After finishing the 2019-20 NWHL season with a 23-1-0 record, the Boston Pride did not have a chance to compete for the Isobel Cup, the final canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. A year later, the Pride stumbled through an abbreviated season with a 3-4-0 mark but rallied in the playoffs, taking a 4-3 victory over the Minnesota Whitecaps in the title game Saturday night.
The Pride started the season as favorites for the title, but the team had to integrate several new players, led by former Boston University star Sammy Davis, the No. 1 choice in the NWHL draft in April.
And, sure enough, the newcomers had difficulty making the transition to the pros, before coming through in the final.
Tereza Vanisova, a second-round selection from Maine via the Czech Republic, assisted as Mary Parker scored the Pride’s first goal against the Whitecaps. Fourth-rounder Taylor Turnquist (Clarkson) helped set up Jillian Dempsey’s go-ahead score. Third-rounder Taylor Wenczkowski (New Hampshire) converted the fourth goal.
“Players I would have nightmares over at BU,” said Pride general manager Karilyn Pilch, former director of hockey operations at Boston University.
Davis scored in the Pride’s 6-2 win over the Toronto Six in the semifinals, and performed well in the final. She ended the regular season with four goals, tied for second in the league.
“We did a ton of work behind the scenes and we didn’t want anyone else to take a swing at Sammy,” Pilch said of trading up to acquire the No. 1 pick from Toronto. “We’re not drafting anyone that’s not going to sign.”
The previous year, the Pride selected Kali Flanagan (Boston College) in the first round of the draft, but Flanagan joined the PWHPA.
This season was condensed to less than two weeks at Lake Placid, the league shutting down earlier than expected due to pandemic protocols. The Pride’s record might have been deceiving — in seven games, they had a 22-11 (plus-11) goal differential, best in the league, sustaining three one-goal defeats.
“Part of our struggle was having eight rookies,” Pilch said Monday. “We were playing well but we needed time to adjust. They’re so talented, they’re the best players on their [collegiate] team. And they come to us and the speed of the game and the competition — they don’t realize what they’re up against.”
The Pride started practice under coach Paul Mara on Sept. 14, but did not play a game until Jan. 23.
“The ebb and flow of this season was pretty wild,” Pilch said. “We thought we would be starting just after Christmas, 20 games. Then the bubble [Lake Placid] came up, which made sense, and there were going to be nine games in 17 days, and then that got postponed. And then we were left with what’s next? But our team was so eager to get back on the practice ball. So, before we knew what was happening we ended up having four full weeks to get ready.”
Many Pride players had full-time jobs and had to coordinate work obligations with workout schedules. The Whitecaps were not as fortunate — their playoff roster was missing two defensemen due to high school coaching duties.
“Surreal is a good way to put it,” Pilch said. “From the day that game got canceled [2020 Isobel Cup final], and the unknown [about] the whole world at that point. This is such a small piece of what’s going on in the entire world but it was so big for us. Everyone has gone through so much and to be able to do this — I’ll never find the words to describe the appreciation. But there isn’t a group of people that deserve it more.”
Pilch played as a goalie on the boys’ team at Salem (N.H.) High School and then performed at BU, graduating in 2009.
“I don’t know if all this has hit me yet,” Pilch said. “Before 1998 I didn’t know a group of women could play hockey together. I went to a scrimmage of the national team at UMass-Lowell and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, an entire group of women can play hockey together.’ Now, it’s 2021 and that was my team playing on national television. We’d like to be financially stable and pay the players more but if you step back and look, this has been a pretty amazing feat.”
Behind-the-scenes preparation for next season will begin soon. And the Pride might not have to make many changes.
“I’d love to have the entire team come back but no idea where that’s going to fall,” Pilch said. “We’re doing interviews and media stuff, let everyone have fun with the Cup, and then back to business. It’s important that people understand we exist, we’re talented and we feel appreciated.”
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.