In an era when women’s hockey experienced unprecedented growth, Mandy Cronin was one of the premier goaltenders. From academic competition at the high school and university level in her home state of Maine, to an impressive professional career in the Greater Toronto Area, Cronin was part of a pioneering time in the game.
Helping to give the game a bold, exciting direction, she was among a rare group of American-born hockey players establishing new roots north of the border. Along with Cindy Eadie, a two-sport star who competed in softball at the 2004 Athens Summer Games, the two formed the best goaltending tandem during the infancy of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), winning the league’s inaugural title in 2008.
As memorable as that championship was, the opportunity to return to her hockey roots in New England during the autumn of 2010 was one of great pride for Cronin. From 1998 to 2002, she stood between the pipes for the Maine Black Bears. As a side note, she was also a goaltender for the Black Bears’ varsity women’s soccer program.
With the Black Bears, she was a three-year member of the university’s Student Athletic Advisory Board, and the recipient of the Senior Black Bear Leadership Award in 2002. Those strong leadership qualities would help create a new chapter in women’s hockey several years later. Along with fellow American-born player Kathleen Kauth, the two would help form the CWHL. Cronin reflects on how the earliest days augmented discussion about the possibility of an American-based franchise,
“During the founding meetings for the CWHL, we had often discussed the possibility and need to eventually bring a US team into the league, but I did not know if that would ever come to fruition. When it finally did, I had been drafted back to the Brampton Thunder up in the Toronto area – the team I had been with for 4 seasons. Yet, some divine intervention was at work, because I ended up being picked up by Boston before the season started.”
Making the heroic commute from her residence in Toronto to Boston required a significant commute. Of note, it was a commute that was not lost on one of her Blades’ teammates during that inaugural season in 2010-11. The first chapter of defender Cherie Hendrickson’s CWHL career began with the now-defunct Burlington Barracudas. Ironically, Hendrickson (who has also participated in the famous Boston Marathon), made the frequent commute from Boston to Burlington (prior to the formation of the Blades) in order to live the dream of continuing her playing career.
“It required a whole lot of Air Miles, but I played that one season with the Boston Blades while living and running my business in Toronto. Although the commute was a bit crazy at times, it was hands-down, the best and most memorable season of my CWHL career. And one of the greatest feelings for me was to hear the Star Spangled Banner before all of our games. By then, I had been living in Canada and only hearing the Canadian anthem for 8 years, so it brought tears to my eyes and I always made sure to sing every word!”
Playing for head coach Erin Whitten-Hamlen, another American-born goaltender who competed at the NCAA and international level, it would prove to be a perfect fit. This was enhanced by the presence of US National Team members such as Kacey Bellamy, Caitlin Cahow and Angela Ruggiero manning the blue line.
“I cannot really put into words just how much pride it gave me to finally put that black and gold BOSTON jersey on. Being from Maine, and growing up a Boston Bruins fan, it could not have meant more to me (other than when I got to put on the Team USA jersey, of course). I was finally able to play for my hometown team, and in front of my entire family, who had not been able to come to most of our games because they were all played up in Canada.”
During that first season, Cronin would lead all Blades goaltenders in wins with eight. She would stand between the pipes for the first two games in franchise history. A road series against the Barracudas resulted in two consecutive wins for Cronin (including a 3-0 shutout win in the first game).
Despite such a strong start and a talented roster, expansion woes would also be part of that inaugural season. One such instance took place during the final two regular season games for the Blades in December 2010. A road series against the eventual Clarkson Cup champion Montreal Blades resulted in a lopsided 10-2 loss.
Taking into account that only 12 Blades players were able to suit up for the match, it was a valiant effort. Angela Ruggiero would tie the game at 2 apiece early in the second period before Montreal reeled off eight unanswered goals.
An inspiring performance by Cronin highlighted a remarkable upset win the following day. Montreal would jump to a 2-0 lead while taking advantage of an undermanned Blades defense, bombarding her with a barrage of seemingly endless shots.
Boston would reply with three unanswered goals by Sam Faber, Jessica Koizumi and Ruggiero (with 3:50 remaining in the final frame) to humble the Stars with a 3-2 come-from-behind victory. Cronin would emerge with her own heroics, facing an unfathomable 72 shots, a franchise record. Fittingly, Cronin would be recognized as the First Star of the contest.
By season’s end, the Blades would qualify for the CWHL playoffs. In what would prove to be Cronin’s final game with the black and gold, it was a fitting end to a remarkable year. Competing against the Toronto Furies for the right to advance to the Clarkson Cup tournament, Harvard’s renowned Bright Arena served as the backdrop for this epic battle.
Opposing Cronin in the Furies net was fellow CWHL co-founder Sami Jo Small. Of note, the season had its own emotional impact for Small. Her former team, the Mississauga Chiefs had disbanded, and many of the former Chiefs would make their new home with the Toronto Furies, the Blades’ expansion cousins.
While Liz Keady provided the Blades with the 1-0 lead, Toronto would storm back. Former Harvard alum Jenny Brine opened the scoring for the blue and white. In the second, Rebecca Davies (who would become the Furies General Manager in the autumn of 2012) provided Toronto with the go-ahead goal while fellow CWHL co-founder Jennifer Botterill and Brine would earn the assists on Tessa Bonhomme’s third period marker. Small would earn the First Star nod, while Cronin was recognized as Third Star of the game.
The following season, Cronin would return to the Greater Toronto Area, suiting up for the Barracudas. Now in the twilight of her CWHL career, Cronin found herself in a back-up role to promising Canadian national team member Christina Kessler. Seeing two generations of goaltending heroes come together, Cronin provided the rookie backstop with wisdom and mentoring.
Although the season would prove to be a sad parallel as Cronin announced her retirement and the Barracudas would fold; it signified the end of an integral chapter in league history. Competing in the Barracudas final game in franchise history, there would be a bittersweet moment. As it also signified the retirement of team captain Sommer West, league co-founders Small and Botterill (who played with West on the Chiefs) were in attendance. It truly signified that Cronin’s career had come full circle. Of note, Stephanie Denino would be the last CWHL player to score a goal against Cronin, only adding to the irony as she would also retire after the season.
While both Cronin and the Barracudas both deserved a better ending, there is no question that the 2010-11 inaugural season of the Blades shall be forever engraved on her heart. It represented a magical time, ushering in a new era of CWHL history while providing Cronin with a season-long homecoming. Soaking up the admiration of friends and family, while doing what she loved most, that strong feeling of family is one which resonates with many in the game.
Having given so much to the game over the years, the chance to don the black and gold jersey of the Blades represented a personal triumph for Cronin. A unique opportunity to visit her roots while sculpting a new future for women’s hockey in New England, the Blades brought all these special emotions together.