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Passion Project: How undying dedication has led to Whitecaps’ NWHL debut

You might expect some deliberation, even some slight hesitation, but Winny Brodt-Brown needs not even a second to answer when asked if there were ever moments she believed the Minnesota Whitecaps were on their last legs. Oh, there were times. Times like when the Whitecaps were left out of the merger between the CWHL and now-defunct Western Women’s League. Times like when they were scraping every last dollar together for travel, equipment and ice time. Times like when they were trying to find a few games here or there for what was an independent women’s team.

“I’ve seen where the team started from,” Brodt-Brown said. “The struggles that it’s been for 15 years.”

But on Saturday in St. Paul, Minn., 1,200 patrons will file into and fill the stands at TRIA Rink, which some will know best as the practice facility of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. But those 1,200 fans won’t be there to take in a high-paced practice or pre-game skate featuring Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Those thousand-plus, a capacity crowd, will be in attendance to watch Brodt-Brown, as well as Olympic gold medalists Hannah Brandt, Lee Stecklein and Kendall Coyne, hit the ice in the debut of the NWHL’s Whitecaps, the first expansion franchise in the league’s history. And on Sunday, the house will be packed all over again for the second game of Minnesota’s weekend set against the defending Isobel Cup champion Metropolitan Riveters.

As Brodt-Brown pointed out, this is a Minnesota hockey moment, maybe a miracle, nearly a decade and a half in the making. It was in 2004 that Brodt-Brown’s father, Jack, and Dwayne Schmidgall, father of four-time Olympic medalist Jenny Schmidgall-Potter, sought to create a place for their daughters to play at the culmination of their NCAA careers. Thus, the Whitecaps were created as the next step for Brodt-Brown, who had already departed University of Minnesota, and Schmidgall-Potter, who was ending her time at University of Minnesota-Duluth. From there, the team joined the WWHL, later playing briefly in the CWHL, flirted with the first iteration of the NWHL and has since been kicking around the independent scene, playing college and prep school squads for the past several seasons.

Now, on the eve of the Whitecaps’ first contest in a truly professional circuit, Brodt-Brown has a hard time fathoming how far this marauding Minnesota squad has come. She admitted, too, that without her own passion for the Whitecaps, and especially without her father’s unending drive to see the organization succeed, this moment may have never come to fruition.

“I’m really proud of him because I know a lot of people probably wouldn’t have battled a lot of the things that he has had to in order to keep this thing rolling,” Brodt-Brown said. “He’s taught me a lot about how it’s not just about yourself, it’s about the good of the game and doing things for other people. It’s not just about you. I really believe this Whitecaps team has been able to come together this long because people that have been a part of it and believed in it were doing it for the good of the game and to give the girls down the road the opportunity to play.”

As much as her father has helped keep the Whitecaps’ dream alive, though, Brodt-Brown is in part responsible for outfitting this team with talent. A veteran of the Whitecaps since 2004 whose college tenure began at University of New Hampshire 21 years ago, Brodt-Brown has served as an inspiration for and teacher to a handful of the players who she’ll skate alongside this season. That undoubtedly includes her younger sister, Chelsey, but it also includes Olympians Stecklein and Brandt, who were a part of Brodt-Brown’s Minnesota-based OS Hockey Training school.

“We kind of cultivated a culture that those kids who went from OS to Jr. Whitecaps to now becoming Whitecaps, they’ve been great leaders,” Brodt-Brown said. “You see that with them representing our country and our Minnesota Whitecaps team, how great of people they are and not just amazing hockey players. That’s what my OS Hockey Training and company is all about — training good hockey players and good people.”

And as hard as it is may be to wrap her head around the Whitecaps playing in the NWHL, playing in a league where the players will be legitimate professional athletes, Brodt-Brown called it “absolutely crazy” that she’ll be skating alongside some of her former students, girls and now women that she’s known since their soon-to-be careers were in their infancy. Of course, it’s because of Brodt-Brown’s own longevity that playing with her former students is even possible.

At 40, Brodt-Brown said she’s not sure how much longer she’ll be able to compete at the NWHL level. As of right now, the fire is still there, she said, and while the Isobel Cup is, to a player, the stated goal, Brodt-Brown has her own personal targets for the campaign. An offensive blueliner in her prime, she wants to prove she can still put points on the board, still skate the puck out of trouble, still keep up with the pups. Brodt-Brown said she’ll know when the time has come for her to hang up the skates, however. But with her mother continuing to play in women’s leagues at 70, maybe Brodt-Brown still has another 20-odd seasons left? “Maybe not for the Whitecaps,” Brodt-Brown laughed. “Maybe in the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota — the WHAM league. If I can skate, I’ll probably be playing.”

Whenever the time does come for Brodt-Brown to walk away from the Whitecaps, though, she’ll be ready. And her only desire then will be that those who pull the Minnesota jersey on understand what it means and how exactly that opportunity came to be.

“I just hope that the Whitecaps are around a long time and people can look back and know the history, see what it was all about, never take it for granted that it’s always been around and appreciate all the people — not only my dad or maybe myself — but the people that also helped them get it to this point,” Brodt-Brown said. “It’s all the past players, administrative people that pretty much volunteered to make it work and just have everyone appreciate what others have done.”

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