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Free Thoughts on the NWHL Jersey/Shirsey Top Ten

By David F. Pendrys [Commentary]

The NWHL released their Top Ten in jersey and shirsey sales on April 12th. The data came from sales between Aug. 1, 2016 – March 31, 2017 a logical time frame an had some interesting results. This is more stream of consciousness than I may have liked but onward! Without further delay, the Top Ten as announced:

  1. Amanda Kessel, New York Riveters
  2. Hilary Knight, Boston Pride (2nd in sales last season)
  3. Harrison Browne, Buffalo Beauts
  4. Kelley Steadman, Buffalo Beauts
  5. Ashley Johnston, New York Riveters (7th in sales last season)
  6. Gigi Marvin, Boston Pride
  7. Kelli Stack, Connecticut Whale
  8. Brianna Decker, Boston Pride
  9. Brianne McLaughlin, Buffalo Beauts
  10. Michelle Picard, New York Riveters

The fact that Amanda Kessel and Hilary Knight took the two top spots is not surprising given their widespread recognition and popularity. Additionally Kessel’s arrival in the league came with a disproportionate amount of attention compared to the other players. Kessel represented not only a major get for the NWHL, but also for the Riveters who were looking for hope after a rough first season. Hilary Knight’s popularity is well established.

Harrison Browne’s appearance in the number 3 slot is also not surprising. Browne of course was the first openly transgender athlete in professional team sports and that generated a groundswell of support. Browne however was a popular figure before the announcement as part of the Buffalo Beauts potent offense during year one and year two. He was a critical component in the team’s success in both years.

I’ll be honest, after this is where things got interesting and I say this less in where the players were placed but in just cracking the Top Ten given the sheer amount of talent in the league. One can make an argument for so many players to be included. It is more of a curiosity. A few things stand out.

One does relate to placement. Brianna Decker comes from the same team as Hilary Knight and her talents are seen as elite level. This year when Knight wasn’t on the ice all the time, and even when she was, Decker continued to be a scoring machine. I would have expected her to be higher up on the list.

Ashley Johnston has become a legend to Riveters fans. The Captain both years. She’s there in the good, there in the bad, always leading. Her inclusion and movement up the list makes all the sense in the world. They will write folk songs about Ashley Johnston someday.

Kelley Steadman is an excellent player, though it could be that I’m not at Buffalo games that I can’t measure her fan support. I’m not surprised at her inclusion but more wonder how it measures up against the Pfalzers and Kunichikas and the like. Last season, she and Meghan Duggan seemed at times to take the team on their backs, which wasn’t the same dynamic this year obviously.

Gigi Marvin is a player who is underrated for no good reason as she is a force to be reckoned with. The jersey sales seem to make up for this though I could never have predicted she would be ahead of Brianna Decker in the rankings.

Kelli Stack is the lone member of the Whale to make the Top Ten likely due to both her national credentials but also her flashy play for Connecticut. One of the most noticeable and productive members of CTW. Makes one wonder if a Connecticut player will be able to break the top five, but more on that later. Stack’s presence doesn’t surprise me, but her presence as the only Whale member is concerning a bit with the rest of the teams getting 3 players on the list.

Brianne McLaughlin’s Top Ten appearance is logical. She is popular, genial, and a goalie who has had plenty of moments of greatness including of course in the Isobel Cup Final this year. Being the only goalie on the Top Ten list is curious. The Whale don’t really have a number 1 goaltender yes and of course are struggling to crack the Top Ten at all. Brittany Ott is a strong candidate for inclusion though she also quietly goes about her business, playing excellently but without the McLaughlin mystique. On the Riveters, it is possible that Katie Fitzgerald’s emergence mid-season generated sales but they just couldn’t catch up. The Fitzgerald story is a great one.

Michelle Picard’s arrival makes me wonder just how close the battle for tenth place was. I wonder how close Rebecca Russo, Alex Carpenter, Kourtney Kunichika, Dana Trivigno, Haley Skarupa Tatiana Rafter, Madison Packer, Kelly Babstock, and heck Duggan, among others were to catching Picard. In my mind they are all players of equal importance. Duggan and Carpenter of course have to share the ice with Decker and Knight which is why they might not crack the Top Ten, but it’s still interesting. Picard is a great player, just part of a large group of elite players. Even typing this I think and what of Miye D’Oench?

The whole jersey/shirsey issue gets me thinking again about just how large each fan base is. It certainly seems on face that the Whale may possibly the smallest fan base located in Connecticut as opposed to the centralized metro areas the other three teams reside in. Though even if that assumption is true, it is also interesting to wonder how large the other three fan groups are in comparison.

The Riveters have fewer women’s hockey teams to compete with them in New York, but have the three NHL teams. Of course there’s fewer college programs to feed fans up to the NWHL from. As we’ve seen Princeton to some degree has become the closest program in that regard.

Boston on the other hand has the Bruins, but also multiple elite college programs which simultaneously build up the women’s hockey culture but also compete with them for time and interest. Also naturally the Pride competes with the Blades of the CWHL, though admittedly at this juncture the Pride is outdrawing the Blades significantly.

Buffalo is Buffalo with the Sabres, and the various college teams surrounding them so a similar situation to Boston to some degree.

Also how much crossover might there be? Fans of the league as opposed to lining up behind one team. There’s no clear pattern to the numbers in terms of team support except that 3 teams cracked the top 10 multiple times, and one did not. The national team to not national team even split is also interesting. Clearly it’s not just a carryover from USA Hockey glory, though that certainly helps. That’s a good thing. If the NWHL was too reliant on the USA Hockey lore and mystique it would be vulnerable to losing fan following. especially in the centralization year coming up where the national team players will not be around. The Riveters are a great case study of that mix of the national team members (rare on the Rivs) and the players that have never put on the USA Hockey jersey but are nonetheless beloved.

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