Get the latest from Women's Hockey Life straight to your inbox

NWHL: Allie Thunstrom | Minnesota Whitecaps

Renowned as a multi-sport star, excelling on the ice in both hockey and speed skating, Allie Thunstrom continues to amass compelling career highlights. Calling the Minnesota Whitecaps her club team, Thunstrom was a key figure in their transition to the NWHL during the 2018-19 season.

After more than nearly a decade spent in the competitive wilderness, surviving as an independent, the Whitecaps managed to persevere with a highly notable group of star players and an indomitable will. Among such a group of tremendous talent, Thunstrom, who was raised in Maplewood, maintained her standing as both leader and playmaker, making the leap into the nascent American-based league.

Allie Thunstrom competes in the Ladies 500 meter event during the Long Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials at the Pettit National Ice Center on January 5, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Jan. 4, 2018 – Source: Stacy Revere/Getty Images North America)

“Playing with the Whitecaps for the better part of a decade before joining the NWHL and seeing the strides we made, not only as a team but as an overall organization, to get to this point and fully understanding all of the sacrifices that were made to get here, made it so incredibly special to be able to play the inaugural season in a professional league.

Over the years, we have had to raise money by selling advertisements in a program, creating a calendar with player photos, running camps and clinics before and after games, and sometimes self-funding the desire to keep playing the game we love and competing at a high level… All of the people who have supported us and been along for the ride are equally excited to see it in action, which is why we sold out our entire home slate this season.

Our fans have played a huge, huge role in getting us, and the sport in general, to this level. Many of our fans have been watching us play colleges in the area for years and this experience is just as rewarding for them as it is for us. So, when we skated onto the ice for our very first game, and the arena was packed, standing room only, and they were SCREAMING for us.

It literally gave me goose bumps. It was the absolute coolest feeling and something I will absolutely never forget. It gives you so much energy to play in front of a passionate crowd and our fans provide a phenomenal atmosphere every single night. It never gets old. I am so thankful to our fans for giving us that experience night in and night out.”

Thunstrom signing her first NWHL contract (Image obtained from: https://twitter.com/WhitecapsHockey/status/1024698257061150727)

Since their inaugural season, the NWHL has involved the Whitecaps in its narrative. From exhibition games at Ridder Arena versus the Boston Blades in December 2015, the first professional contests in the State of Hockey, to inviting a pair of Whitecaps skaters (Sadie Lundquist and Kate Schipper) the privilege of participating in the 2018 NWHL All-Star Game, the league has always recognized both, the value and the importance, of Whitecaps hockey.

Boasting the leagues’ finest attendance in their first NWHL season, the Whitecaps and their fan base reciprocated the league’s faith in the franchise, demonstrating the female game’s potential to capture the hearts and minds of hockey fans. Quickly becoming one of the most talked-about teams in professional women’s hockey, earning a write-up in the highly popular Hockey News, the Whitecaps simultaneously became a signature attraction throughout the league, emerging as the true feel-good story of hockey in 2018-19.

Taking their true place as an elite franchise, a milestone that Thunstrom was exceptionally proud to be part of, perhaps the most rewarding element of suiting up for the Whitecaps involved the fan experience. With post-game autograph sessions a staple in professional women’s ice hockey on both sides of the border, the commendable opportunity to provide fans access to their hockey heroines has added a compelling human touch to the game, one that has provided Thunstrom with tremendous inspiration.

Image obtained from: https://twitter.com/StribSports/status/1131947175896932352/photo/

“Playing at home in front of our fans was absolutely one of the best parts of the season. Getting to know the fans through the autograph sessions post-game and some of the other activities made it even more rewarding because you know them and they know you – so it adds a bit more of a personal touch and now you are not only playing for yourself and your teammates, but for them as well.”

Racking up 12 points in 16 games played, logging a solid +9 rating, while disciplined play resulted in only eight penalty minutes, Thunstrom’s consistency was exemplified by finishing fourth on the Whitecaps in scoring, trailing scoring leader Jonna Curtis by seven points. Worth noting, the Whitecaps enjoyed a sterling 8-1-0 mark when Thunstrom logged at least one point during the season.

Making her NWHL debut on October 6, 2018 versus the Metropolitan Riveters, the result was a compelling 4-0 shutout. The following day, Thunstrom would log her first NWHL point, earning an assist, as the Whitecaps swept the Riveters. Two weeks later, the Whitecaps would visit the Riveters in New Jersey, extending their success against them. Of note, the October 21, 2018 affair saw Thunstrom score twice, complemented by an exceptional +4 on the day.

Thunstrom all smiles in her 2019 NWHL All-Star Jersey (Image obtained from Facebook)

Rewarded for her assiduous efforts with a nod to the 2019 NWHL All-Star Game, it marked a major milestone for all involved. Contested at Bridgestone Arena, home of the Nashville Predators, it marked the first time that the league’s mid-season classic was held at an NHL venue.

