For women’s hockey fans, this day could not come fast enough. After months of anticipation and the building of a league, opening day arrived for the NWHL and it delivered on all accounts. From coverage in media outlets such as CBS News, the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, it is testament to the growing impact and importance of women’s hockey in the United States.
While league founder and commissioner Dani Rylan has been catapulted into one of the most influential and powerful women in American sport, not to mention pioneering celebrity status, an exciting moment took place on opening day which was truly an emotional thank you for all her hard work. Having grown up in Tampa Bay (her father worked for the NHL’s Lightning), one of her earliest hockey heroes was Manon Rheaume, who broke the NHL’s gender barrier by standing between the pipes for the Lightning during their inaugural season.
Prior to the opening faceoff of the first game in Buffalo Beauts’ history, Rheaume participated in the ceremonial puck drop in front of a sold-out crowd. Her presence was not only a remarkable way for two generations of women’s hockey pioneers to take part in a new era in the game’s history, it was a fitting and emotional way for Rheaume to pass the torch to Rylan.
For the fans in attendance in Buffalo, Rheaume’s involvement was part of an event that shall provide a lifetime of memories. The first 500 fans to pass through the gates received a special edition Rheaume hockey card (destined to become a collector’s item) while all fans received a commemorative puck. In addition, there was a postgame skate for fans with the Beauts and an autograph session with Rheaume. Kudos to the NWHL on providing a remarkable fan experience.
Of note, the Connecticut Whale would make its own mark on women’s hockey history in the US as it was the site for the league’s inaugural game, which featured Kelli Stack headlining the Whale’s roster, and Janine Weber, the first player signed to an NWHL contract leading the New York Riveters. At 2:28 in the first period, Jessica Koizumi would make history by scoring the first goal in NWHL history, as Nana Fujimoto allowed said goal. Earning the assists were Kelli Stack and Kelly Babstock. Coincidentally, Koizumi had scored the first goal in Boston Blades history.
As a side note, Riveters blueliner Ashley Johnston would get the first penalty in league history, being called for hooking at 8:15. Before the period would expire, Connecticut’s Danielle Ward was called for cross-checking, becoming the Whale’s first-ever player sent to the penalty box.
Heading into the second period, both teams would score as former Wisconsin Badgers’ superstar Brooke Ammerman scored the Riveters first-ever goal at 4:15, as Lyudmila Belyakova earned the assist, becoming the first European to log a point in an NWHL game. Montreal-born Jaimie Leonoff, who played her NCAA hockey for the Yale Bulldogs (where Koizumi served on the coaching staff) allowed Ammerman’s goal. Just 70 seconds later, Kelli Stack would score for the Whale, reclaiming the lead.
The third period saw a pair of Quinnipiac Bobcats alumnae add to the Whale’s lead as Shiann Darkangelo and Kelly Babstock scored for a 4-1 final. With the game’s final goal, Babstock also became the first Canadian-born player to score a goal in an NWHL regular season game. Leonoff would take the win in a 35-save effort along with First Star of the Game honors. Stack was named Second Star while Babcock took Third Star. As a side note, Katie Guay and Andrea Wissman were the referees for the league’s inaugural game.
Following the Whale hosting the Riveters, All-World goaltender Brianne McLaughlin and the Buffalo Beauts hosted the Boston Pride, whose lineup featured Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker, named by The Hockey News as the world’s best women’s hockey player in 2015. It would come as no surprise that Knight scored the first goal in Pride history, scoring at 12:08. Of note, it would be the first unassisted goal scored in league history.
Outshot 15-4 in the first period, the Beauts assembled a more solid performance in the second period managing 11 shots on Blades backstop Brittany Ott. Despite their best efforts, the Beauts fell behind 3-0 after two periods of play. Knight would score again in the second period, becoming the first NWHL player to score two goals in one game. Earning the assist was Kacey Bellamy, the first of two in the game for her. At the 11:03 mark in the second, Jordan Smelker, who became the first Alaskan-born player to win the Clarkson Cup, made history once again as the first Alaskan to score an NWHL goal. Earning the assists on her landmark goal were Alyssa Gagliardi and Decker.
Kelley Steadman would bring the Beauts on the scoreboard in the third period, scoring on Ott at the 7:58 mark in the third. Logging the assist was Meghan Duggan, Team USA’s captain at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Vermont’s Amanda Pelkey would add the Pride’s final goal of the game, with Bellamy assisting, as Ott earned the first goaltending win in Pride history, while becoming the first American-born goaltender to win an NWHL game, in a 4-1 final.
On a day that was defined as #HistoryBegins, there will certainly be many more historic milestones to come this season. With such anticipation, it will be exciting to see who will become the first European to score a goal in the NWHL and who shall score the first goal in the NWHL All-Star Game.
For the NWHL and its players, the bigger victory was reflected in the fact that opening day proved that this league was able to live up to its potential and deliver a high quality of world class hockey that may set the gold standard in professional women’s hockey. From the tireless efforts of Dani Rylan, to the dedication of all the team’s general managers, to the players for placing their faith in such an empowering venture, here is hoping that history continues.