Worrisome problem becomes win-win situation for women’s hockey groups

In January, we told you about the uncertain future of the Minnesota Whitecaps, the only American franchise in the elite Western Women’s Hockey League. With USA Hockey establishing a residency program for Olympic team hopefuls in Blaine this fall, Whitecaps co-founder Jack Brodt feared a mass exodus of players might compromise his team’s competitiveness and, at worst, make it difficult to fill his roster.

This week, Brodt was pleased to report that the Whitecaps and USA Hockey worked out an arrangement that should help both. Resident players can also skate for the Whitecaps if they choose, according Michele Amidon, USA Hockey director of women’s hockey operations. And the teams will play other six times this season.

“I think we’ve got a good working relationship now with them,” Brodt said of USA Hockey. “I think they realize our program is pretty beneficial to their players.”

Seven of the 18 players chosen for the residency program played last season for the Whitecaps (15-6-1-2), who finished second to Calgary in the five-team WWHL. The league is a popular destination for U.S. and Canadian Olympic veterans and hopefuls. At least 16 WWHLers, mostly from Calgary and Minnesota, participated in the International Ice Hockey Federation women’s world championship tournament in China last month.

Whitecap players led Team USA’s gold-medal victory

Brodt noted with pride that all the goal-scorers in Team USA’s 4-3 gold-medal victory over Canada — Natalie Darwitz (two), Jenny Potter and Angela Ruggiero — were Whitecaps. Potter, Ruggiero and fellow residency team members Kristin King, Caitlin Cahow, Erica McKenzie and goalie Megan Van Beusekom have committed to play for the Whitecaps this season, Brodt said. Darwitz, who coaches youth hockey in the area, will play only for the residency team.

“If the program had not been based in Minnesota, it would have caused some issues for the Whitecaps,” Amidon said in a telephone interview from USA Hockey headquarters in Colorado Springs, Col. “At first, it was looked at the other way.”

Whitecaps players with national team connections knew about the residency plans last winter, though USA Hockey didn’t announce it until earlier this week. Whitecaps business manager Kristie Minkoff, worried about rumors and uncertainty, called Amidon in January to ask what USA Hockey had in mind.

Both organizations, as it turned out, had the same idea and goal — providing a place where American women with no more college eligibility could play a competitive schedule and prepare for international events, such as the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Canada already does this. Most of their players skate in the WWHL or its eastern Canada counterpart, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, when not with the national team. Canadian labor laws make it difficult for Americans to play for Canadian-based teams in those leagues.

Jenny Potter is one of three Minnesota Whitecap players who teamed up to score all the goals in Team USA's 4-3 gold-medal victory over Canada.
Photo by Neil Negstad
Jenny Potter is one of three Minnesota Whitecap players who teamed up to score all the goals in Team USA’s 4-3 gold-medal victory over Canada.

“I think we had to come to an understanding that the domestic game is an important part of it, and we were supportive of her,” Minkoff said of Amidon. “There is a consortium of people here ready and wanting to help these gals. I think that’s really important to Michele, too, that there’s a big support group here for women’s hockey and girls’ hockey. We need to make it the best experience for these gals.”

‘Teamwork’ paying off for two programs

So Amidon and Minkoff worked together. Though the residency program’s schedule remains in flux, Minkoff tried to arrange the Whitecaps’ schedule to avoid conflicts. In turn, Amidon allowed any residency program players who wanted to play for the Whitecaps to do so. “That’s up to the individual player. Some will, and some won’t,” Amidon said. (Players receive a stipend from USA Hockey but still have to pay to play for the Whitecaps, like most WWHL players do.)

Amidon went one step further: If the Whitecaps are ever short of players, they can ask anyone in the residency program to fill in. WWHL teams can carry up to 35 players on their roster, and dress 20 per game.

“I think this enhances their program a lot,” Amidon said. “Before, if they had players that couldn’t make it, they had no one else to ask. They flew in players like Kristin King and Angela. This is going to save them money.” The Whitecaps get no direct financial help from USA Hockey, Brodt said.

The residency program, coached by longtime Minnesota high school coach and former Gophers women’s assistant Tom Osiecki, will run from September through April 2009.  The team will play Wednesday nights in an elite men’s league in Blaine and is scheduling games with women’s Division I college teams and scrimmages with boys’ high school teams.

The six games with the Whitecaps will be played at sites around the state to be determined. Whitecaps games usually serve as fundraisers for local hockey associations, which keep the gate receipts in exchange for giving the Whitecaps free ice time. Minkoff said the teams may mix and match players for development purposes.

All told, this is one of those deals where everybody wins, which doesn’t always happen when a national governing body gets involved. And allowing Minnesota girls to see their hockey role models play so often in person can only help the game’s development. “I think it’ll be neat,” Minkoff said.

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