As she skated to center ice at Tria Rink, unable to hear anything other than a rowdy crowd, Winny Brodt Brown felt a chill.
“It’s like that shaky feeling where you go, ‘Wow, is this happening?’ ” the Whitecaps captain said. “It was an a-ha moment. I never imagined stepping out with a crowd like that.”
That euphoria stayed with her even after Saturday’s 4-0 victory over the Metropolitan Riveters. A capacity crowd announced at 1,200 helped the Whitecaps start their first season in the National Women’s Hockey League in grand style, with a shutout of the defending league champions. The Whitecaps joined the league in May, becoming Minnesota’s first paid professional women’s hockey team
A host of players with Minnesota connections had a hand in the history. Former Minnesota Duluth forward Katie McGovern scored the Whitecaps’ first goal of their NWHL era, beating Riveters goalie Katie Fitzgerald — who played at St. Cloud State — on a power play at 13 minutes, 29 seconds of the first period. The team also got goals from former Gophers Hannah Brandt and Kate Schipper, and Gophers alumna Amanda Leveille stopped 19 shots.
By the time a ceremonial first puck was dropped by Whitecaps co-founders Jack Brodt and Dwayne Schmidgall, fans had stuffed the bleachers and were spilling into the stairwells, upper concourse and around the end boards. As much as they enjoyed winning their NWHL debut, many Whitecaps players said the reception they got was the most emotional part of an unforgettable day.
“It was incredible,” said Brandt, an Olympic gold medalist. “We stepped out there for warmups, and it was already completely packed, and the kids were screaming. It was everything we dreamed of.”
The Whitecaps play the Riveters again Sunday, and both games were sold out in advance. More than an hour before Saturday’s opener, fans already were lined up in the corridors of Tria Rink in downtown St. Paul, pouring in when the doors were opened.
Many headed straight to the merchandise table to buy Whitecaps hoodies, T-shirts and pucks. Some, such as Alex Trevino of Prior Lake and his son, also named Alex, immediately put on their new gear. Others proudly wore jerseys representing youth hockey associations from around the state, including Albert Lea, Farmington, Roseville and Waconia.
The younger Alex Trevino, of Apple Valley, said he “jumped on the bandwagon” and bought Whitecaps season tickets the day they went on sale. He and his father hoped to buy their team hoodies ahead of time, but they were sold out online. After getting properly outfitted, the Trevinos took a selfie to capture a moment they were delighted to witness.
“I’m from a generation when women didn’t have the opportunity to play hockey,” the elder Alex said. “You look around at all the girls’ hockey players here, and how wonderful for them to grow up and see these women as their heroes, or their she-roes. It’s just really impressive.”
So was the hockey. Jack Brodt, the Whitecaps co-head coach, predicted his team would be fast and skilled, though he expects goals “will be at a premium” in a league with outstanding goaltending. Saturday’s action-packed opener bore that out.
The NWHL lets teams use only nine forwards per game, ensuring lots of ice time for the stars.
The game featured four U.S. Olympic gold medalists. Former Gophers Brandt and Lee Stecklein, plus Kendall Coyne Schofield, powered a speedy Whitecaps attack that scored on four of 16 shots. Forward Amanda Kessel, another former Gopher, helped the Riveters match the host team’s high tempo.
The Riveters, coached by former North Stars defenseman Randy Velischek, were unable to solve Leveille, who was the top goaltender in the NWHL last season while playing for Buffalo.
NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan attended the game and got emotional, too.
“It couldn’t have gone any better,” Rylan said. “What a wonderful moment for Minnesota. I’m so happy we could make this happen.”
Before the game, Jack Brodt produced a Whitecaps program from 2004. That was the year he founded the team, to give Winny and other women a place to play after college. That made her even more grateful for Saturday, to see how far things had come.
“I’m not an emotional person,” she said. “But that was pretty emotional for me, seeing Dwayne and my dad out there, knowing all the years they put into it. I’m pretty proud of how our team played. And it’s only going to get bigger and better.”