"Take The Ice" Shares Behind-the-Scenes Look at the NWHL's Inaugural Season
- 4 min read

"Take The Ice" Shares Behind-the-Scenes Look at the NWHL's Inaugural Season

Take The Ice, a new documentary from Rachel Koteen and 540 Films offering a behind-the-scenes look at the inaugural season of the then-named National Women's Hockey League, recently became available on a variety of streaming services.

"Take The Ice" Shares Behind-the-Scenes Look at the NWHL's Inaugural Season by Melissa Burgess

Take The Ice, a documentary from Rachel Koteen and 540 Films offering a behind-the-scenes look at the inaugural season of the then-named National Women's Hockey League, was recently released on a variety of streaming platforms.

The 86-minute film focuses on the months leading up to the NWHL's inaugural season, then goes through most of the season through the first-ever Isobel Cup championship. It follows a handful of players, with a heavy focus on Molly Engstrom and Anya Packer, along with commissioner Dani Rylan Kearney, over the course of the season.

Others interviewed in the film include Boston Pride players Blake Bolden, Marissa Gedman, Kelly Cooke, Rachel Llanes, Emily Field, Hilary Knight, Jordan Smelker, Jillian Dempsey, Brianna Decker and Denna Laing; and Connecticut Whale player Kaleigh Fratkin.

Kate Cimini, formerly of Today's Slapshot, is the only journalist interviewed in the film. She generally provides a good perspective, though, as a reporter who covered the NWHL, it was quite confusing to hear her say that she was "the only reporter covering the NWHL."

Take The Ice opens on the first day of the NWHL season, October 11, 2015, before quickly winding the clock back six months to the league's launch party. Dani Rylan speaks about the Founding Four teams, with hopes to expand to Minnesota and eventually, north of the border. In time, both of those things did happen.

The film then offers a glance at one of four tryout camps the league held before its first season, featuring a handful of familiar faces. Rylan, Angela Ruggiero, and Chris Ardito then discuss some of the players. Ardito was general manager of the Connecticut Whale at the time, but resigned prior to the start of the season.

Brief parts of the film also showcase Rylan's youth, growing up as one of a few female youth hockey players in the Tampa area, and how this fueled her passion for fostering women's hockey as an adult.

As the season goes on, the film crew is there for many of the major moments: the first game; media attention and a Dunkin' sponsorship. From behind-the-scenes league meetings – where we see them pick out the Isobel Cup for about $4,000 – to the Outdoor Women's Classic and Denna Laing's spinal injury, to Madison Packer going through injury rehab, to Pride players visiting Laing in the hospital and how she gave them a necessary boost and brought the team together.

It covers a little bit of most things: the first-ever suspension in league history, the end of the regular season and the league's attempts to tackle falling attendance numbers heading into playoffs, to the NHL ultimately declining an official partnership with the NWHL. The playoffs ensue, with the Pride ultimately winning the first-ever Isobel Cup championship.

(P.S. It was a pleasant surprise to see a handful of headlines from Victory Press included in the film!)

It would've been nice to see the film more evenly focus on all four teams. The Buffalo Beauts – who made it to the championship series – seemed like a blip on the radar for much of the film. Shelley Looney and Linda Mroz are the only Beauts representatives interviewed; no players were included.

It's clear that the Beauts were at a geographical disadvantage for the film crew, being the farthest away from the other three teams, but the New York Riveters are also barely featured, with the only major highlight being a brief commentary from Ashley Johnston after the team was eliminated from the playoffs.

There was only one brief clip from the All-Star Game, without the game itself even being mentioned. It was also odd to talk about the Outdoor Women's Classic and Laing's resulting injuries without even mentioning who the Pride played in that game, or even acknowledging at all – over the entire film! – the existence of the CWHL.

From a technical standpoint, there were a few editing choices that had me puzzled. At one point, the film showed clips of the exterior of Harborcenter, the Beauts' home rink at the time, then cut to the Pride signing autographs at their own home rink instead. While it's not a big thing, it was a bit confusing.

A few minutes later, the film talks about the Pride's three-game losing streak that included two losses to the New York Riveters in November then cuts to a clip of the team in the locker room, which doesn't fit with the timeline since players can be seen wearing Denna Laing tribute #24 hats and Outdoor Women's Classic hats. That didn't happen until January.

Overall, the film is revealing and often well-executed. Even a long-term fan of the league will almost certainly learn something new, while getting glimpses of players' lives and how the league developed in its first year.

Everything else we know now about how the league operated in its early years, and what sort of working conditions players dealt with, makes this an extra-interesting watch. Rylan is shown talking about how much players were earning and how many people thought it wasn't enough. We now know that the league would institute salary cuts in season two, that the salary cap would then grow over the coming years, and that the league would be bought out before most PHF players could make a living wage playing hockey. Players are shown talking about their full-time jobs as teachers or paralegals, for example, which would change for some, but not all, as the years went on. There are ongoing references to a potential partnership with the NHL and preparing for the possibility of such, but this is juxtaposed with the current knowledge that the NHL would never actually get involved, not officially or significantly.

Hindsight is 20/20, I suppose.

The timing of the release is bittersweet, given the recent buyout of the Premier Hockey Federation and subsequent folding of the league and its teams. It's tough to look back at the beginning now that it's the end.

Regardless, Take The Ice is worth a watch for anyone even remotely interested in women's hockey. It's now available on platforms like Apple TV, hoopla, Sling, DirecTV and YouTube.