As the Connecticut Whale hosted the New York Riveters in the NWHL’s inaugural game, there was a strong international influence between the pipes. Montreal-born Jaimie Leonoff guarded the Whale’s crease, while Japan’s Nana Fujimoto, who competed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, made her NWHL debut for the Riveters.
While Fujimoto was one of the league’s big name international free agent acquisitions, Leonoff was no stranger for the fans in attendance at Chelsea Piers, Connecticut. Prior to signing with the Whale, she had played for four seasons in New Haven, Connecticut with the Yale Bulldogs.
A three-time winner of the Bulldogs Team MVP award, Leonoff provided the program with solid goaltending performances. Highlighted by over 3,000 career saves, Leonoff’s achievements were complemented by over 25 career wins, a career .918 save percentage plus a 2.96 goals against average, respectively.
This season, Leonoff shares goaltending duties with Nicole Stock, an All-Ivy selection who played for head coach Digit Murphy on the Brown Bears from 2005-09, plus Chelsea Laden, who played her NCAA hockey for the Quinnipiac Bobcats from Hamden, Connecticut.
Last season, the two played each other three times in NCAA play. Laden and Quinnipiac would win the first two contests, but Leonoff would make 37 saves in a 3-0 shutout win on February 20, 2015, which was the last time in which the two opposed each other.
Making history by competing in the NWHL’s first-ever game, Leonoff assembled a 35-save effort as the Whale prevailed by a 4-1 tally. Playing two periods of shutout hockey, Leonoff would allow one goal in the second period, the first ever scored by the Riveters.
Brooke Ammerman, a member of the NCAA’s 200-point club as a member of the Wisconsin Badgers, scored the historic goal against Leonoff. Adding to the sense of history was the fact that her goal was assisted by Russia’s Lyudmila Belyakova, who became the first European-born player to register an NWHL regular season point. As a side note, she captured a bronze medal at the 2013 IIHF Women’s Worlds and gold at the 2015 Winter Universiade.
Although Ammerman’s goal had tied the game at 1 apiece in the second period, goals by Kelli Stack and a pair of Quinnipiac Bobcats alums (Shiann Darkangelo and Kelly Babstock) would result in a 4-1 final for the Whale. With the win, it provided Leonoff the chance to add to her proud Connecticut hockey legacy by capturing victory in the NWHL’s inaugural game. For her efforts, she was recognized as the First Star of the Game.
“It was absolutely incredible. I have been playing in Connecticut since my sophomore year of high school so being able to play professionally in Stamford feels just like home.
It was so great to have so many fans supporting us at our home opener so for me it was a unique experience to have the NWHL’s first win ever. Of course, as this is a new league, it is amazing to be able to set records and be a part of history and I am hoping to set many more!”
Adding to the jubilation of Leonoff’s historic win was the proud Canadian contribution in the NWHL’s inaugural game. Taking into account that all the players in the NWHL have the flag from their country of birth on the left shoulder of their game jerseys, the Maple Leaf was prevalent in the Whale’s win.
Not only did Leonoff also become the first Canadian born goaltender to win an NWHL regular season game, teammate Kelly Babstock added to Canada’s impact in NWHL play. With her goal in the third period, Babstock, the native of Mississauga, Ontario became the first Canadian to score an NWHL regular season goal.
Other Canadians on the Whale roster during their inaugural season includes Shannon Doyle, Kaleigh Fratkin and fellow Yale alum Tara Tomimoto, one of the squad’s practice players. Having graduated with the Boston University Terriers, Doyle was once featured on a hockey card in Upper Deck’s World of Sports card set in 2010-11, while Fratkin, another Terriers alum made history as the first Canadian to sign an NWHL player contract.
“I am very proud of the Canadian contribution to the game. We have multiple Canadian girls on our roster, and each plays such an important role on our team. Having girls from either side of the border is what makes this league so strong, and hopefully the Canadian presence continues to grow over the years.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credit: Troy Parla