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A team in the shadows: Whitecaps aim for a new home league of their own

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Five years ago, the Minnesota Whitecaps were the first American Clarkson Cup Champions. Now, in a league that is all but defunct, they look to fill the hole in pro women's hockey that is the Midwestern U.S. Whether that is as part of the CWHL or the new National Women's Hockey League remains to be seen.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

If you drew out the boundaries of the two professional North American women's hockey leagues on a map, you would find a lot of concentration in the eastern part of the continent, with one western team (Calgary of the Canadian Women's Hockey League) thrown astray on the left-hand side. Anyone native to the area, and anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of hockey, would notice the large hole in the Midwest.

Not one pro women's hockey team in either the CWHL or the brand-new, U.S.-based National Women's Hockey League resides in the dozen states that make up the Midwestern United States. Particularly confusing is the lack of one in the State of Hockey.

The Whitecaps, who once filled the gap as part of the Western Women's Hockey League, look to change that and become Minnesota's pro women's team again -- this time, with a loaded roster and a choice between leagues.

As a member of the fledgling WWHL (which only had three teams actually operating by the time 2009-10 rolled around), the Whitecaps won three straight league championships from 2009-2011. They also beat the Brampton Thunder and brought the Clarkson Cup over the border for the first time in 2010. With only 13 players on the roster, mostly local talent (but notably containing Olympians Jenny Potter and Julie Chu), Minnesota shut out the Thunder 4-0, thus helping the U.S. establish a new dominance in women's hockey.

But it didn't last very long.

In 2011, the CWHL proposed a merger with the WWHL, one that fell through due to a failure to agree upon a playoff schedule. Instead, the latter league lost two teams and the former gained one (Team Alberta, now known as the Calgary Inferno). With just two squads left (Minnesota and Manitoba), the WWHL is still alive, but barely.

With this in the back of their minds, the Whitecaps have spent the last few seasons playing college, prep and national teams. Without a home arena up to this point, they also relied on community outreach, putting on clinics, holding fundraisers, and giving away tickets to youth hockey programs in exchange for ice.

This season is a little different. Both a university rep and Whitecaps assistant coach and team president Jack Brodt confirmed the team reached an agreement with the University of Minnesota to use Ridder Arena -- the home of the Gophers women's hockey team, the Whitecaps' opponent Friday night -- as a home base for practices and games. And, in addition to playing college teams, the Whitecaps will play a number of exhibition games against teams in the brand-new NWHL.

Brodt says the deal with the university will give Minnesota a decent case for becoming an expansion team in either the CWHL or NWHL.

"It puts us back on the map publicity wise and gets us back playing on a full-time basis," he said via phone. "It also gives us some stability for moving forward with either of these leagues."

The Whitecaps have been in this position before, albeit only with the CWHL. Back at the time of the original merger proposal, the Canadian league and the WWHL were at odds over the smaller league wanting a team in Toronto (the CWHL's base of operations).

Tensions were especially high between the C and Minnesota, who felt it was in danger both of being shut out from Clarkson Cup competition and of losing its identity if it joined the CWHL. As a result, it's been sort of an "always a bridesmaid" situation for the Whitecaps.

"We've been trying to get into the CWHL, but they've never accepted our team into the league," Brodt said. "They're looking for us to put up a substantial amount of money to get into the league, probably for travel, and the dollar amount put us into a difficult position."

Brodt said the amount expected in 2011 was $200,000; a September 2014 espnW report on potential CWHL expansion stated the amount to be closer to between $400,000 and $500,000 to cover airfare and hotel expenses, among others. Either way, the Whitecaps balked at the price expected to become part of a league that has not yet been able to generate revenue to pay its players. Brodt said if the team were to expand into the C, the league would have to help with fundraising (something it may not necessarily be equipped to do).

Branding and identity are also a collective issue. The WWHL's Edmonton Chimos and Strathmore Rockies merged to become Team Alberta in 2011; the Whitecaps, meanwhile, saw potentially doing the same thing as throwing away a decade's worth of history by becoming part of a new team.

