This is the first installment of Along the Board’s year-in-review series. We’ll be revisiting every team in the NWHL to recap their first season on and off the ice and look ahead to what their plans our for next fall. The first article looks back on the inaugural season of the Connecticut Whale.
The Connecticut Whale stunned the league by starting the season on an eight-game winning streak, but by the time the playoffs rolled around, the once unsinkable Whale were barely staying afloat. When they fell to the Buffalo Beauts in the first round of the Isobel Cup playoffs, the upset capped a tumultuous season for the Connecticut Whale.
The Resiliency of the Whale
As successful as the Whale were in the NWHL’s inaugural season, their play on the ice was often shadowed by sudden off-ice actions. The Whale first lost their GM in Harry Rosenholtz in December, followed quickly by the resignation of Head Coach Jake Mastel. Shortly after Mastel left, Today’s Slapshot reported that George Speirs, Rosenholtz’s replacement as Connecticut’s GM and Chief Operating Officer of the NWH, was no longer with the team or the league. Instability plagued Whale management and the players, and it showed on the ice.
The Connecticut Whale began the season on a high. Game after game, the Whale found a way to win, even when it seemed like the game was over. They would storm back from two goal deficits in less than two minutes, and go on to win in overtime. For eight games, the Whale seemed untouchable. Then, the inevitable happened as they dropped their first game to Boston. Unfortunately, that only began the Whale’s slide from invincibility to unsteadiness.
When asked to describe the character of the Connecticut Whale, forward Kelly Babstock pointed to the team’s motto of “Fins up.” She elaborated, “Just keep going, and don’t let anything get in the way.”
Still, assistant coach Lisa Giovanelli felt the impact of the changes. She was the sole non-player of the Whale to stay from the start of the season until its end.
“It is very difficult. You want to say you don’t want off-ice stuff to distract from your on-ice product, and you hope it doesn’t, but I think sometimes it’s inevitable that it’s going to spill over to your production on the ice. I think it did, but I think the girls did a really good job to transition to Heather. They were very receptive to her and to her changes. I just tried to be positive…We just tried to stay on track as much as we could, and they did a good job.”
When head coach Heather Linstad joined the Whale as a replacement for Mastel, she wanted to make as few ripples as possible in already turbulent waters. She understood that the less change she placed on the players, the easier it would be for them to adapt.
“It was so late in the season I didn’t try to change too much. It was sort of the same thing. What they were used to was something that I tried to just keep it constant as well. Would there have been things had I started a little earlier that I would have changed? Probably. But again, it was just trying to put together assets of the team.” Even with her short time with the Whale, Linstad had nothing but praise for the players in their first season. She spoke of their dedication, mental toughness, and competitiveness.
“The whole character of all the players – wanting to put out the best product and wanting to put out the best product and wanting to represent the new league and doing the right thing for the fans and making sure they played hard all the time…certainly resilient…They implemented the best they could with all the distractions.”
For the upcoming season, the Whale may have found its stability in the duo of Linstad and Giovanelli.
When Linstad saw an email request from Giovanelli to coach the Whale, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. At best, she thought it was a temporary position and that she was helping out her former player and the sport she loves.
“I think it all happened so quickly…To be honest, I don’t know any of the background history. Lisa asked on Friday, and I was on the bench on Sunday.”
Linstad clarified, “When I spoke with her, it was more about I’ve always supported women’s hockey, and I didn’t want to see something go by the wayside.”
Giovanelli added some more detail and perspective with her account of how Linstad ended up as the new coach.
“Heather really cares about women’s hockey, really cares for her athletes. I knew that Heather was in Connecticut, and when we needed a coach, I sent her an email .and she responded, ‘Anything for you, buddy.’ But I knew that’s the type of person she is. She would do anything for her players, give the shirt off her back for us,” claims Giovanelli. Do anything for her players, like forego her plans to move to Massachusetts even when she had already sold her house in Connecticut.
Now, Linstad’s plans to move are definitely on-hold as she comes back to the Whale for its second season. Giovanelli will return as the assistant coach and add on the title of GM.
While some may say that the dynamics of the relationship would be stilted with Giovanelli technically above and below Linstad in the hierarchy, both adamantly refute that particular opinion.
“I’m hoping that that’s one of our biggest successes – our relationship between her and I, and building the most successful team that we can build. Certainly, we talk almost every single day…what we want to see and how we can build Connecticut so that we have success, that in truth, the league is looking for…We’ve had that communication, and I think the reason I’m excited about being there is that I know I can communicate with her, and she and I have a good working relationship,” said Linstad.