Setting an attendance record for a professional women’s ice hockey game in the United States, Thunstrom was drafted to Team Stecklein, joining fellow Whitecaps such as Hannah Brandt, Jonna Curtis, Amanda Leveille, Kate Schipper and Stecklein, who served as captain. As a side note, another pair of Whitecaps, Amanda Boulier and Kendall Coyne-Schofield also earned All-Star status, playing for Team Szabados.

Thunstrom, skating for Team Stecklein, shoots against goalie Shannon Szabados at the 2019 NWHL All-Star Hockey Game (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Of note, the event allowed Thunstrom the opportunity to tap into another aspect of her remarkable sporting legacy, which also includes the 2006 Minnesota Ms. Hockey Award, where she graduated as the all-time leading scorer at North St. Paul High School, she has skated for different US national teams: she competed in the Four Nations Cup with the US National Women’s Ice Hockey Team, and has participated at the World Bandy Championships, where she has enjoyed numerous seasons with the US National Bandy Team.

Having also taken part in the 2014 and 2018 US Olympic Speed Skating Trials, (placing eighth in 2018), Thunstrom continues to establish herself as a world-class athlete. Of note, her personal best in the 500-meter race is 39 seconds, which she achieved in November 2017 in Calgary. Naturally, such proficiency resulted in Thunstrom competing in the Fastest Skater competition at the NWHL All-Star Skills, to the delight of fans.

With the exceptionally high quality of play on the ice, the outpouring of offensive brilliance required a shootout in order to decide a winner. With a highly enthusiastic crowd filling the lower bowl to capacity, elated over the unfolding on-ice saga, Amanda Kessel would score the shootout winner for Team Szabados. Undeniably, the entire event served as stimulus for the jubilant players, providing Thunstrom with one of the most exciting chapters of her athletic endeavours,

”Participating in the NWHL All-Star game at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville was an absolutely surreal experience. We had been there to watch the Predators play the Blues and the arena was PACKED. The atmosphere was incredible and it was really fun to experience.

When we went downstairs to get ready you could still hear the crowd pretty vividly and we started to wonder how many people would stay for our game.

As it went into OT it was one of those things where you are thinking, ‘These fans have potentially already been here for 3-4 hours, do they really want to stick around and watch us?’. So to be honest, I anticipated walking out to the ice and seeing a few hundred fans, if that. But WOW… I could not have been more wrong.

The entire lower bowl was filled and when we skated out they cheered, just as loud, for us. It was probably one of the coolest things I have gotten to experience in my career so far. They kept the energy for the entire game and it was a blast. The game itself was really fun, playing 4 vs. 4 against the best players in the league – so much speed, so much creativity and phenomenal goaltending. You really cannot ask for anything more.”

By season’s end, the Whitecaps success was not only defined by a first place finish, but one that continued into a dominant playoff. Earning home ice advantage, the fan base was like a ‘seventh player’, akin to the ‘twelfth man’ in NFL football.

Yet, the road to first place was one defined by peaks and valleys, developing into a character moment for Thunstrom and her teammates. With the Buffalo Beauts among the clubs in the Isobel Cup conversation, their 4-0 win over the Whitecaps on December 30, followed by the Boston Pride defeating the Whitecaps in a high scoring 5-4 affair on January 12, served as a wake-up call.

Reeling off five straight wins, the league’s final weekend of regular season play would be filled with dramatic thrill. Recalling the late-season push, Thunstrom emphasized how the playoff atmosphere was evident during the final weekend, every game becoming a must-win in order to avoid a playoff spent on the road.

With the Whitecaps logging more miles than any other team in the league, Thunstrom, whose off-ice occupation entails travels too, would have been on a flight spanning two to three days for a duration of nearly three weeks. Undeniably, the victories over Boston (2-1, March 2) and Connecticut (4-1, March 3) were the turning point, setting the tone for a playoff run at TRIA Rink in Saint Paul, which is also the official practice facility for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.

”Being able to play the Isobel Cup playoffs on home ice was special for sure. Anytime we can play at home in front of our fans is something we look forward to, but I think the way in which we earned that top seed made it even more special.

After dropping a few games to Boston and one to Buffalo, we HAD to win both games in Boston and Connecticut (in order) to take the #1 seed. I think there was a three-way tie, or the potential for it, heading into the last weekend and if we lost we would have been traveling both weekends (provided we won the semi-final).

That was not really something we wanted to do, considering we were already on the road that weekend. So to come out of Boston with a huge win and turn around the next day and beat (the Whale) to secure home ice was really, really special.”

