(Photo: Kate Frese)
A lot has changed in the National Women's Hockey League since year one. Players have come and gone; owners, coaches and staff, too. Teams have switched rinks, gained and lost NHL partnerships; the league has added sponsorships and partnerships.
But regardless of all that, one thing has remained fairly constant in the NWHL: the Boston Pride have historically been – and continue to be – one of the league's most dominant teams.
From year one, when the Pride went 14-3-1, won seven straight games to finish their inaugural season and became the first-ever Isobel Cup Champions; to the next season, when Boston lost just one game the entire season and had an astounding plus-44 goal differential; to this season, when the Pride currently have an active 13-game winning streak, are dominating the scoresheet and have scored 71 goals – nearly thirty more than any other team in the league. The Pride have almost always been, and are now, just a downright good hockey team.
Why is that?
Undoubtedly, much of the Pride's success stems from the talent they've been able to attract. Boston has been one of the most stacked teams in the NWHL year after year, and there's no denying the skill that roster has seen. Part of that, says current team captain Jillian Dempsey, stems from their location.
"It helps that there's a lot of colleges in the area," Dempsey said. "People want to stay in Boston, and people are from Boston... it's an amazing sports city. There's so much going on in Boston, I feel like it's a great place to be."
The Pride's inaugural roster was stacked with U.S. national team players, including Hilary Knight, Kacey Bellamy, Gigi Marvin, Brianna Decker, and Zoe Hickel.
Decker and Knight tied for the league lead in points (9), while Knight held the top spot in goals (7). Marvin led the league with five assists, and the Pride were among the leaders in nearly every statistic. Brittany Ott led all goaltenders with four wins.
In their second season, the Pride gained Alyssa Gagliardi, Lexi Bender, Meghan Duggan and Alex Carpenter, making an already-dangerous team even more lethal. Carpenter led the league in goals, points, and average points per game.
Even in a season when national team players weren't in the league, the Pride still had talent among the likes of Haley Skarupa, Janine Weber, Gagliardi, Kaleigh Fratkin and, of course, Dempsey, who has been with the team for all five seasons in the NWHL. Katie Burt, Blake Bolden, Amanda Pelkey and McKenna Brand are among the other highly-skilled players who have suited up for Boston over the years.
"We know whoever we're putting out there is going to work hard and do their job."
"We're a really close-knit group," Dempsey said. "Everybody's out there battling for the team, putting the team first. We have great depth, and that helps us as well, because we know, whoever we're putting out there is going to work hard and do their job."
Generally, the level of competition in the NWHL has undoubtedly changed over the years, with the influx of national team players in the league's beginning, to the departure of those players, along with many others, this season as part of the PWHPA and #ForTheGame movement. The quality of competition that the Pride have had to face over the years has fluctuated, with some impressive talent joining the league, and other talent leaving.
The inaugural Pride team, for example, scored 75 goals in 18 games, while the worst team that season (Riveters) scored only 41. The next season, the Pride scored 73 goals; the worst team (Whale) scored 60, but the third-place Beauts – who ended up winning the Isobel Cup – scored only 44. This season so far, the Pride have scored 71 goals, while the Whale have managed only 20.
While Decker and Knight led the NWHL in season one with just nine points each, Brand and Dempsey lead the league this season with 23 points, and still plenty of games to go. While the offensive side of things has certainly changed, with the introduction of players like Brand and Buffalo's Taylor Accursi, and the departure of opposing skaters like Kelley Steadman, Amanda Kessel, and Hayley Scamurra, the goaltending side has changed, too. Many of the elite goaltenders who have skated in the NWHL in the past are no longer around: Brianne McLaughlin has hung up her skates; Brittany Ott and Katie Fitzgerald are members of the PWHPA.
Emily Fluke is in her third NWHL season, but first with the Pride. She spent her first two seasons with the Connecticut Whale, who finished last both years. This season is the best of Fluke's pro career to date, which should come as no surprise given the Pride's winning ways.
