Kelly Nash didn’t necessarily think her first season in the NWHL was going to be easy. Then again, on the ice as often as she was, Nash definitely didn’t think it would be as hard as it turned out to be. Looking back now, though, Nash, technically a 28-year-old NWHL rookie last season with the Metropolitan Riveters, can admit it took her a while to get up to speed.
“I’m on the ice constantly, and I play in men’s leagues, so I felt confident that I’d be able to handle it,” Nash said. “But the first month or so I was definitely a little bit of a wake up call. Like, all right, I need to get back into it, make all the practices, skate extra on my own and everything. It was a pretty fast-paced game, so it was quite an adjustment for the first month or so. I’m sure my coach last season would say the same, as well.”
From a statistical standpoint, however, one likely wouldn’t have known Nash was struggling to catch up — or, as she explained it, focusing on the “surviving piece” rather than the “hockey piece.” In eight games during the regular season, Nash scored twice and accumulated five points. In the post-season, a two-game run to an Isobel Cup title, she added another marker. So, even if it did take her a while to get back into the swing of things by her own admission, it would be hard to call Nash’s first foray into the NWHL anything but a smashing success. Her level of production was also commendable given this wasn’t just Nash’s first year in the NWHL, it was her first campaign in the competitive women’s game since the end of the 2012-13 season.
Leaving the University of Wisconsin in 2010-11, Nash, now 29, was presented with an opportunity that was too good to pass up. Having played several games with the Elite Women’s League’s HK Pantera Minsk during the 2011-12 campaign on the advice of Badgers assistant coach Jackie Friesen, Nash found herself in Vienna, Aut., with EHV Sabres. One dominant season later — and we’re talking Gretzky-esque dominant, as Nash piled up 16 goals and 35 points in nine games, a hair shy of four points per game — she was planning her return to Vienna when she got an offer to start a coaching career at University of Vermont.
“(Coaching) was a goal of mine and a career path that I wanted to go down,” Nash said. “I thought I was going to have to take different steps — a prep school, maybe some Div. 3 jobs or things like that — but the opportunity came up quickly when I was hoping to play one more year, but it was something I didn’t want to pass up on, either. So, I decided to coach.”
Doing so meant putting her playing days behind her, or at least she believed that was the case. There were no opportunities, or extremely limited opportunities, for Nash to continue her competitive career. And for years, that’s the way she felt. A move from her position with Vermont to a new chance as an assistant with Princeton, however, opened the door for a potential return. However, at the time, Nash wasn’t quite sure it was what she wanted. She didn’t feel as though she had the itch to return, nor the time to juggle her coaching career with the rigors of the professional game.
“But then I went out to a couple practices and started craving playing again and I loved being around the team as a player versus being a coach,” Nash said. “That’s when I decided that I 100 percent wanted to do this if there was an opportunity for me.”
There was and there continues to be, which means Nash will be returning to the Riveters this coming season, even if her schedule is filled with enough hockey that it might even drive the most puck-obsessed person mad. Nash is preparing for times when she’ll go a few weeks without a day away from the rink, the times when she’ll leave running a practice to join one. “It’s super tiring and sometimes mentally I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this tonight,’” Nash said. “But then I get there in the locker room, the girls are joking around, we’re laughing, having a great time.”
But it’s not all fun and games. Nash is putting it on herself to contribute more this season — take one look at her EWHL numbers and say you doubt she can — and she’s excited for the chance to transform her off-season work into in-season performance. She’s excited for the puck to drop on the Riveters’ season for another reason, too.
With the return of Olympians from centralization, the NWHL has been bolstered league-wide with a number of notable talents. The Buffalo Beauts, for instance, welcome Shannon Szabados (“If I could have a personal goal it’s to score one goal on her,” Nash quipped. “That’d be amazing, but I don’t know if that’s a stretch.”). The Boston Pride have inked Gigi Marvin. The Connecticut Whale nabbed Meeri Raisanen. And the expansion Minnesota Whitecaps have Team USA’s Lee Stecklein, Hannah Brandt and Kendall Coyne. But the Riveters have their own returning weapon in Amanda Kessel. “She’s a really good friend of mine, but obviously she played at Minnesota and I played at Wisconsin, so I’ve never really been on the ice with her on the same team.”
Those Nash is most looking forward to squaring off against, however, aren’t those who last played in Pyeongchang. Instead, it’s a few players with whom she has a deeper connection from coaching at Vermont and Princeton. That includes Rachael Ade, now with the Whale, as well as Amanda Pelkey and goaltender Madi Litchfield, both with the Boston Pride, all three of which she’s sure to battle with at points this season.
“I don’t know if I’m going harder or the same maybe,” Nash said going head-to-head with her former pupils. “But I would say that if they recognized that it was me that they were going up against, they might go harder. That definitely happened in practices if I ever suited up. It is just a really cool experience to get to play with them, those girls that I coached — Rachel and Maddy for four years, Amanda for two years — it’s a cool opportunity from both ends.”