Bob Salwasser showed up for the Minnesota Whitecaps’ season opener in his team jersey, the one with Lee Stecklein’s name and number 2 on the back. Just like last year, he stood in his favorite spot — behind the end boards at Tria Rink — to watch Saturday’s 9-2 thrashing of the Metropolitan Riveters.
But Stecklein wasn’t on the ice this time. After scoring the overtime goal that brought the Whitecaps a National Women’s Hockey League title last spring, she is among more than 200 top players who are sitting out the league season. That didn’t deter Salwasser, who happily renewed his season tickets.
“Knowing the talent base we have to draw from here in Minnesota, I know they’re still going to be an excellent team,” said Salwasser, of Maplewood. “It’s still going to be an excellent time.”
The Whitecaps began their second season in the NWHL without Stecklein, Hannah Brandt and Kendall Coyne Schofield, the three U.S. Olympians who gave them star power last year. Hundreds of fans still showed up Saturday, ready to cheer for other favorite players who came back to play a 24-game season.
The team did not provide a crowd count, but the seats at Tria were nearly full, and more than 100 people filled the standing-room areas at a rink that holds 1,200. Jonna Curtis led the rout with a hat trick, while a pair of former Gophers — Nicole Schammel and Meghan Lorence — chipped in two goals each. Goalie Amanda Leveille, another Gophers alumna, stopped 35 of 37 shots.
Many Olympians and national-team players from the U.S. and Canada led the movement to sit out the NWHL season. Now organized as the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, they are hoping for an NHL-backed women’s league that would offer greater pay. The NWHL is moving on without them, as are the Whitecaps, now in their 16th season.
“It was great to see,” Curtis said of the crowd. “We still have so much support. I think that’s because the Minnesota Whitecaps have been around for so long, even though we’ve only been in the league for two years.”
With Saturday’s snow showers providing the first hint of hockey weather, the Whitecaps began their second NWHL season by revisiting their first. They unveiled a championship banner and brought the Isobel Cup out on the ice to a standing ovation.
Though ticket prices have increased — to $40 and $30 for some seats, from $20 last year — the atmosphere remained the same. Some kids brought homemade signs, while many adults wore team jerseys. Most stayed until the end despite the lopsided score, though a couple dozen lined up early for postgame player autographs.
Curtis said it wasn’t a hard decision to return. Like many players, she has deep affection for the Whitecaps, still led by original co-founder Jack Brodt. The NWHL also sweetened the deal for players in its fifth season.
Team salary caps have risen from $100,000 to $150,000. The season was expanded from 16 games to 24; more leaguewide sponsors have come on board; and the NWHL’s new broadcast deal with Twitch.tv will pay it a broadcast rights fee for the first time. Revenue from the league sponsorships and media deals is split 50-50 with the players.
“We’ve had other seasons when we didn’t have national-team players in the league, so it’s not adversity that we’re strangers to,” league Commissioner Dani Rylan said. “We’ve definitely had to look for the best and brightest to come and play professional hockey, but we’ve filled the rosters with unbelievable talent.”
In the meantime, PWHPA members are training together. Brandt, an Olympic gold medalist and former Gopher from Vadnais Heights, is one of about 10 members who live in the Twin Cities area. They practice twice a week and played some boys’ teams in September.
The PWHPA has brought some star players together for mini-tournaments and clinics, including an event in Chicago next weekend where more than 35 Olympians are expected to play. Brandt said the group is working to add more events and is hoping to play some games in Minnesota.
She said she has had lots of fun with the Whitecaps, but the decision not to play this season was a separate issue.
“This year was not really related to the Whitecaps,” Brandt said. “It is about doing something bigger, so I’m fully in support of that.”
Those who played Saturday at Tria, though, were happy to welcome a new season.
“It was awesome,” Schammel said. “A really packed arena, lots of little girls here. All of it was really, really cool.”