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Still Skating: Fresh faces, new competition has NWHL veterans excited about new season

Despite losing many of their top stars to the #ForTheGame holdout, the NWHL and its players remain optimistic that this season will be as good as any they’ve had during the league’s half-decade run.
Michelle Jay

Michelle Jay

Kaleigh Fratkin could have joined in on the #ForTheGame movement. She could have banded together with the 200-plus players who have joined the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which formed in the wake of the CWHL’s abrupt and unforeseen closure, and opted out of the coming campaign.

But in late May, with the NWHL’s signing season officially open and the opportunity for the four-year league veteran to return to the circuit, Fratkin became the first in the new landscape of women’s professional hockey to put pen to paper for the 2019-20 season. “For someone like myself, going into Year 5, I was like, ‘Why not have the chance to play hockey, grow the game and make some money while doing it?’ ” Fratkin said. “That’s the reason I came back to play.”

Despite early concerns that the NWHL would have difficulties filling out the five-team league in the wake of the boycott, Fratkin’s deal – which, at $11,000 for the season, is the third-largest among the several players who have had their financial terms disclosed – was merely the first domino to fall. The same day Fratkin re-signed with the Boston Pride, with whom she’s spent the past two seasons, Madison Packer signed a one-year, $12,000 pact to return to the Metropolitan Riveters for a fifth consecutive campaign. Other returnees include longtime Pride forward Jillian Dempsey, Minnesota Whitecaps goaltender Amanda Leveille and Connecticut Whale defender Shannon Doyle. Despite a few slow periods throughout free agency, the signings have remained relatively consistent with more than 50 players under contract and set to suit up in the NWHL as of late August.

Of course, many of the league’s – not to mention the sport’s – most familiar faces aren’t among those who have signed. A number of last season’s NWHL all-stars, such as Shannon Szabados, Kendall Coyne Schofield and Amanda Kessel, joined the PWHPA, as did former CWHL standouts such as Marie-Philip Poulin, Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight, all of whom would have been five-star additions to the NWHL.

Despite the veritable who’s who of the women’s game spurning the NWHL, however, the league and its GMs have scoured Europe, the college ranks and utilized free-agent camps to fill their rosters. Neither Packer nor Fratkin believe there’s reason to be concerned about the amount of skill present in the league this season.

“The hope is that every time you add a new face, their talent level is better than the people who have left,” Packer said. “Obviously that’s tough to do when you lose Olympic-caliber players, but we have a lot of players coming off the end of their college careers and are arguably in their top shape. It will definitely elevate the level of play, not only for the Riveters but around the league.”

Fratkin echoed that sentiment, adding there are already some players who have turned heads, and that’s a testament to the growth of the game beyond the Olympic stage. “Fans will be really impressed with some of these young players coming out and some of these underrated players getting an opportunity to showcase their skills,” she said.

Helping highlight these players, and offering an expanded stage for the NWHL talent, is the league’s move to drastically reduce the number of “one-off weekends” for its teams. Since its inception, the NWHL has generally had its teams play once per weekend. This past off-season, though, the NWHL Players’ Association requested an increased schedule, and the league responded by adding eight games to the slate for each team, expanding the schedule to 24 games.

To fit in the additional contests, many weekends will feature back-to-back sets, not unlike the NCAA calendar. “Last year, it was kind of a shock each time we had to play two games in a weekend, and then you’re expected to do it (during the playoffs),” Packer said. “It will be a better product for the fans to watch when we have those games, and also hopefully we’ll get more people in the stands, because now when you’re coming into town to watch a game, you’re able to take in two games instead of just one.”

And with the increased schedule, rosters filling up and a few new additions to the league’s collective bargaining agreement – including a 50-50 split of sponsor-related revenue, about which both Fratkin and Packer expressed optimism – it might not be long before a few familiar faces end up back in the league. “There’s still time left on the clock,” Packer said. “There are players that are realizing that for whatever reason they were hesitant to sign at first, but come November, they’re going to wish they were playing hockey in this competitive environment.”

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