As you might have heard, there is finally a professional women's hockey league — one that actually pays the players. (What a concept, right?) And even though we had to wait until 2015 for the National Women's Hockey League to happen, it's still incredibly awesome that it exists now. And now, after an incredible first season, the first ever NWHL Isobel Cup playoffs are ready to kick off on Friday, March 4. So even if you haven't been following the season — or maybe aren't even a hockey fan in general — now is a great time to watch.
The NWHL has had a big year, especially since the league seemed to come out of nowhere. It was announced last March, and by October, it had organized teams, hired staff, signed players, and was ready to begin its inaugural season. And just like that, #HistoryBegins. Since then, they've gotten a television contract with ESPN and NESN and even negotiated a multi-year corporate sponsorship agreement with Dunkin' Donuts. And, less than a year after founder and league commissioner Dani Rylan announced she was organizing a women's league, the NWHL has already proven itself to be a force to be reckoned with.
So whether you're a hockey fan looking for more teams to support, or you're just all about supporting women and their right to get paid, now is a great time to tune in to watch the NWHL. Here are just a few reasons why.
1. It's Genuinely Great Hockey
The women of the NWHL are phenomenal. Many are members of Team USA and have competed in the Olympics, or were the stars of their college hockey teams. They were already impressive at the beginning of the season. Now that the teams have had time to gel — and the players who were out of the game for a while before the league was announced have had time to get back in top form — the hockey is better than ever.
Despite the tendency many inexplicably have to look down on women's sports, the hockey in the NWHL is high quality enough to keep any hockey fan happy — and enough to get hockey neophytes hooked. (Plus, even though there isn't technically supposed to be checking... well, let's just say games are still plenty physical, if that's what you like in your hockey.)
2. The Teams Are All Awesome
There isn't a bad team in the NWHL, and I'm not just saying that because my home team is ranked fourth out of four, OK? All four of the original four teams are in the playoffs, and they're all worth watching. Here's the rundown:
The New York Riveters
The Riveters haven't been having the best season, a fact many have ascribed to their inexperienced coach. They're also the only team without any Team USA players — but that isn't to say their players aren't awesome. Defender Ashley Johnston is team captain, with Bray Ketchum, number 17, leading in scoring. And starting goaltender, Nana Fujimoto, is a member of the Japanese National Team, and is considered to be one of the best goal tenders in the world. Plus, I'm not saying we have the best logo, but...we totally have the best logo.
The Buffalo Beauts
The Buffalo Beauts had a tough start to their season and were ranked fourth for much of the year. But after several late season wins, they're headed into the playoffs in third place, and definitely have some momentum on their side. The team captain is Buffalo native Emily Pfalzer, and the lead scorer is Kelley Steadman, who is technically only a practice player; as a former member of the women's national team, however, it's no surprise she's having a great season with the Beauts. Starting goaltender is Amanda Makaela.
The Connecticut Whale
The Connecticut Whale were undefeated for a big portion of the season and for a long time seemed unstoppable — at least until their defeat to Boston in December. Since then, the Pride has defeated the Whale every time the two have played, though so far no other team has been able to beat the Whale. So even though they've been knocked out of their spot at the top of the standings, they are still a force to be reckoned with going into the playoffs. Jessica Koizumi is team captain, and Shiann Darkangelo, number 27, leads the scoring. Plus, the Whale's starting goaltender, Jaimie Leonoff, has the best save percentage in the league, upwards of 93 percent.
The Boston Pride
When the NWHL first started signing players, the Boston Pride were predicted to be the best team in the league based on the fact that they have the most Team USA players — which makes sense. Before the NWHL came along the only sort-of professional women's team in the United States was the Boston Blades, which played in the Canadian women's hockey league. So for a lot of women's national team players who played with the Blades, it was a no-brainer to switch to a league that was able to give them a salary while staying in Boston.
The Pride had a surprisingly rocky to the season, but they've been undefeated since December and are at the top of the standings going into the playoffs. Brianna Decker and Hillary Knight are co-captains of the team, and Knight also leads the scoring — not surprising, given that if there's one name you know in women's hockey, it's probably Hillary Knight. Starting goaltender Brittney Ott has been having an impressive season as well.
3. It's Anyone's Cup
Again, I might be a little biased here, given that my team is definitely not expected to win, but with this league, you never know what might happen. The first playoff match-ups pit the Pride against the Riveters and the Whale against the Beauts, and while the Pride and the Whale are expected to advance, it's worth noting that the Riveters have defeated the Pride in four of their six match-ups. Additionally, while the Beauts have yet to defeat the Whale, half of the games have been either shoot-out or overtime losses. So while the Beauts and the Riveters are both long shots to make the finals, at the very least the games should be good to watch.
4. It's Inspiring
Even if you're not a hockey person, it's hard not to be inspired by this league — and in fact, one of their goals is to inspire the next generation of girls to pursue their hockey dreams. Go to a game and you'll see dozens of young female hockey fans, soaking up the action. And it's hard not to feel the power of that, and not to get excited about the fact that these world-class female athletes now have a place to show off their skills.
It's no wonder there's a documentary film being made about it.
5. Watching In Person Is Awesome
As a season ticket holder for the Riveters, I can tell you that going to see the games in person is awesome. And if you live in or around Boston, Connecticut, or the New York area, you can go see the playoffs, too. This weekend, Pride and the Riveters will be playing at the Raymond Burque Arena in Beverly, Mass., while the Whale and the Beauts will go head to head at Chelsea Piers in Connecticut. And then, the Isobel Cup final will be held at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.
6. Watching Online Is Free
The Cross-Ice Pass streams online via YouTube. You can find more information here.
7. Did I Mention It's Great Hockey?
Aside from all the ways the league is inspiring and providing female athletes with much-deserved long overdue opportunity, the games are also genuinely good hockey. They're fast, they're physical, and they're tons of fun to watch. So whether you're already a hockey fan or think you might enjoy becoming one (spoiler alert: you will), you should check out the NWHL playoffs. You won't be disappointed.