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Women's pro hockey league expands to Minnesota

National Women’s Hockey League commissioner Dani Rylan holds a Minnesota Whitecaps women’s hockey jersey as the team is introduced as an expansion team of the NWHL at Herbie’s on the Park in St. Paul on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. Also pictured (from left) is Whitecaps captian Winnie Brodt Brown, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, NWHL Deputy Commissioner Hayley Moore and 2018 NWHL Goaltender of the Year (Buffalo Beauts) and former Minnesota Gopher Amanda Leveille. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
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ST. PAUL — The Twin Cities welcomed its newest professional sports team Tuesday, May 15, with the announcement that the Minnesota Whitecaps will join the National Women’s Hockey League.

The Whitecaps, a Twin Cities team founded in 2004, join as the league’s fifth team with the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and Metropolitan Riveters and will start playing at the start of the 2018-19 season.

Just having Minnesota in the NWHL expands our national footprint and grows our game in so many ways,” league commissioner Dani Rylan said. “This is a monumental step for the NWHL.”

Rylan said adding the Whitecaps has been a priority since the NWHL’s inception in 2015, adding that it started coming together a few months ago after holding the annual all-star Weekend at the TRIA Rink, the Minnesota’s Wild’s new practice rink in downtown St. Paul.

Not long after, the league acquired the Whitecaps, she said. Terms of the deal were undisclosed to the public.

“This is such an exciting day for Minnesota,” Governor Mark Dayton said. “We are the State of Hockey, so to have a professional team join the ranks of those out on the East Coast is really exciting. … This is going to be a great success.”

It’s still unclear where the Whitecaps will play their home games next season — an announcement is expected to come in the coming weeks — but the TRIA Rink makes sense; the Pride, Beauts and the Riveters all play their home games in NHL practice rinks.

TRIA already is the home rink for the Hamline’s men’s and women’s hockey teams. The women’s team, which advanced to the Frozen Four under coach Natalie Darwitz last season, is tentatively scheduled to play 15 games there next season.

Multiple sources said they did not know whether the Whitecaps will share the rink.

Notable Whitecaps alumnae include Hannah Brandt, Kendall Coyne, Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson, Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Alex Rigsby, who helped Team USA win the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“Even though the Whitecaps have been doing such a good job, they maybe haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve because they’re not in a league,” Gophers women’s hockey coach Brad Frost said. “Now they have that, and that gives some of the college players in our state the opportunity to graduate and know they can have an opportunity to play professionally.”

The NWHL operates exclusively on one-year contracts that were valued between $5,000 to $7,000 last season, a steep decline compared to the inaugural season, when players made between $10,000 and $26,000.

“A majority of the players have full-time jobs outside of this league,” said Amanda Leveille, who played for the Gophers (2012-16) and was the NWHL Goaltender of the Year last season. “That said, we’re so grateful that we’re being paid at all. We know that everything starts small and it continues to grow, and today is a pretty good example of how it’s growing.”

Like the Founding Four teams of the league, the Whitecaps will initially be owned by the league. Pegula Sports & Entertainment — owners of the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills — acquired the Beauts from the league last season.

“They are building the blueprint for us as to what it means for an NHL club to own an NWHL club,” Rylan said, noting that down the road the goal is to have private owners for every team. “We have always believed that proving the product is the most important thing. I think continuing to prove ourselves is something that we need to do.”

Typically, the league has played a 16-game regular season with a three-game playoff used to decide the winner of Isobel Cup. There could be tweaks next season with the Whitecaps being added to the mix.

Every player in the league becomes a free agent on June 1.

“I’m sure there’s going to be desire to play here,” Frost said. “There are so many players from Minnesota, and to be able to play in front of family and friends is going to be something a lot of them are going to want to do. It’s great that they’re going to get an opportunity to do that.”

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