What Paul Mara remembers is his first impression. It was ahead of the 2018-19 NWHL campaign, the Boston Pride were coming together for the first time and Pride coach Mara and the rest of his staff were trying to get a feel for what type of talent they would have at their disposal. Out onto the ice stepped wide-eyed rookie McKenna Brand, a first-year hopeful fresh off of her four-year college career. By the end of that first skate, Mara had his verdict about the newcomer.
“Wow,” Mara recalled of his assessment after her first practice. “This player is really damn good.”
Sure enough, it wasn’t all that long before Brand confirmed Mara's evaluation. After a strong finish to her college career at Northeastern, where she scored 38 goals and 72 points in her final 75 games, Brand’s six goals put her two off the rookie lead last season and her 17 points, which made her better than a point-per-game player, were fewer than all but four others. But neither her goal nor point output landed her among the last season's NWHL Newcomer of the Year finalists. Instead, the award went to Minnesota Whitecaps freshman Jonna Curtis, who beat out Shannon Szabados and Kendall Coyne Schofield for the hardware.
By virtue of her lack of acknowledgement as one of the league's best first-year players last season, it could be said that Brand was one of the NWHL's best-kept secrets. But if that was indeed the case, if she was one of the league's most underrated, that's certainly no longer accurate. On an unstoppable Pride side that has made mincemeat out of the opposition – Boston is a perfect 11-0-0 with a whopping plus-44 goal differential – it’s been Brand who had led the attack and embraced her role as a first-line winger. She was named the first-ever NWHL Player of the Month with seven goals and three game-winners in October, and she hasn’t so much as tapped the brakes since. Entering mid-December, she now finds herself pacing the league with 12 goals and 22 points in 11 games.
“Last year, coming out of college, I just wanted to show up, do my best, work hard and things ended up going pretty well,” Brand said. “But there wasn't a whole lot riding on that. I was just a rookie and you kind of show up and do your best and if it goes well, that's awesome. If not, that's not the biggest deal in the world, you know? So, this year it's kind of nice to have that pressure of needing to step up for your team. I like that feeling.”
Brand’s swift transformation from standout rookie to bonafide NWHL star hasn’t caught those who’ve been around her off guard, mind you. Mara was quick to praise Brand’s work ethic and the way she has pushed herself to make on-ice gains, and Pride captain Jillian Dempsey has had the opportunity to see those efforts first hand. After finishing last season as linemates, she and Brand skated together over the summer, partaking in skating and skills sessions all the while pushing each other to improve. Back alongside each other this season, the two have formed the league’s most lethal combinations, and Dempsey was quick to note Brand’s desire to be a difference-maker.
“The expectations she has for herself are pretty high,” Dempsey said. “Being on our line, we'll come back to the bench and say, 'We should have scored that one,' after almost every shift. 'Ah, that opportunity missed.’ I think the focus is going out there and putting pucks in the net and McKenna has a real nose for that. She works hard to get off these amazing shots, and I always say, you can't give her time and space because she'll make people pay right away with that shot.”
But it’s not just Brand’s shot, which she has unleashed a league-high 74 times this season, that has led to her breakout. As Mara explained, it’s also the way Brand has been keeping her feet moving, finding space and holes in defensive zone coverage and the way she’s made the opposition challenge her instead of the other way around. She’s “dominating games,” Mara said, which is exactly what the coach wanted to see out of her. And in his eyes, it’s the way she has performed that could catapult her onto an even bigger stage.
“She probably deserves a shot at the U.S. National Team,” Mara said. “She's only 23 years old. I don't know what the future holds in that regard, but I think her improvement in the past year and a half has been incredible. I think she's just starting to get into herself as a hockey player and will continue to improve.”
If that were to come to pass, if Brand landed on the national team radar and were to pull on the Stars and Stripes in the near future, it would mark the first time in her career she’s skated with the national team at the senior level. Previously, she earned a look as part of the U18 USA-Canada Series, but that was only three games back in 2013 and the strides she’s made since then, as witnessed by her play in the NWHL this season, have been sizeable.
“It would be hard to say that you don't think about it,”she said. “I feel like every elite player has that a bit in the back of their minds. But I try not to focus on that, try to focus on what I can do on the ice for my team right now.”
So far, that has meant picking apart opposition netminders and finding the scoresheet with a consistency that no other player has been able to match. And if Brand can continue to do that, there’s no reason she shouldn't be able to land herself in the national team conversation while also helping bring the Isobel Cup back to Boston.
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