Problems on the professional stage: Quinnipiac women’s hockey develops pro talent, but a divide at the next level fails to let it be seen

Cameron Levasseur, Associate Sports Editor

 The prolonged anticipation. The roar of the crowd. The sigh of relief as a lifelong dream is finally realized. 

That’s the typical draft-day storyline for any of the major professional sports in the U.S. But it was not the case for Taylor Girard, a former Quinnipiac standout forward who was selected first overall by the Connecticut Whale in the 2021 National Women’s Hockey League (now the Premier Hockey Federation) entry draft. 

Connor Lawless

As Girard’s name was called, the Macomb, Michigan, native was met not with the cheers of a packed arena, but rather a crowd of 12-year-olds at the Premier Ice Prospects Camp in New York where she was coaching at the time.

“After I got drafted, I came downstairs and it was kind of like a huge party,” Girard said. “That was something that was super special that I feel like a lot of people in women’s sports don’t really get to have — that kind of ‘whoa’ moment.”

Those “whoa” moments, while on a smaller scale than other sports, are becoming more common in women’s hockey, a sport that has shown significant growth in the 21st century. 

“I’m incredibly optimistic about where we’re going,” Quinnipiac women’s hockey head coach Cass Turner said. “You look at the excitement around the Olympics … the product, just how good women’s hockey is. I think it’s exciting, but we’re at a really pivotal moment to come together and create products that people can watch all year round.” 

Both Girard and former Quinnipiac goaltender Abbie Ives are part of the generation of players looking to seize the moment to bring the sport to the forefront. 

“The dream … and what I want for all the girls that are coming up is to have this really good, solid league to aspire to,” Ives said. “So hopefully that’s coming in the future.” 

Ives and Girard are two of 15 Quinnipiac alumni to have played locally for the Whale, the largest such pipeline in franchise history. 

“I do think it’s helped in Connecticut because you do see these young girls going and watching women play,” Turner said. “They look at it and they say, ‘wow,’ … ‘I can go and try to be Kelly Babstock one day, I can go and try to be Abbie Ives,’ and they look up to these women, and I think that’s the amazing thing.” 

The Quinnipiac women’s hockey team has been a force in developing professional talent in its 20 years of existence, largely due to the way it approaches the game. 

“We really work to collaborate with our athletes in a way that they’re invested in their development, but (also) in their happiness and their success in enjoying hockey every day,” Turner said. 

Ives credits the Bobcats’ coaching staff for allowing her to grow both on and off the ice. 

“I think it’s just the staff’s attention to detail and the workouts they put you through, and the prep they put you through,” Ives said. “It just teaches you how to be a successful, first, hockey player, but just a successful worker. Cass is unreal. She’s so detailed and she just works so hard. It’s the same thing for Coach B — Brijesh Patel — the strength coach.” 

One of the biggest issues stunting the growth of the game is the divide between the two major professional women’s leagues. The PHF and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association have been at odds since the latter league’s formation in the wake of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folding in 2019. 

A large portion of the animosity between the two leagues stems from the management of Dani Rylan Kearney, the founder and former commissioner of the NWHL prior to its rebrand. Rylan Kearney infamously oversaw the league’s salary halving during its second season, which spurred a number of players to move on from the league. 

“I think what everybody wants is just all the best players playing in one league, making a living salary and having the resources to be real professionals and the facilities to be real professionals,” Ives said. 

While there are improvements being made on the financial front in the PHF, with the salary cap set to more than double to $750,000 next season on top of a two-team expansion, many have called for the NHL to subsidize the league much like the NBA does with the WNBA. However, the NHL has made clear it will not do so until a single unified league exists. 

While both leagues can see their own individual successes, the consensus is that in order to reach new heights the PHF and PWHPA need to put aside their differences and work to unify, something that Turner is optimistic will be a reality 10 years down the line. 

“I’m hoping that we’re sitting here saying that there is a professional league for it,” Turner said. “There’s a place to play and really earn a viable wage and have women’s hockey players, those names be common names not just for young girls, but for fans, for sports fans, for hockey fans everywhere.” 

Talent-wise, the growth is there, as Turner noted while reflecting back on her own playing days with Brown and later the Toronto Aeros of the old NWHL. The league was later disbanded in 2007 and refounded in 2015. 

“It’s just so much more skilled,” Turner said. “There’s more college teams, there’s more money in terms of budgets for programs, there’s more girls playing all across North America and across the world … there used to just be a few talented players and now you have a ton of talented players.” 

Women’s hockey is on the rise, with Quinnipiac alumni helping lead the charge. The players are incredibly talented and there’s a clear appetite for the sport, as attendance records were set in 2019. It’s up to those involved with the day-to-day operations to realize the gravity of the moment they’re in and forgo their grievances for the good of the game.