weekend. The questions that the Boston Blades will continue to face—profitability, sustainability, visibility—are the same ones that both leagues will have to weigh as they look to expand. One thing, however, is clear. Growing the game isn’t just about creating a league for young girls to aspire to. For the Blades, it’s opening the door to give talented players room to participate, right here, right now.

Editor: Sarah Connors | Photo Credit: Andrew Cardinale

About the Author

I cover the Boston Pride (NWHL) and the Boston Blades (CWHL) for Watch This Hockey.