The question still trips up Hannah Brandt from time to time. When people ask the former Gophers star about her professional hockey career, she has to remind herself that, yes, she will be earning a paycheck with the Minnesota Whitecaps, a hard-earned milestone that seemed unattainable only a few years ago.

"We grew up never thinking this was a possibility, to be paid to play a game we love," said Brandt, a Vadnais Heights resident and Olympic gold medalist. "For this to finally be a reality is pretty special for all of us. And the coolest thing is, it's just getting started."

Saturday, the Whitecaps will begin their first season in the National Women's Hockey League, entering a new era as the first Minnesota women's hockey team to pay its players. A capacity crowd of 1,200 is expected to watch them face off against the Metropolitan Riveters at TRIA Rink in downtown St. Paul. While the immediate mission is to win the game, the 25 women on the roster also understand they are fighting for something bigger: to help the NWHL position itself for long-term success.

The league expanded for the first time last May, when it added the Whitecaps as its fifth franchise. Commissioner and founder Dani Rylan has kept much of its financial information under wraps, declining to disclose details of its revenue and expenditures. But she said the NWHL is on solid fiscal ground as it enters its fourth season.

"We've never been healthier," Rylan said. "And we're already off to a really great start in Minnesota. All our revenue streams are firing."

Women's hockey now has two salaried leagues, after the Canadian Women's Hockey League began paying players in 2017. Each has a salary cap of $100,000 per team. Former CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress and many of the top players in the U.S. and Canada are pushing for the leagues to merge, believing that one organization gives the women's pro game its best chance to grow.

Leaders of both leagues are continuing to discuss what the future might look like. But Saturday, Rylan and the Whitecaps will be immersed in the present, as they welcome a new chapter in Minnesota hockey.

"Everyone wants so much to see this whole thing succeed," said Winny Brodt Brown, who has played for the Whitecaps since her father, Jack Brodt, co-founded the team for post-college players in 2004. "It's so important to all of us.

"For me, it's a dream come true. I never thought I'd see the day when there would be a pro women's team in Minnesota, where players were paid."

Potential for big growth

Rylan said Minnesota's passion for hockey makes the Twin Cities an "incredibly important" market. The Whitecaps already have sold nearly 500 season tickets, the most in league history, and Saturday's opener is sold out. TRIA Orthopedics has signed a three-year deal as the team's official health-care partner, the first major team-specific sponsorship in NWHL history.

The league's initial business plan did not include Minnesota mainly because of the high cost of air travel. Rylan launched the NWHL in 2015 as a bus league, with franchises in Buffalo, Boston, New York and Stamford, Conn. The Buffalo franchise was sold to the owners of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres in December, while the league owns and operates the other four teams.

The NWHL acquired the Whitecaps in May. Jack Brodt, who remains the team's general manager and co-head coach, said he does not know much about the league's finances but has faith that Rylan is following a prudent business strategy.

"We're not privy to their finances, so we don't know what position they're in," Brodt said. "But Dani has a plan in place. And she's a very smart businesswoman."

A former hockey player at Northeastern University, Rylan, 31, grew up in Florida, where her father worked in marketing for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Interest in the 2014 Olympic gold-medal game between the U.S. and Canada — watched by 4.9 million people on NBC — convinced her the time was right for a paid league. She spent a year crafting a business plan and courting investors, most of whom have remained anonymous.

One partner, Texas Rangers co-owner Neil Leibman, went public Thursday. Leibman did not disclose how much money he has committed, but he called the NWHL a "legacy investment" and envisions adding another three teams over the next five years.

"I want to see the NWHL on par some day with the NHL," Leibman said. "I'm confident it will happen."

There have been growing pains. Player salaries initially ranged from $10,000 to $26,000 per season, then were cut substantially in the league's second season when revenue did not increase as expected. The current salary cap of $100,000 per team is the same as last season.

Dunkin' Donuts, which became the league's first corporate sponsor in 2015, remains its only well-known national partner. But Rylan said the NWHL is securing more local sponsorships, and she anticipates sales of media rights to be the next revenue stream "to really take off." The NWHL announced Wednesday that 16 regular-season games, the All-Star Game and the Isobel Cup playoffs will be livestreamed on Twitter this season, with the league selling advertising on those broadcasts.

Combine leagues?

Three franchises — the Whitecaps, the Riveters and Buffalo — also have affiliations with NHL teams. The Wild is assisting the Whitecaps with marketing, promotions and communications, as well as hosting eight home games at its TRIA Rink practice facility.

Jack Brodt says that for the league to have long-term success, it must sell all of its franchises to NHL teams, as it did with Buffalo.

"I think that's the ultimate goal," he said. "And I think the CWHL has the same end game. Our best chance over the long haul is if the NHL gets involved."

Andress, the former CWHL commissioner, said it also is imperative for the NWHL and CWHL to join forces. She recalled "many great discussions" with Rylan on that topic before she left to lead SheIS, an organization dedicated to the growth of women's sports at all levels.

The epic showdowns between the U.S. and Canada at the Olympics have generated more interest in women's hockey. But the stars of that rivalry are scattered across the two leagues, which do not play each other. Many of them — including Brandt and Whitecaps teammate Lee Stecklein — support a merger that would keep North America's best players in the same organization.

"Both leagues are in very good places," Andress said. "But for women's hockey to grow, we can't split these players up. Having one league is absolutely necessary."

Rylan said she will remain cautious in her stewardship of the NWHL. After acquiring the Whitecaps, though, she already is considering further expansion. Creating a natural geographic rival for the Whitecaps is part of the plan, as is pursuing more national sponsors and broadcast deals.

She will be at TRIA Rink on Saturday to watch paid women professionals play hockey in Minnesota for the first time. Brandt expects to feel some disbelief that this day has come. Rylan never doubted it.

"There have been some ups and downs, but we have a ton of positive momentum behind us," she said. "We need to keep proving our business model, keep learning and evolving, and not be complacent with where we're at.

"There has never been a doubt in my mind that there's a place for women's pro hockey. And we've created it.''