When Hilary Knight received the puck in the high slot, the Boston Blades right wing didn’t have much time to make her move.
She didn’t need it.
With a flick of the wrists, the former University of Wisconsin sniper snapped the puck over Russian goalie Nadezhda Aleksandrova for a third-period five-on-three goal. It was Knight’s fifth goal of the season and her team’s final strike in a 6-0 win last Tuesday over the Russian national team. Skill is not lacking in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
“They’re phenomenal,” CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress said of the Blades. “They’re exactly where our league is looking to put the level of competition. They’re blazing the way with that.
“The Boston team is very much leading the way in how we perceive the product on the ice. Our league is the elite of the elite. Boston is doing that. The more they play, the more they’re clicking.”
The Blades are the lone US-based club in the five-team CWHL, which was launched in 2007. The other teams are Alberta, Brampton, Montreal, and Toronto.
The Blades are in their third season of competition. They practice and play most of their home games at Somerville’s Veterans Memorial Rink, the site of the first of back-to-back wins over the Russians. Boston completed the sweep the following night at Lawrence Academy with a 4-0 victory. The players are not paid. For many of the Blades, games and practices are training grounds for the 2014 Olympics. For female players, the Olympics remain the pinnacle of competition.
Center Kelli Stack, Knight’s go-to disher, will most likely be on the US Olympic roster. Stack and Knight played in the 2010 Games when the US lost to Canada in the gold medal game, 2-0. If not for the Blades, Stack, a 2011 Boston College graduate, would not have had game action to keep her skills sharp in preparation for the 2014 Olympics.
“It would have been next to impossible to find games as competitive as this,” said Stack, who lives in Brighton. “We would have been playing in men’s beer leagues at 10:30, 11 o’clock at night. To have a league like the CWHL and a team in Boston, it’s a tremendous opportunity for girls in the area.”
Stack was in the middle of Boston’s offensive explosion Tuesday. The top-line center buzzed around the rink to set up chances for Knight and linemate Jen Schoullis. The Russians played a physical game and jammed up the middle of the ice to slow Boston down. In contrast, the Blades pushed the pace to take advantage of their speed and skill.
In goal, Natick native and BC graduate Molly Schaus stopped every shot for the shutout. Schaus is also a former Olympian, dressing for one game in Vancouver in 2010.
While the Olympics represent the highest level of international competition, the Games remain a two-dog scrap between the US and Canada. A two-federation, once-in-four-years tournament does not compare to a competitive league featuring the best graduates of NCAA and Canadian Interuniversity Sport hockey.
“I think the league, ultimately, is going to be the highest competition in the world,” said Blades general manager and coach Digit Murphy, formerly the coach at Brown. “The Olympics are played only once every four years.
“If we can continue to elevate our league to have more players playing the game, it’s going to be better than the Olympics. When you go to the Olympics, right now, you’re beating Finland, 15-0, right? When you play in this league, every game, every weekend is competitive.”
Women’s hockey, like women’s soccer and men’s lacrosse, boasts its pockets of popularity. Excellence can lead to college scholarships. But as professional sports, it has a narrow niche. It is unrealistic to project a women’s professional hockey league that rivals its men’s counterpart.
Andress’s objective is modest. She’d like players to be paid, a straightforward if challenging goal. For that to happen, the fledgling league would require support from all ends — grassroots as well as professional support.
So far, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames have aligned with the Toronto Furies and Team Alberta, their CWHL counterparts. According to Andress, the NHL clubs assist in marketing and communications in what she terms a big brother/little sister partnership. The Blades do not have an alliance with the Bruins.
The teams also need community support. On Tuesday, the stands in Somerville were approximately half- to three-quarters full. Tickets were $10.
Shortly after the win, the Blades visited the lobby to sign autographs and greet fans.
“The ultimate goal is to create a community around each of our teams to have sponsorship dollars in place to pay our players,” Andress said. “Even a base salary. We’re not talking about millions. Just enough money to really grow the league and tell the back stories of our players.”
Robins learns the hard way
It is as a 31-year-old — with previous stops that included Belfast and Jesenice, Austria — that Bobby Robins has learned who he is as a professional. Through 15 games with the Providence Bruins, the former UMass-Lowell forward had recorded two goals, one assist, and a team-leading 77 penalty minutes — 55 of which came without his gloves.
Robins has been the right wing on Providence’s hard-hat line, riding alongside Lane MacDermid and Christian Hanson. Robins, now in his seventh professional season, acknowledges that fighting must be a part of his approach.
“When I came to pro, I didn’t really know it was supposed to be an element in my game,” Robins said. “It was, to an extent, when I had to — when I had to back it up. But I felt like if I was to be the best player I could be, it had to combine every element of a power forward. That’s just one of them. I had to embrace that aspect, the fighting side. When you’re playing hard and playing aggressive, fights are going to happen.”
Part of Robins’s evolution required a life-changing decision. In 2010, Robins found a lesion in the back of his mouth. As a user of smokeless tobacco since he was a teen-ager, Robins was certain he had cancer.
For all the hockey players who say no to cigarettes, there are legions that think nothing of dipping tobacco. Robins was among that crowd. By his recollection, Robins was probably at hockey camp when he saw older players chewing tobacco and first tried it then.
That initial buzz mushroomed into a two-tin-per-day habit — something he couldn’t kick until his 2010 scare. While awaiting the diagnosis, Robins went cold turkey. For three days, he suffered as his body rebelled against the withdrawal.
