Monday, 28 December 2015

A Highly-Coveted Free Agent

They have two appearances in the Clarkson Cup Final, and have their name on the trophy once. They were a major force in the former Western Women's Hockey League. The Minnesota Whitecaps are still playing hockey, but are a team without a league. They have a ton of stars on the squad, and have suited up against CWHL and NWHL teams in the past. They featured both Canadian and American women in the past, and they're looking for an opportunity to play more often with their current collection of American stars. So which league are they joining? Well, they're not. Not yet, anyway.

So who are these Whitecaps and from where did they arise? I'll break this into a few distinct sections as we look at the entire situation of the Whitecaps and their efforts to be included in the women's leagues.

The Past

The Whitecaps have had their fair share of recognizable names wear the jersey, and some of these women should be recognized because the history of the team is as fascinating as their current situation. Jenny Potter played for the Whitecaps, and she was the first American woman to accomplish the Women's Triple Gold feat of winning the Clarkson Cup, an IIHF World Championship gold medal, and an Olympic gold medal. There are others who are in the club today, but Potter was the first American woman to pull off the accomplishment.

Other prominent names to wear the Whitecaps' logo include Angela Ruggiero, Caitlin Cahow, Molly Engstrom, Gigi Marvin, Manon Rheaume, Julie Chu, and current CIS standout Iya Gavrilova. Natalie Darwitz was the WWHL's MVP for the 2006-07 season, and the 2010 Clarkson Cup victory gave the Whitecaps the distinction of being the first American team to win the trophy.

2011 saw the Western Women's Hockey League merge in a way with the CWHL. The two existing Alberta clubs - the Edmonton Chimos and Strathmore Rockies - would merge and play out of Calgary as "Team Alberta". The team would eventually take the name "Inferno" in 2013 after partnering with the Calgary Flames.

The two remaining teams - Minnesota and the Manitoba Maple Leafs - were to merge and play as one club as well, but the Whitecaps reportedly balked "at the idea of diluting an established, successful franchise to join with Manitoba Maple Leafs and create one team." This led to Minnesota being excluded from the CWHL with the Whitecaps and CWHL having different stories as to why they were left on the outside.

The Whitecaps have a rich history if we just consider the above examples, but they deserve to continue to add to that legacy and are looking to add a few new chapters.

The Present

The Whitecaps have been finding competition to play against in and around Minnesota, and they squared off against NWHL teams this season. The Whitecaps fared fairly well in their early games in New York against the NWHL, falling to the Connecticut Whale 8-4 before rebounding with a 5-2 win over the New York Riveters. December saw two more games as the Boston Pride visited Minnesota for a two-game set that saw Boston win 5-1 before Minnesota took the second game of the back-to-back series by a 5-4 count.

The Whitecaps are 3-5 since September 25. They are 2-2 against the NWHL, but it's the NCAA that has given them trouble. They dropped games in September to both the University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State before splitting with Shattuck-St. Mary's at the beginning of December. The issue is that the Whitecaps didn't play a single game between October 4 and December 5 due to the various hockey schedules of their closest competition and the two women's leagues. For the roster of the Whitecaps, I'm sure they want to play more games.

It should be noted that the Whitecaps are a team loaded with talent. There are six women who represented the team at the Four Nations Cup in defencemen Monique Lamoureux and Anne Schleper, forwards Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Allie Thunstrom, and goaltenders Jessie Vetter and Alex Rigsby. These same six women are also at the USA Hockey World Championship Camp in Blaine, Minnesota, so the Whitecaps can boast the second-most players at the US camp behind the eight from the Boston Pride of the NWHL.

So being that the Whitecaps have proven that they can skate with one of the better NWHL teams, when do they join the NWHL as the fifth team in the league?

The Situation

I went looking for answers, and received an email from Laura Halldorson. Halldorson, if you're not aware, is a pretty important figure in US women's hockey and in the state of Minnesota. She's a Princeton alum where she was a co-captain and all-conference in leading the Tigers to three Ivy League titles. She also played hockey alongside Patty Kazmaier, and was one of the women who played on the earlier iterations of the US women's national teams.

After her playing career ended, she coached at Colby College before taking over as the head coach of women's hockey team at the University of Minnesota. Under her watch, the Golden Gophers established ties with the Minnesota high school system where girls from Minnesota would be encouraged to attend the University of Minnesota to play hockey. This led to back-to-back NCAA Championships in 2004 and 2005 with a third appearance in the Final in 2006. In 10 years at the helm for Minnesota, she compiled a 278-67-22 record, and was an evaluator for the 1998 US Olympic team who defeated Canada for the gold medal.