Meanwhile, the new NWHL remains a question mark. It has done what the established league hasn't and opened the door for exhibition games (the CWHL doesn't allow them). The league issued this statement via email:

Minnesota is certainly a hotbed of women's hockey, with 19 percent of total registered female hockey players in the U.S. We recognize the importance of bringing a professional league to the State of Hockey, but our priority in Year One is to launch a successful league first and then look at expansion opportunities. We're excited to introduce our fans to the talent in Minnesota through exhibition games between the Whitecaps and the NWHL.

League commissioner Dani Rylan during interviews has also expressed interest in Minnesota as one of the first places to put an expansion team, but only after the existing teams (Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut and New York) have been well-established. Still, the eagerness to explore Minnesota as a possibility is encouraging.

That isn't to say the C isn't open to the possibility of taking the Whitecaps in. After tabling expansion talks for 2014-15, the league revisited the possibility (perhaps due to the NWHL's launch) during this offseason, announcing its intent to explore Minnesota and Chicago (two areas with considerable concentrations of female hockey players).

However, as was the case before, potential teams must meet certain criteria for admittance into the league.

"[The league] will be asking potential partners to meet the league’s standards for expansion against a variety of metrics: facilities contracts; season ticket sales; alignment/partnership with local NHL franchise; sponsorship; and community engagement in grassroots female hockey," the league said in a statement via email.

The Whitecaps have made strides to meet this criteria not just with its clinics and deal with Ridder, but with what Brodt calls a "working relationship" with the Minnesota Wild -- not monetarily, but through partnerships in charity matches and through general support of women's hockey.

"They haven't offered money at this point, and we haven't asked," Brodt said. "We don't feel like it's necessary at this point."

Wild senior director of strategic communications Kathy Ross stated via email that the Wild and Whitecaps have enjoyed "a long-standing relationship," working together on various youth clinics and fundraising for the Whitecaps via program sales. The Whitecaps were also featured in a women's hockey display at Xcel Energy Center.

"In the future we will continue to offer our support to the Minnesota Whitecaps whenever possible," she said. "Female hockey has seen unprecedented growth over the past 20 years in Minnesota and we will continue to offer our support to see that trend continue."

Indeed, the numbers have risen from barely 1,000 female players in Minnesota about 20 years ago to over 12,000 in 2012-13. The Gophers' rise to perennial champions and the strength of the national women's hockey team has no doubt fed the frenzy already instilled in children across Minnesota to play a sport so embedded in the state's culture.

Minnesota is only a part of a tremendous women's hockey hotbed within the Midwest. The WCHA regularly dominates NCAA play, with the Gophers alone making 11 appearances in the Frozen Four in the last 13 years and winning three of the last four national championships. Wisconsin, North Dakota, and UMD feature top-tier talent as well.

The Clarkson Cup winning team featured plenty of regional talent, and this year's is looking to be the same. Rachel Bona, Meghan Lorence, and Olympians Mira Jalosuo, Noora Raty and Anne Schleper are just a few former Gophers suiting up (though Raty is only planning to play the exhibition game against the Gophers). Also featured are some big names from USA Hockey, namely the Lamoureux twins and goalies Jessie Vetter and Alex Rigsby (a former Badger who made her mark at this year's Women's Worlds).

"I'm really happy with the roster," Brodt said. "It does pose some logistics issues, since some players are so removed from our arena. It might be difficult to get everyone together for practices. But they're in good shape, they know how to play, so even if they can't play together, I think we can put up a good game."

The objective for the Whitecaps this year is simply to establish themselves as a solid post-collegiate option for female players, and to become part of one of the functioning leagues.

"To be honest, both leagues do want us because they know it's a hotbed of hockey in the U.S.," Brodt said. "There are others... but we have more players than all of these areas combined. It's time one of these leagues opens the door for us to play.

"Look at Wisconsin, and all of the WCHA teams around us. If players from there know there's a place for them here to play, it just keeps opening opportunities for women to continue to play the game."

The Whitecaps and Gophers play in an exhibition game Friday night at 7 p.m. CDT (8 p.m. EDT) at Ridder Arena.

EDIT (10/2/15): The quoted statement from the NWHL was added to the text.