Bob Varney has watched many Boston Pride practices and games, a volunteer assistant coach since the women’s professional hockey team’s inception five years ago. As the Pride began warm-ups at a recent practice, Varney was approached to discuss this year’s squad. But first came a warning.
“Ask Bob what he thinks about the team and you will be here for an hour,” joked Jerry Foster, the Pride’s athletic trainer.
“We finally have a team,” Varney said. “The chemistry is so strong.”
He continued for just 20 minutes, explaining the strengths of the coaching staff, the skills of individual players, and even the failures of previous teams. But chemistry is the primary reason the Pride (20-1) have clinched the National Women’s Hockey League’s regular-season title despite having only seven returning players on a 20-woman roster.
The season resumes Saturday following the break for the NWHL’s All-Star Game, which was in Boston. After three regular-season games, the Pride will pursue the NWHL championship trophy, the Isobel Cup.
Pride general manager Karilyn Pilch also picked up on the cohesiveness of the team after watching how well all three lines moved the puck just a few practices into the preseason. After the Pride won their first four games, defenseman Kaleigh Fratkin thought the team was poised to do something special.
Then the Pride won 15 more, establishing an NWHL record with 19 consecutive victories. The win streak wasn’t snapped until Jan. 25 by the Minnesota Whitecaps, the second-best team in the league.
The Pride are anchored by goalies Lovisa Selander and Victoria Hanson, who have faced more than 500 shots but allowed only 42 goals — a combined save percentage of .928.
On offense, the Pride have a plus-66 goal differential, largely because of their speed. Defenders quickly move the puck to the forwards, enabling them to bombard opposing goalies. The Pride have registered 932 shots — 143 more than the Whitecaps, and 44.4 per game — and average 5.1 goals a game.
“It’s a huge part of our game,” said head coach Paul Mara, who played 12 years in the NHL, including a half-season with the Bruins. “We try and get as many shots as we can on net. . . . I like our odds if we can get 40, 50, 60 shots on net with the amount of goals that will go in.”
NWHL players are not paid enough to be full-time professional athletes, so the Pride’s 2–3 practices a week are usually conducted at 9 p.m. to accommodate the players’ full-time jobs. Additional training and ice sessions are done individually at various, sometimes odd, times to account for players’ work schedules.
Fratkin, who works in marketing for Under Armour, will use her apartment complex’s gym three times a week, and she gets up almost every weekday at 5:30 a.m. to attend skill sessions with Pride assistant coach Heath Gordon.
Pride captain Jillian Dempsey, who this season became the first NWHL player to reach 100 career points, is unable to make Gordon’s skill sessions, but does get extra ice time by skating with her father at 6 a.m. Fridays in her hometown of Winthrop before walking down the street to the elementary school where she teaches fifth grade.
“It took a lot for me to get motivated [to go to the gym], but when I’m motivated, I’m in there doing good work,” said forward Christina Putigna, who has registered 27 points in her rookie season.
“Knowing Demps is in there getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning I was like, ‘OK, I should probably be getting out of bed right now.’ It’s important to do things for the girl next to you. Our team works a lot like that: We want to win for each other and not ourselves.”
In September, the Pride became the only privately owned team in the NWHL when they were purchased by a group led by Miles Arnone, managing partner of the Framingham-based private equity firm Cannon Capital.
Arnone, who lives in Sherborn, wanted to reward the players’ passion for hockey. Under his ownership, the team moved practices to Thayer Academy’s new ice rink in Braintree, where they have their own locker room to store their new equipment. The team also was provided with jackets, the postgame food was improved, there were more flights instead of bus rides for away games, the hockey operations staff grew, and staff was added to the business side to help sell tickets and get fans to games.
“I saw an opportunity to upgrade the player experience,” said Arnone. “One of our goals as a company, as a team, is to continue to elevate every year the professional experience of our players.
“One, we think it is the right thing to do. And two, it is incumbent on having a good product in the end. If the players have a better experience — not just paying them more, that’s important —but it is also about all the accoutrements around that and support. If they have that, they are going to perform better, the product is better, and the fans like that better, more of them come, and you have this virtuous cycle.”
“It is more the thought,” added Pilch. “That goes a long way with them. Feeling like they are appreciated. They are professionals, and that is the way we want to treat them and how we view them in our eyes.”
Eight Pride players were NWHL All-Stars.
“We want to win,” said forward McKenna Brand. “We can’t just show up and rely on our talent. That is the biggest difference this year is that we have been showing up. We are talented, but we are showing up, pushing each other harder every day.”