Californians thriving in new women’s pro league
When Rachel Llanes first began playing hockey with the San Jose Jr. Sharks at the age of 12, she never dreamed of playing professionally.
The possibility didn’t exist then, but last fall, when Llanes pulled on a Boston Pride jersey for the first time, she became part of the first North American women’s hockey league to pay its players.
The San Jose native is one of eight players with California roots playing in the inaugural season for the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).
The other California natives playing in the NWHL include Jessica Koizumi (Simi Valley) and Alyssa Wohlfeiler (Saugus) with the Connecticut Whale; Kourtney Kunichika (Fullerton) with the Buffalo Beauts; and Elana Orlando (San Jose), Jenny Scrivens (Camarillo), Cherie Stewart (Lake Forest) and Amber Moore (Sunnyvale) with the New York Riveters.
After playing four years at Northeastern University, Llanes played two seasons with the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) and then jumped at the chance to join the NWHL.
“I didn’t even know about college hockey when I first started hockey, so playing professionally wasn’t even on my radar,” Llanes said with a laugh.
“To be able to play in the NWHL and get a paycheck for it is surreal. We’re actually getting paid to play this game that we love, and we never thought this was possible. It’s an amazing feeling, and it’s only going to get better. We’re all dedicated to growing this league.”
Through early January, Connecticut led the league with a 9-1 record, and Boston was close behind at 7-3. The 18-game regular season, which began in mid October, runs through the end of February.
Scrivens found her way to the NWHL first as the league’s director of public relations, and later decided to attend a tryout. She now balances her job in the league’s Brooklyn office with her role as a goalie for the Riveters.
Formerly Jenny Niesluchowski, she played for the California Selects before landing at Cornell University and later married Montreal Canadiens goaltender Ben Scrivens, also a Cornell graduate.
She said the NWHL has provided an important outlet for female players because now college isn’t necessarily the end of the line for them.
“As soon as I heard about it, I wanted to be involved, and I thought I could put my communications background and my hockey skills to use to help the league,” Scrivens said. “When the opportunity came up to play, I thought it was too good to be true.”
Dani Ryan, the commissioner of the league and a former standout at Northeastern, said last spring while announcing the formation of the league that she was “thrilled to be launching the first-ever paid professional women’s hockey league and creating a platform for these talented women.
“We look forward to helping grow the sport for the best players in the world, and giving these women a place to shine,” she added.
So far, most would agree that Ryan and the NWHL have succeeded in that quest. The league is off to a solid start with its four founding franchises, and hopes to expand in the future.
It got a welcome dose of national exposure on New Year’s Eve, when the Boston Pride took on Les Canadiennes of the CWHL in an outdoor exhibition contest the day before the NHL’s Winter Classic.
“Playing there was an amazing experience,” said Llanes, who assisted on the game-tying goal in what ended as a 1-1 draw. “I loved every second of it.”
Scrivens, who hadn’t played competitively since graduating from Cornell in 2010, said she’s thrilled with the opportunity the NWHL presents.
“I’m just so fortunate that this has happened in my lifetime and during the peak years of my playing career,” Scrivens said. “I really want this league to grow and thrive.
“My goal is for this league to continue so the little girls who support us now will have this opportunity when they grow up.”
– Greg Ball
Photo: Former San Jose Jr. Shark Rachel Llanes, a member of the NWHL’s Boston Pride