Considering that the position of goaltender is one of the most demanding in all sport, such a role takes on a greater sense of pressure for a first-year backstop at the professional level. While such expectations can result in some unable to meet them, the opportunity can see others thrive. Such can be said of New York Riveters rookie backstop Katie Fitzgerald, whose enthusiasm has contributed to an injection of confidence for the club.
With the Riveters having signed former Connecticut Whale goaltender Jaimie Leonoff during the offseason, obtaining one of the premier free agent acquisitions, the Riveters goaltending situation took an unforeseen change after she suffered an injury. Considering that Fitzgerald had pondered retirement after not finding a suitable deal in Europe, her decision to continue has proven to be a great boon for the club.
Fitzgerald has emerged as a workhorse goaltender for the Riveters. So far this season, she has appeared in seven games, with a 3.17 goals against average, 378:34 minutes played and a pair of wins.
“The game is definitely a lot faster. As you move up to the next level, the funnel of talent in the game gets slimmer, making everyone the best from where they come from. Not to mention playing against Olympians everyday was a very new, but exciting challenge. It pushes you to get better every day. It is also nice to have players on my team that I spent years playing against.”
Establishing herself as a candidate for the NWHL’s Rookie of the Year Award, Fitzgerald has been one of many new faces on the club that have proven to be a perfect fit. Having endured more roster changes than any other club in the league, such changes have definitely been evident with their goaltending picture.
During the Riveters inaugural season, they featured a triumvirate of exceptional goaltending talent. Highlighted by Japanese national team member Nana Fujimoto, she was joined by Cornell alum Jenny Scrivens, whose husband Ben played for the Montreal Canadiens (making them the first husband and wife to play in professional hockey at the same time) along with Chelsea Laden, who was part of the NWHL’s first-ever trade.
Fast forward to the autumn of 2016, and Fitzgerald is one of three new faces standing between the pipes for the Riveters. The ability to find a trio of goaltending talent is testament to Chad Wiseman’s acumen and shrewd ability to spot talent. In addition to Fitzgerald, the Riveters boast South Korean national team player Sojung Shin (who competed at the CIS level with the St. Francis Xavier X-Women) and Sarah Bryant, who graduated from the prestigious Providence Friars fourth all-time in saves, while earning the team’s Academic Award twice.
“I have really enjoyed the people we have in our locker room. We have such an awesome group of kind, genuine people. I also love how awesome and loyal our fans are. The overall culture surrounding the Riveters is something that I am very proud to be a part of. With the difficulties of the pay cuts, our group became closer and used that as a rallying point. We used it to remind ourselves that we play because we truly love it so much.”
Gaining her first ice time in an exhibition series against the Russian national team, in which she recorded 21 saves in a 4-1 final, Fitzgerald’s regular season debut took place in a relief appearance on October 8, as the defending Isobel Cup champion Boston Pride emerged triumphant a 6-3 final.
Eight days later, Fitzgerald gained her first NWHL start, making 34 saves in a hard-fought 4-2 loss against the Connecticut Whale.
Fitzgerald would need to wait almost one more month to gain the milestone of her first win. Posting a solid .923 save percentage, she displayed tremendous poise in a 3-2 road win. The following day, Fitzgerald would stand between the pipes once again, logging over 63 minutes of play with a career-best 39 saves as the Riveters and Beauts settled their clash in overtime.
Among all the games played in the first half of the Riveters season, one not only holds a profound place among Fitzgerald’s career highglihts, but in Riveters lore as well. A November 20 tilt against the Connecticut Whale not only provided Fitzgerald with her first home win, simultaneously, she achieved the feat of recording the first shutout in Riveters history.
Recording 28 saves, while nullifying three Whale power plays, goals by Miye D’Oench, Janine Weber and a pair by Rebecca Russo contributed to Fitzgerald’s milestone win. Adding to the jubilation was an exceptional display of teamwork as All-Star blueliner Kaleigh Fratkin blocked a shot with her hand in the third period to help preserve the shutout while elevating the Riveters into second place.
For her efforts, Fitzgerald was fittingly recognized as the NWHL’s Player of the Week. Not only did it mark the second straight week that a goaltender earned the honor (following Boston’s Brittany Ott), she was also the first Riveters player to be recognized this season,
“It was pretty surreal, I didn’t even know until Chad announced it in the locker room after the game. It was definitely a special moment, especially after a tough week with the announcement of the pay cuts. It is always nice and an honor to be recognized like that by the league for such a special win.”
Prior to joining the Riveters, Fitzgerald established herself as one to watch with a solid season with Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University Huskies, where she led all goaltenders in WCHA conference play in shots. In signing with the Riveters, she became the first Huskies alum to sign with an NWHL team.
Heading into her senior season at St. Cloud, Fitzgerald had logged 44 career appearances. A solid campaign resulted in career highs across the board, highlighted by 34 games played. Recording over 2000 minutes, she faced over 1000 shots, posted a solid 2.99 goals against and managed an impressive 12 wins (she only had 7 career wins prior).
Fitzgerald’s greatest quality may be her resolve. As evidenced by her senior season at St. Cloud, after winning the season opener, she suffered a string of five straight losses, but bounced back to assemble a sparkling six-game win streak. During said streak, the Huskies enjoyed three series sweeps, vanquishing the likes of MSU-Mankato, Ohio State and Lindenwood. Of note, she allowed only eight goals, highlighted by a shutout of the Lady Lions.
The last two wins of her Huskies career included defeats of conference powers, North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth. Against North Dakota, she made a sterling 39 saves in a February 12 shutout win as Molly Illikainen logged the game winning tally. As a side note, she would defeat Shelby Amsley-Benzie, who would finish the season as an All-America selection. Such an exciting win would serve as Fitzgerald’s final victory at the Herb Brooks Hockey Center.
Seven days later, Fitzgerald would register her final career win in a 3-2 final against the Duluth Bulldogs, registering 31 saves. In looking back at her time with St. Cloud, it was not only a positive experience for Fitzgerald, but it helped to instill the values and work ethic that have served her so well at the professional level,
“I loved my time at St. Cloud; it made me into the person and player I am today. I miss the girls and the coaches; we had such close knit team. Also being tied to a University and specific community was always special.
Being the first to play professionally in the NWHL is such an honor when I think back to all of the ups and downs I faced with my teams in college; we never really had the easiest roads. All of the great people and teammates who supported me back then and continue to support me now and in the future show how great those friendships are.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credit: Troy Parla