Numerous past and current members of the Yale women’s ice hockey team played a major role in the formation of the National Women’s Hockey League, which kicked off its inaugural season last Sunday.
Four Elis took part in the first-ever NWHL game between the Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters, and two players set historic landmarks: Yale assistant coach and current Whale captain Jessica Koizumi scored the first-ever NWHL goal, and former Eli goaltender Jaimie Leonoff ’15 was credited with the first win, a decisive 4–1 rout, in league history. Leonoff, a three-year Yale starter who ranked second in Yale history in career saves and save percentage, recorded 35 saves and allowed just one goal in her season debut. Leonoff’s former captain, defender Tara Tomimoto ’14, also joins Koizumi and Leonoff on the Whale roster, while forward Bray Ketchum ’11 played against the trio for the Riveters.
The NWHL is the first professional women’s hockey league to pay its players. Four teams comprise the NWHL, all located in the Northeast: the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters. The Whale, which plays its home games at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut, is competing for the Isobel Cup, awarded to the eventual league champion. Connecticut’s 18-game season will run from September to February.
Before the Whale’s next game against the Beauts this upcoming Sunday, the News caught up with Leonoff to discuss the Montreal native’s time in professional hockey and her goals for the season.
Q: How has the experience been thus far in the NWHL, and what was it like to be part of the league’s historic beginning?
A: It has been amazing. We filled out our home opener, and playing for that many fans was really a change of pace. It’s really great. The pace is really fast, so it’s a step up and a good challenge … It is a huge honor to be part of this league and a part of the Connecticut Whale organization. I was very fortunate to have been chosen. For me, it’s amazing to be making history in women’s ice hockey.
Q: What led you to join the NWHL after graduating this past May?
A: Probably the money. It’s the first ever league that is paying the players so that’s what makes it so unique. Also, early on about mid-year last year, I became aware that this was in the works. I knew that it would be a good opportunity for me and there would definitely be spots to be taken so I jumped on it.
Q: How did your time on the Yale women’s ice hockey team help prepare you for the transition to the NWHL?
A: Yale hockey was an amazing experience for me, not only as a hockey player but also as a person, so transitioning I feel very lucky to have been part of a program that genuinely got me ready to play hockey in many respects. I definitely feel that Yale prepared me really well.
Q: How does the level of competition in the NWHL compare to that of the Ivy League?
A: The Ivy League is very strong always, but I guess the thing about the NWHL is that it kept the best players from many Ivy League teams and other Division I teams and merged the players into just four teams, along with many of the American Olympians. It’s a very fast league and it’s definitely a little more challenging than Ivy League play.
Q: Just a few days after the NWHL’s first-ever game, how do you envision the future of the league?
A: With the attendance that we are getting [a sell-out crowd in the first game] and if the NWHL can keep selling tickets, I can definitely see players earning more money, and the league expanding, signing more players and adding more teams, hopefully in Canada and in the [western United States]. As of right now, we are hoping that we have enough ticket sales to support the four teams that we have now.
Q: What’s it like to play alongside a former assistant coach of yours, Jessica Koizumi?
A: It is great and it’s a lot of fun. I got to play with her on another team this summer. She was an amazing hockey player and an amazing coach. It is a real privilege to have her on our team.
Q: What are your goals for your time in the NWHL?
A: It’s the first year, so it would be nice to set all the records.