"It's definitely different expectations," Fluke said. "When you start winning a lot, and when you're undefeated, it's a different mindset. It's not like, okay, let's get a win. It's, we're expected to win. That's a lot of pressure, but it's a privilege to be playing with this Boston team."
Like Dempsey, Fluke also spoke to the Pride's depth as a key to their success.
"The talent is a complete roster, so it makes it really easy," she said. "It's a complete team, through and through."
Meanwhile, Brand is having a stellar individual season, as the league's leading scorer with points in 12 of 13 games. She credits her confidence as part of the key to success.
"We're having a lot of fun, enjoying it," she said. "It makes the chemistry on the ice a lot easier. I definitely still think I'm learning, but I think just trying to have fun and soaking it in... stuff like that, it's important to do."
Although the players are certainly aware of their unbeaten streak, their focus right now is on one game at a time.
"We're just trying to go out and do the job we have for that game," Dempsey said. "The rest is just all noise. Just show up to the rink, do what we know we can do. If that [the winning streak] stays, that's great, but our main objective is to focus on that game."
"We know we have a target on our backs, and we don't want anyone to get the privilege of taking us down," Fluke added. "One game at a time, you keep the streak alive."
One win at a time, the Pride continue to dominate the league.
"We're never satisfied."
"We keep trying to just get better every game," Fluke said. "I think that's what's keeping the success going. We're never satisfied."
Over the past five years, the Pride have played 88 NWHL games in the franchise's history (including regular season and playoffs). They've won 72 percent of their games, for 63 total victories. That's nearly unheard of, even given a small-ish sample size of five seasons, and only four or five teams in the league.
Over the years, here's how the Pride have fared against each NWHL team:
- vs. Buffalo Beauts: 19 wins, 11 losses
- vs. Connecticut Whale: 20 wins, 4 losses
- vs. Metropolitan Riveters: 19 wins, 9 losses
- vs. Minnesota Whitecaps: 5 wins, 1 loss
This season alone, the Pride have outscored their opponents by a margin of 71-24. They've not only got offensive strength, but also have a supportive defense and strong goaltending in Lovisa Selander and Victoria Hanson.
This past Saturday's overtime win was the closest game of the season for the Pride, and the first time they gave up a point to a team this season. McKenna Brand called it a "gut check," and it was certainly a wake-up call for Boston.
"I think it's good to be tested and have that adversity," Dempsey said. "We'll learn how to respond in situations, give us some fortitude and some experience for the season ahead. We have to work for everything, we have to show up together every game."
"It's nice to have a little adversity early in the season," Fluke added. "To be able to really figure out how the team's going to respond to that."
Dempsey has been with the Pride, and the NWHL, through it all. She's one of a small handful of five-year players in the league.
"The league has made great strides, gaining supporters, investors, sponsors, fans," she said. "Even early on, we had that little dip, but they came back and everybody behind the scenes is putting in a lot of work to get us these great opportunities, to make sure that we have more support."
"There's definitely been growth, and there's plenty of growth to be made."
"It feels like every other week, or at least once a month, there's a new sponsor, a new investor, and that's pretty exciting to see," she added. "There's definitely been growth, and there's plenty of growth to be made, but I think everybody's on board with growing the game and moving forward together."
For the first time this season, Boston will host the NWHL All-Star Weekend, February 8-9 at Warrior Ice Arena. Dempsey has been named a team captain.
"It's incredible," she said. "When I found out about it, I was thrilled. I think Boston's going to have a great outpouring of support, and it's going to be a packed house. I'm just so excited to be named captain. It's such an honor, and obviously to be having the game in my town, too."
But that's still a few months away. For now, the Pride have more important things to focus on, like their upcoming games against the still-winless Connecticut Whale. Boston will spend much of the rest of the season on the road, as they played nine of their first 13 games at home.
"That's the biggest thing, not getting complacent," Fluke said. "We know we're undefeated, but it doesn't matter what the record is. It matters that we keep getting better, because these other teams are getting better. We just need to keep getting better every single day, and go up from here, because everyone else is going to do the same."