In other words, she knows hockey, and her involvement with the Whitecaps made her an excellent resource to find out about the future of the Minnesota club. She answered some questions via email.

HBIC: The Whitecaps have a pretty strong relationship with the NWHL at this time. Are we looking at the newest NWHL club in the future?

Laura: "The goal has been to put some pieces in place that will help prepare this team for whichever league ends up being its new 'home'. We have a positive relationship with both the CWHL and NWHL. This past summer, we requested games from both leagues and were able to schedule four games against NWHL teams. We were told that the CWHL's policy is that there are no exhibition games allowed."

HBIC: What happened in 2011 with the Whitecaps and the CWHL?

LH: "I was not involved with the Whitecaps in 2011 or 2012, so I cannot shed light on exactly what happened back then. What I do know is that, ever since the WWHL stopped operating as a league, the Whitecaps have been looking for a 'home'. Since I started helping out a couple of years ago, the focus has been on trying to provide the best opportunities for the women of this area to be able to play at a high level after college. So far, that has meant finding games against NCAA teams, elite U-19 teams, and even the U.S. Under-18 Team."

HBIC: Do you feel that being a independent team gives you the upper hand when either league decides to expand?

LH: "Operating independently has been a good thing for us, as we wait and watch. We believe that Minnesota would be a great addition for either league. Right now, it appears that the financial consideration is the challenge for both the CWHL and the NWHL. We understand that. But we also believe that having a team in Minnesota would be a significant step for the growth of professional women's hockey in North America."

It would certainly help the growth of hockey through the midwest. Minnesota alone features 18.7% of the US's female hockey registration as of 2013-14, and that number will likely only grow with the Whitecaps playing a more prominent role in one of the two leagues. Having excellent high school, college, and university programs has helped immensely in the State of Hockey, but getting a team in a professional league will only lead to further growth and a larger following in that region.

Minnesota has always branded itself as the State of Hockey, and the Whitecaps are a major part of that hockey history that Minnesota boasts. If the Whitecaps played in one of the two women's leagues, it gives the women in those university and college programs something to strive for once their collegiate careers end. They wouldn't have to move to other locales to continue to play hockey, and could still contribute to the local hockey scene in Minnesota as the Whitecaps currently do.

In short, the growth of the women's game would see a direct impact by including the Whitecaps into either the CWHL or NWHL.

Discussion Points

I will say that Miss Halldorson's comments don't excuse the CWHL or the Whitecaps from the disagreements they've had in the past nor should those disagreements be held as grudges when it comes to getting the Whitecaps into either league. While I don't truly believe that the CWHL colluded to keep the Whitecaps out of the league or the Clarkson Cup competition, I understand the perception from the Minnesota side made it seem as so.

As Miss Halldorson stated, there is no contention between the Whitecaps and the CWHL at this time as some would have you believe. I think it's fairly clear that cooler heads have prevailed as the working relationship with both the CWHL and NWHL is helping the Whitecaps in being the best team without a league in North American hockey.

What needs to happen now is for one of the two women's leagues to figure out how to include the Whitecaps. While it would be a huge bonus for the players to be paid as part of the NWHL's business model, travel to and from Minnesota becomes an issue when the other four franchises are on the east coast in a self-proclaimed "bus league".

The CWHL, on the other hand, doesn't pay its players yet, but there are five franchises with Calgary being one part of a potential western road trip for the eastern CWHL teams. There are more teams in the more established league, but there are costs associated with being a CWHL team that could hinder that league's attractiveness.

There are pros and cons to both leagues including the Whitecaps, but keeping them out of one of the loops only makes it harder to deny the importance of their inclusion when it comes to growing the game at the grassroots level.

The Future

There's no quick answer on this one. As stated above, there are pros and cons to each situation, but both leagues have to be in a position to expand as well. Both the CWHL and NWHL have expressed their wishes to expand, but neither is saying that the process is underway or even being explored at this time.

Where will they land? Only the future holds that answer. As it stands today, the Minnesota Whitecaps are ready and listening to offers from both the CWHL and NWHL as to their inclusion in one of the leagues. Like any top-tier free agent, it all depends on the offer when it comes to having the Whitecaps sign on the dotted line.

What should you do to help? Get out to see the Whitecaps play. They'll be at Ridder Arena at the University of Minnesota on January 6 to play the Golden Gophers, and then in Grand Forks to play the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks at Ralph Engelstad Arena on January 9 and 10. The Whitecaps an exceptional team with a ton of talent, and they can use your support! Go see the best women's team not in an organized league take to the ice whenever they come to town!

Until next time, keep your stick on the ice!

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