With the playoff run beginning by vanquishing the Riveters in a 5-1 final on St. Patrick’s Day, as Thunstrom earned an assist, the Whitecaps hosted the Buffalo Beauts, who defeated the Pride 4-0, as a sold-out crowd was on-hand for the fourth Isobel Cup Final.

Worth noting, a Minnesotan from the Beauts roster experienced a unique brush with history, adding to a unique feeling of full circle. Corinne Buie, raised in Edina, Minnesota, and a co-captain of the Beauts became the only player in league history to appear in the first four Isobel Cup Finals. As a side note, Buie not only appeared in the Women’s Winter Classic, the first-ever professional outdoor women’s ice hockey game, her sporting resume also features a Clarkson Cup title.

Minnesota Whitecaps Isobel Cup championship ring (Image obtained from: https://twitter.com/whitecapshockey?lang=bn)

Akin to the All-Star event, regulation in the Isobel Cup Final also ended with a tie score. Amanda Leveille, the Whitecaps starting goaltender, actually won the Isobel Cup with Buffalo in 2017. Recording 22 saves in the Final, Lee Stecklein, the All-Star captain would score on 2018 Winter Games gold medalist Nicole Hensley, in the 2-1 victory.

Becoming the first team to win both the Clarkson and Isobel Cups, befitting a team, whose endurance is just as admirable as the sterling on-ice results, its success truly bookended a landmark decade in the game. With the Clarkson Cup triumph taking place in 2010, while the euphoria of the Isobel occurred in 2019, legendary figures such as Winny Brodt-Brown and Brooke White-Lancette part of both championship teams, the consistency and resiliency of this persevering franchise embodies the beauty of the female game.

Having enjoyed the opportunity to contribute to the Whitecaps saga, Thunstrom has taken her own place among the franchise’s luminaries. While her hockey odyssey would also take her to the Northeast, skating for the Boston College Eagles from 2006-10, the return home saw Thunstrom record an amazing 42 points in her first season with the Whitecaps (2010-11).

Juggling her playing commitments over the years with a series of coaching stints, including with the St. Catherine University Wildcats in Saint Paul, Thunstrom’s opportunity to gain the joyous achievement of a long-awaited championship has propelled her into iconic status.

Having returned to the Whitecaps for the 2019-20 season, she shall be an integral component in their ambitions to become the first team to win back-to-back Isobel Cup titles. During the first 10 games of this season, Thunstrom has already logged a solid 11 points, one of only five players on the roster so far (including Amanda Boulier, Jonna Curtis and Nicole Schammel).

Reflecting on the glories of last season, while remembering the experiences of her youth, finding inspiration in a handful of local stars that excelled in the collegiate ranks, one day becoming Whitecaps too, Thunstrom’s current chapter sets a shining example of what can be achieved. Allowing the current generation of youth taking to the ice in the State of Hockey their own role models in the Whitecaps, acquiring belief that they too can emulate the achievements of skaters such as Thunstrom, the word proud cannot contain her feeling of jubilation in skating for such a renowned team,

”Proud is definitely an understatement. I look back on my career and how much the landscape has changed since I very first started playing hockey and I am just in awe.

Girls hockey was barely even a thing when I first started so I played with the boys… and even when I switched over to girls for high school, it still was not terribly popular.

I remember going to Gopher Games and watching Winny and Chelsey (Brodt), Krissy Wendell-Pohl, and Natalie Darwitz. I could pretty much sit wherever I wanted (which I loved) and now the Gophers pack Ridder. Wisconsin sells out a lot of their games, and now we sold out our entire home schedule and I had the opportunity to play in front of 6,000+ at an NHL arena. I mean – the four-year-old me lacing up the skates and playing organized hockey for the first time could have never even imagined that.

To say I am proud to be part of the Whitecaps and to raise the Isobel Cup would be the understatement of the year. I feel incredibly fortunate and blessed to have had the experiences in this sport that I have, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.”

”All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Featured image by Troy Parla


Avatar

More about Mark Staffieri

Raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Mark holds an extensive writing background. A contributor to Wikipedia since 2007, his writing endeavors have included writing for Bleacher Report (2012-13), and the former CWHL (2012-15), and the Canadian division of the Legends Football League (2013-14). Also part of the team of writers for Hockey Canada at the 2013 IIHF Women's World Championships in Ottawa, Mark contributed features on Jenny Harss, Elin Holmlov, Iya Gavrilova, Kathleen Kauth, Lucie Povova, Alex Rigsby, Julia and Stephanie Marty, and Katie Weatherston, among others. In addition to composing more than 700 articles for Women's Hockey Life (since 2012), his current slate of duties includes covering female tackle football for Canada Football Chat, along with pieces for NowVIZ Magazine (digital format) since its inaugural issue. Also the publisher of allowhertoplay, a website devoted to the heroics of sporting heroines, Mark remains focused on raising awareness of the positive impact of women in sport.