Finding the new face of the NWHL

Kaitlin Cimini/FanRag Sports

Every season, the National Women’s Hockey League has picked a star player to boost its marketing campaign. In the first season, it was Hilary Knight. Last season, it was Amanda #BestKessel Kessel. With both players departing for the national team, the NWHL has an unusual opportunity to change its marketing strategy.

In fact, success for this year and beyond demands a new approach. Here are a few players with the skills and personality to be the new faces of the NWHL.

There is a wealth of top-tier talent returning to the NWHL in the second season. Because there’s not room for everyone on an Olympic roster, the NWHL will still field exciting players.

As her new team recently reminded fans via social media trivia, Janine Weber was the first player to sign an NWHL contract — making her the Sheryl Swoopes of the NWHL (kind of a big deal). She enters the third season with 10 goals (tied for fifth overall), 12 assists (fourth overall) and 22 points (tied for third overall).

Look for Weber to build off last season and contribute heavily to the Boston Pride’s offense. The league took a hit to international talent last season. Weber’s performance on the ice and potential to tap into European markets make her the perfect star for the upcoming season.

Another top talent returning to the league is Kelly Babstock. Last season, she finished in the top 10 in goals (10, tied for fifth), assists (nine, tied for 10th) and points (19, sixth) to earn a spot at the All-Star Game. Babstock has been a perennial offensive threat for the Connecticut Whale.

In two seasons, she consistently has posted numbers with the likes of Kelli Stack, Knight and Brianna Decker. In the first season, she tied Stack for third overall in points (22) and placed fourth overall in assists (13) behind Knight, Decker and Stack.  

Much like Weber, Corinne Buie is a name easily overlooked by casual fans. However, after the 2017 Isobel Cup Final, Buie should hopefully be wellknown as a clutch goal scorer. She is the only NWHL player to have her name on the Isobel Cup twice — first with Boston, then with the Buffalo Beauts.

The 2017 Isobel Cup is her third consecutive professional championship. She played with Weber on the 2015 Clarkson Cup-winning Boston Blades before making the switch to the NWHL in the 2015-16 season. In fact, she picked up the primary assist on Weber’s goal. After scoring the game-winning goal to earn Buffalo the Isobel Cup, her stick will join Weber’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Buie moved to the Beauts last season to get more opportunity to put her skills on display. She led the Beauts with nine goals and tied for first in points (12) with Shiann Darkangelo. Like Weber, she is another player likely to pick up exactly where she left off last season.

Although goal scorers get most of the love, there are some clutch netminders returning to the league. Katie Fitzgerald went from practice goalie to Goaltender of the Year in her rookie season.  The All-Star placed first in minutes (856) and saves (392), helping the New York Riveters finish second in the regular season.

However, Fitzgerald and the Riveters were bested by another breakout rookie in the first round of the NWHL playoffs. Amanda Leveille and the Beauts leapfrogged the higher seed for the second consecutive season. Leveille came up big for the Beauts, making 34 saves in the playoffs, second only to fellow “McLevman” member Brianne McLaughlin (60 saves).  Leveille returns to Buffalo as the presumptive ace.

Finally, in addition to skills on the ice, interacting with fans is critical. Two players stand out among the rest in this category. After going undrafted, Rebecca Russo made her way to the All-Star Game by way of the fan vote. While in Pittsburgh, the rookie from Boston University won the fastest skater competition.

At games, Russo makes it a point to toss practice pucks to groups of girls in the stands or take photos with Riveters fans after games. Her willingness to engage with fans and promote the league likely comes from her humble entry into the pros. In a matter of months, she went from being an unsigned rookie to an NWHL All-Star.

Similarly, fellow BU alumna Anya Battaglino went from practice player to director of the NWHL Players Association. Through her social media presence, occasional color commentary for the Connecticut Whale and overall willingness to be an ambassador for women’s hockey, Battaglino has the type of persona needed for fans and funders who believe in the best parts of growing women’s hockey.

On the ice, her passion and perseverance led to her first roster contract with the NWHL. Chances are Battaglino will continue to be a role player, just as she has been for the Whale and the entire NWHL. Battaglino’s hockey journey is sprinkled with adversity, self-discovery and determination.

Her “Rudy”-like story reminds us all that leadership (and success) are not dependent on one’s title or position. As the NWHL continues to create a league meant to inspire the next generation, Battaglino serves as a reminder that extraordinary possibilities are available to everyone.

All eyes are on the NWHL as it bounces back from salary cuts and enters its first season without Olympians. Building trust and legitimacy among players and fans now rests on competitors often underrated. The marketing strategy for the first two seasons seemingly relied heavily on one player. However, now (and perhaps in the future), the NWHL must promote the sum of its parts.

The players on this list encompass the history of the league as well as the sport. Women’s hockey now has the Olympics to bring the game to the main stage. In 2014, the Canada vs. USA gold medal match attracted 4.9 million viewers, a 96 percent increase from the 2010 contest. Team USA fought to ensure even more eyes follow the team in 2018 and beyond. In the Northeast, it will be the responsibility of 68 players to maintain a product Olympic women’s hockey viewers want to watch.

The product will be different, the national recognition will be less. However, the success of the league will not falter for lack of talented, inspirational women eager to grow the game for themselves and, more important, for others — including returning Olympians.


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