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Riveters Withdraw, But The NWHL Skates On

@NWHL

After cancelling their 2020 championship game and going 11 months without play, the NWHL has battled back to host a two-week, rapid-fire season at the Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York.

It may have felt like solving a Rubik’s Cube missing some of its stickers, but interim league commissioner Tyler Tumminia managed to pull together the logistics necessary to schedule a season and bring six teams together into a COVID-19 compliant bubble environment, all while managing to secure broadcast rights for the semifinals and Isobel Cup championship game, which will air live on NBCSN. This will be the first time a major cable network in the U.S. has aired women’s professional hockey.

Tumminia told the network, “It’s a huge learning curve,” but it’s one she appears to be surmounting quite well.

 

RIVETERS’ WITHDRAWAL IS FIRST MAJOR HURDLE

The league experienced its first major setback on Thursday, January 28th, when the Metropolitan Riveters were forced to withdraw from the tournament in compliance with COVID-19 protocols after a number of players tested positive for the virus.

It’s a disappointing end to the Riveters’ season. Led by captain Madison Packer, the league’s fourth highest scorer a year ago, the team’s one week on the ice was less than they’d hoped for but thrilling nonetheless. Key roster changes, paired with their physical style of play, had them ranked third in the standings following wins over Toronto and Connecticut.

Outside the COVID scare, the league has also been dealing with the fallout from an ongoing internet fued between Barstool CEO Erika Nardini and friends of the league. Nardini has been an outspoken supporter of the NWHL, while fans and journalists inside the space have called for the league to disown the connection, leading the league to issue a statement after Nardini attacked her “haters” in an online video.

BOSTON UNDERWHELMS, TORONTO OVERACHEIVES

Heading into the tournament, analysts predicted The Boston Pride would take home the Cup, having closed out last season with a 23-1-0 record before their chance to unseat the Minnesota Whitecaps in the championship game was cancelled due to the pandemic. The power-packed team has remained largely intact, with depth on every line and unfinished business driving their determination. That said, in sports as in life, there’s no such thing as a sure thing. The Pride currently sit at No. 5 after an unlikely loss to lower ranked Connecticut on Wednesday night.

While the Whitecaps, the reigning champions from the midwest, will predictably put up a good fight (currently 3-0 and the only unbeaten team in the bubble), the verdict is still out on how the league’s newest team, the Toronto Six, will fare.

On Tuesday, January 26, fans saw a preview of what this team can produce when they beat the Pride 2-1, securing the franchise’s first win, with goals from Mikyla Grant-Mentis and Brooke Boquist in the third period helping them pull ahead of Boston. With hockey legend Digit Murphy leading the charge, the team is certainly making a name for themselves, especially after backing up their fist win with another over Buffalo.

CONNECTICUT CONTINUES TO UPEND EXPECTATIONS

The Cinderella story of the tournament is likely to be the Connecticut Whale. A perennial underdog, this season is giving Connecticut the chance to continue developing their core while integrating new players added in the offseason.

The changes are certainly paying off, as the Whale undercut the Pride this week, beating Boston for the first time since 2018. Though the Pride were without their captain, Jillian Dempsey, who had to sit out the game due to an undiagnosed injury sustained in Tuesday’s game, the Whale’s Emma Vlasic proved her prowess as an impact player, assisting in the team’s first three goals before scoring one of her own.

Connecticut faces off against the Minnesota Whitecaps tonight, Thursday, January 28. If the Whale can topple the Whitecaps, the Isobel Cup is firmly in their reach.

At the bottom of the current standings are the Buffalo Beauts, playing with little to lose at this point. Their top two scorers from a season ago, Corinne Buie and Taylor Accursi, are gone, leaving them to rely on less familiar faces. Luckily, that includes rookie Autumn MacDougall, who nearly netted a hat trick against Toronto during Wednesday night’s game.

TORONTO EXPANSION GIVES NWHL MOMENTUM

Lake Placid bears witness not only to the first women’s hockey bubble season, but also the debut of the Toronto Six, the newest NWHL expansion team and the second team to join the league’s growing cadre in its seven year history.

The Toronto Six follows the addition of the Minnesota Whitecaps, who joined the league during the 2018-2019 season, increasing the “Founding Four” franchises to Toronto’s eponymous six. As a bonus, addition of Toronto also creates the opportunity for a regional rivalry, giving the Buffalo Beauts a neighbor to the north to contend with.

Growth is always a good sign, but for the NWHL, moving into Canada, especially into Ontario, where the Toronto Maples Leafs boast a $1.5 billion valuation, is more than merely expanding internationally. It’s an opportunity with huge upside under the right management. Entering the GTA brings exposure to a market with a strong hockey fan base, but also one that has lost three CWHL teams in the past. The potential is there to grab hockey-loving hearts, but the Six will have to deftly avoid the management issues that befell previous leagues and teams.

Unlike previous groups, the NWHL is hoping to leverage a business model based around individual ownership for all six of its teams (Boston and Toronto are currently the only teams that are privately owned).

In April, Toronto franchise president (and current head coach) Digit Murphy told The Ice Garden: “I really like this next generation with the franchise model they’ve brought in,” adding, “when you start having franchise owners, they have a vested interest. It’s easier than the league owning it, because it’s tough having a league own all those teams in all those markets.”

 

NWHL PUTTING ONE SKATE IN FRONT OF THE OTHER

Though professional women’s hockey has quite a few hurdles to clear as athletes and managers work to make it a viable professional sport (as it rightfully should be), the NWHL’s successful expansion in Canada, ongoing whubble experience, and growing mainstream media coverage are all things to applaud and reasons to be hopeful.

The NWHL Isobel Cup Semifinals will air live on NBCSN on Thursday, Feb. 4 at 5:30 p.m. ET and 8 p.m. ET. The network will air the NWHL Isobel Cup Final on Friday, Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. ET, with live coverage also streaming exclusively on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

You can also catch regular season games on the league’s Twitch channel.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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