Giovanelli offered similar sentiments, mentioning that as a former player of Linstad’s, she knows Linstad’s coaching philosophy and the types of players that would fit well.
“I think it’s going to be great. I had a great relationship with Heather when she was my coach…Going forward, I don’t make a decision without talking to Heather. It’s a partnership that we work together on a daily basis…It’s not just one person making all the decisions – we bounce ideas off each other. We definitely don’t always agree, but we work together to work things out, so I think it’s gone really well so far, and I anticipate it going well for the rest of the year.”
For the players, they are simply looking for stability in their management.
“Lisa is a great person…she was a solid foundation in our organization. She was there through tough times, and so I think signing back to the Whale and having Lisa was a good decision,” said Babstock.
If management and the players believe it, the Whale are one step closer to having what they need to face the upcoming season.
Just Keep Swimming
The second season is promising to be even faster and better hockey. With signings including superstars like Amanda Kessel, the league’s competitiveness should only trend upwards.
“I think this upcoming year is going to be even better than the last. There’s a lot of great hockey players that are going to be coming in, and I’m excited whoever comes just to journey together as a team. There’s a lot of great hockey players, very talented ones that are just getting out of college, and it’s going to be exciting no matter what, no matter who comes, because women’s hockey is at a great level. To have that for next year, its going to be great hockey,” said Babstock.
Linstad and Giovanelli are looking at the expanding talent pool with a more critical coach’s eye, thinking about zone coverage and defense and the players they want on their team.
“Defense is so important in our game, and especially next year, the talent level is going to go through the roof for the league…That’s definitely going to be a huge focus for us,” Giovanelli said. “We want to focus on team chemistry as well. Like I said, the off-ice stuff really does affect your on-ice product, so that’s a big thing we’re looking to change and make sure that we move forward together. Everybody understands the overall team goals that we set at the beginning of the year, and that everybody’s on board.”
Linstad echoed Giovanelli’s comments in an earlier interview about the Whale’s future.
“I hope from stability that…Giovanelli and I bring that they can have the success that they want and that we see improvement every day…Certainly as we go into year two, as we build the team, it will be consistent, and there can be higher expectations because those distractions will be eliminated…They can focus on what’s important, and that’s improving themselves and improving the team and building that team chemistry that usually comes with winning.”
Women’s Ice Hockey: Past, Present, and Future
Still, despite the dream of the Isobel Cup, player and coaches alike understand that there is more at stake with each game they play. They are not only playing for themselves, but they are playing for the fans and for the future of the sport.
To put things in perspective, Linstad talks about the time that she has spent around the sport of women’s ice hockey. Having been a player and a coach, she has witnessed the sport’s growth first hand.
“Back in ’90 when we had the first World Championship, I was one player who got asked to play, and I said, ‘Oh no, I have to take this real job,’ because I didn’t think women’s hockey was going anywhere…So to coach college and see where the college game has gone through the 90s to today is unbelievable.”
Babstock, who graduated college last year, describes her ultimate goal in the NWHL as growing women’s hockey: “We joined the community to show people that this is great hockey. It’s fast; it’s physical. The play is exciting.”
For Giovanelli, her experiences have led her to appreciate the league’s commitment to youth hockey. She praises their prioritization of the youth hockey programs and getting the kids involved and giving them access to the players.
“People from my generation, we didn’t have women’s hockey players to look up to when we were playing youth hockey. We played with boys, and you only saw boys on TV. Even at that time, there weren’t a lot of college hockey programs out there, and I had never seen a hockey college game before I played, so it’s a different experience for these girls…”
It is also extra meaningful for Giovanelli because of her two daughters at home. While one is only nine months, her three-year-old has shown nothing but excitement in being able to go to the rink and support her mom while watching women play hockey.
“It was cool when the Boston games were on NESN, so she could watch on TV when I was away. It’s funny – any time a NHL game is on TV, it’s ‘Oh Mommy! You’re on TV, You’re on TV.’ No, dear. Sorry.”
Maybe someday in the future.
For now, Giovanelli and Linstad will focus on making the second season a success for the Connecticut Whale.
EDIT: The article had George Spiers resigning before Jake Mastel. This has been corrected to GM Harry Rosenholtz resigning, then Head Coach Jake Mastel. Acting-GM Spiers left after Mastel.