Jonna Curtis wasn’t supposed to be here. In fact, she had come to peace with hanging up her skates after her final year with the University of New Hampshire Wildcats. Despite a brilliant college career, highlighted by a final season in which she scored 21 goals and 42 points in 35 games to finish as one of the 20-best scorers in the country, Curtis thought it was time to return home to Minnesota, spend time with her family and take a step back.
“I honestly wasn’t planning on playing,” Curtis said.
But then came the announcement.
This past May, only shortly after the NWHL had wrapped up its 2017-18 campaign, the United States-based women’s circuit introduced the Minnesota Whitecaps as its fifth team and first expansion franchise. It didn’t take long before Curtis’ phone rang with her dad, who she cites are her biggest supporter, on the other line. “He called me when he heard (Minnesota) was going to have a team (in the NWHL) and said, ‘We have to find out about tryouts, how to get on the team,’” Curtis said. “I told him I was already on it.”
For Curtis, the Whitecaps didn’t only provide an opportunity for her to return to Minnesota and play professionally, it seemed to be a chance for her to fulfill a bit of destiny. It was with the U19 Whitecaps, where Curtis played for a time as a youth, that she really started to get noticed. It’s with the Whitecaps that doors were opened for her to head to the college game. So, it was only fitting that when Curtis needed a place to play, it was the Whitecaps where she landed.
As it’s turned out, too, bringing Curtis aboard has been no minor coup for Minnesota with the midpoint of the NWHL season on the horizon. Pre-season predictions would have likely pegged a returning Olympians such as Amanda Kessel, Hannah Brandt or Kendall Coyne, or last season’s most lethal scorers, such as Madison Packer, Hayley Scamurra or defending scoring champion Alexa Gruschow, as those most likely to capture the scoring crown this season. Instead, though, it’s been Curtis leading the charge.
Through six games, which means there are 10 remaining on the slate, Curtis’ four goals and five points lead neither individual scoring category, but her nine total points put her one clear of all challengers. Curtis has worked hard to put up those numbers, too, with her effort no more apparent than on a skillful shorthanded tally she registered the fourth game of the campaign. Most impressive about the goal is that Curtis, who landed in Minnesota after being passed over in the NWHL draft, showed that she has, without question, adjusted to the speed of the pro game in no time. She not only won a race to a loose puck, but blew by and outmuscled Metropolitan Riveters defender Chelsea Zladie before netting the cheeky backhand-shelf goal.
“I have a faster game and I’ve been able to use my speed in college,” Curtis said. “So that’s been one of my best attributes. Having that in college and bringing that into the NWHL, it definitely makes for an easier transition. It’s always been a part of my game, speed, so it’s made it an easier transition for me. I can’t speak for others. The strength of players is more of what I see as a harder transition, not the speed.”
True to the humble nature of hockey players, though, Curtis stopped short of taking much credit for her own success. She cited the play of goaltender Amanda Leveille, the defensive strength of the entire club and the opportunity to learn from players like Brandt and Coyne for her hold on the NWHL scoring lead. “I can’t really say that it’s really me,” Curtis continued. “It’s just being able to connect with my linemates really easily and having those great players makes for an easier transition.”
As one would expect, too, Curtis isn’t about to put her own successes ahead of the team. The goal for herself is the same as it would be if you asked any of her teammates: win the Isobel Cup. She acknowledges areas she wants to see improvements — her defensive game, for one, and creating more scoring opportunities in order to become an even greater offensive driver — but her focus is on bringing a championship home, and, in turn, giving back to the program that gave her career life.
“To be able to come back and play for the Whitecaps after college, and now it’s a professional women’s team, it’s such an exciting time and I hope it just continues to grow from here,” Curtis said. “The team can only help the sport of women’s hockey and Minnesota hockey in general.”