“It’s hell,” Robins said. “It’s the hardest three days you’ll ever go through. It’s torture. Any nicotine addict — a smoker, a chewer — will tell you they go two or three hours without it, you get the shakes. You start jonesing for it because you’re addicted to that drug. Once you stretch it to five, six, 10 hours, your body really revolts against you.”
Tests returned negative. A rubbing wisdom tooth had caused the lesion. But Robins stayed clean and has not chewed since then. Smokeless tobacco remains a constant in the dressing room. Robins doesn’t believe it’s his place to lecture friends or teammates. His targets are younger, the kids who try tobacco or the ones who wish to quit. Robins’s chronicles his story on his blog (www.bobbyrobins.com).
“These are all grown men here,” Robins said. “I’m trying more to influence kids who are trying it and trying to catch a buzz. You might be trying to catch a buzz now. But this is dangerous stuff.”
Plenty of gas left in the tank
With no need for charter flights, the Bruins have saved on fuel through the lockout. According to Greg Raiff, CEO of Private Jet Services Group, the company that provides charter services to the Bruins, the team has saved 54,085 gallons of fuel during the lockout. The Bruins would have had nine road games through November. On a typical flight, according to Raiff, the Bruins travel with approximately 10,000 pounds of passenger and crew weight and 4,800 pounds of equipment and luggage.
Cross needs to pick up pace
Tommy Cross, the Bruins’ second-round pick in 2007, didn’t impress during his first pro training camp with Providence. The former Boston College captain was assigned to South Carolina of the East Coast Hockey League prior to the start of Providence’s season. But after 22 games, Cross was promoted to Providence Wednesday, where he’s pushing for a longer stay. The 23-year-old defenseman had 6 goals and 11 assists for South Carolina. His biggest challenge will be to adapt to the AHL’s quicker tempo. “He’s had some issues with the pace at certain times,” said Providence coach Bruce Cassidy. “Puck movement, pace, closing down low, defending. Instead of just doing it, maybe overanalyzing, because he’s a smart kid. He probably thinks a lot of stuff before doing it. Maybe he just needs to be more reactionary at times.”
Tinkering goes on
During a normal NHL season, equipment manufacturers regularly receive feedback from players on their latest sticks, skates, helmets, and protective gear. That feedback has waned during the lockout. But Craig Desjardins, Bauer Hockey’s general manager of equipment, notes the company does not depend solely on NHL player input. “Product development in our world is an iterative process,” Desjardins said. “We have multiple inputs, all the way from field testing, on-ice testing, lab testing, and subjective feedback. It’s not just of elite players, but youth hockey players of multiple abilities.” As an example, Bauer released its Re-Akt helmet earlier this year with assistance from Alex Ovechkin and Claude Giroux. In August of 2011, Ovechkin and Giroux worked with Bauer to optimize the helmet’s fit. Bauer also used data and information from McGill University and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to examine the biomechanics of hockey collisions. The result is a product featuring a liner between the helmet’s shell and interior designed to reduce the head’s initial rotational acceleration. So while Bauer would prefer an up-and-running NHL as its premier research lab, the lockout has not affected future product releases.
On Monday, Mark Carney, current governor of the Bank of Canada, scooped up a prime overseas gig: He was named the governor of the Bank of England, the world’s second-oldest bank. Carney becomes the first non-Briton to hold the position. The powerful Carney, however, was once a lowly backup goalie at Harvard, a one-year letterman in 1986. At the time, Carney might have been best known as the roommate (and future best man) of the 1987 Crimson captain. “Brilliant guy,” wrote Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, the roommate, in an email. “He was bound to succeed at something. And he was always interested in public service.” While his good friend remains idle during the lockout, Carney’s task will be to help stabilize the European economy. When prodded that at least one of the roommates went on to bigger things, Chiarelli concurred. “Yes,” he said. “Although I think he always aspired to be a GM.”
Camara makes strides
On Monday, Hockey Canada will announce its selection camp roster in advance of the World Junior Championships. The camp will help determine Canada’s roster for the tournament, which will be Dec. 26-Jan. 3 in Ufa, Russia. Top Bruins prospect Dougie Hamilton is a lock. Anthony Camara, picked two rounds after Hamilton in the 2011 draft, is a dark horse. Through 27 games with Barrie (OHL), Camara had 19 goals and 15 assists while skating alongside Mark Scheifele, the No. 7 overall pick in 2011. “His skating has really come on,” said Chiarelli. “He’s playing on a good line. But he’s also creating stuff on his own. I’ve seen games where he’s had some really strong moves around the net. With his skating and puck protection, he’s been playing well.”
Former Boston College goalie Cory Schneider became the sixth member of the NHLPA’s 31-player negotiating committee to take an overseas deal. On Wednesday, Schneider committed to Switzerland’s Ambri-Piotta. Schneider, who lives in the North End during the offseason, had been training in Vancouver . . . The strangest twist of the lockout took place Monday when the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced its intention to participate in negotiations. Shortly after the announcement, the FMCS released a followup statement detailing the removal of commissioner Guy Serota from the assignment. Serota claimed that his Twitter account, which included some PG-13 material, had been hacked. The FMCS had no comment on reports that Moe, Larry, and Curly declined to participate in mediation. Even the Three Stooges have standards . . . You have not seen speed until you’ve seen an NHL player reach for his per diem ($98 in 2011-12) on the road. It’s just another reason why management can always outwait labor. Even for a multimillionaire superstar, a hundred bucks for a meal or two is still money best placed in his pocket instead of in a bonfire.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.