NWHL Preview: Whale’s Doyle returns with sights set on inspiring the next generation

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When Shannon Doyle steps foot on the ice this season, she will do so as part of an exclusive group of NWHL veterans. This season, her fifth in the still-fledgling but steadily developing women’s circuit, will make her one of only several players to have skated in every single season in league history and puts her in the same company as other notables such as Madison Packer, Kaleigh Fratkin and Jillian Dempsey. And that Doyle will continue her career with the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale at a time when there is arguably a greater divide in women’s hockey than ever before is a something of a statement.

Of course, Doyle knows a thing or two about making a statement. Days before her return to the NWHL became official – it was the fourth announced contract upon the opening of the league’s free agency period – the 27-year-old took to Twitter to deliver a message that was not only about the NWHL’s growth and the patience that had been required to watch the league take steps forward, but highlighted why she could not and would not take part in the burgeoning #ForTheGame movement.

“I just felt like at the time there was a decision being made to essentially get rid of women’s ice hockey – that was kind of the objective at that point – and I just didn’t see that as being helpful in any way, to stop the momentum, to stop the exposure,” Doyle said. “At the time, I felt like I wanted to speak for me personally. If people agreed with me, great. If people didn’t agree with me, great. I just wanted to make sure that people knew there was a voice out there that saw hockey as something that has always been there for us and for once we could do something in return for it.”

But for Doyle, the way to give back to the game that has given her so much isn’t simply about stepping foot on the ice and helping develop the professional ranks. Rather, her gift and her goal is to inspire the future generations. It’s what keeps her playing, she said, and it’s her way to give young girls the very thing she herself didn’t have: a visual representation of what was possible, where she could go with her on-ice career. “I was not fortunate enough to have a female coach until I went to college, and that was my two assistant coaches,” Doyle said. “So having that kind of shift in lens, shift in what they’re able to see, is such a meaningful part of what ice hockey means to me now.”

It’s undeniable, Doyle said, the impact the NWHL has made at the grassroots level. From the first season to what will soon be the beginning of the fifth, she’s watched the number of youth organizations and girls teams with which the league works grow significantly. She’s also made sure to stay involved in clinics where possible, such as the Try Hockey For Free clinic run the Whale and Metropolitan Riveters are running this coming weekend in conjunction with the New York Rangers’ Junior Rangers program as part of Girls Hockey Weekend.

Beyond signalling another opportunity for her to influence the next generation, though, this weekend also presents the first chance for a new-look Whale team to hit the ice in search of the success that has long escaped the franchise. Not since the NWHL’s inaugural season has Connecticut posted a winning record and the Whale’s 2-12-2 finish in 2018-19 was its worst yet. However, Doyle said Connecticut is one team that stands to benefit from the significant turnover the roster – and the league – has seen. The reason? Many of those skating with the Whale this season won’t carry the baggage that comes along with living life as a member of the NWHL’s bottom-feeding outfit over the past few seasons.

“If you’re looking at a player that’s coming off of only playing for us last season, they might be carrying the weight of, ‘Oh, we only had two wins,’” Doyle explained. “That might be in the back of their mind if anything goes wrong in a game or if they make a mistake, they’re like, ‘Oh no, that’s going to happen again.’”

Doyle feels the Whale have made some impactful changes, too, both on ice and off. She singled out the additions of Emma Vlasic and goaltenders Sonjia Shelley, Brooke Wolejko and Cassandra Goyette, and also pointed to the personnel changes behind the bench and in the front office. Former CWHL and NWHL forward Bray Ketchum has stepped in as the team’s GM, and aboard is assistant coach Laura Brennan and bench boss Colton Orr. Yes, that Colton Orr, the former Toronto Maple Leafs tough guy who is a veteran of nearly 500 NHL games.

“He has such a great hockey resume and we’re really excited to have such an elite coach be behind the Whale this season,” Doyle said. “Out of all the teams, we’ve not had, let’s say, the highest level extensive hockey resumes on the bench compared to some other teams who have had NHL alums, all these players come step behind the bench, so we’re so excited to have him this year. He hasn’t been there in person yet but his messages are relayed through Laura, and it’s about working hard, about being tenacious, and we’re all about that, being blue collar.”

And that, Doyle said, is going to be the Whale’s calling card this season: hard-nosed play that makes Connecticut a pain to play against. They’re going to attack and defend with relentlessness. And if all goes according to plan, Doyle might finally be able to celebrate the one thing that has eluded her in the NWHL these past five seasons: an Isobel Cup victory.

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