Two former college hockey stars bypassed the NWHL to play for free

Kendall Coyne, last season's Patty Kazmaier Award winner for Northeastern and a national team member, splits time among her home in Denver, a job in Chicago and occasional games for the independent Minnesota Whitecaps in Minneapolis. Courtesy of Brent Cizek Photography

MINNEAPOLIS -- She skates like the wind and speaks just as quickly. Kendall Coyne seems in a rush because she has to be, to tackle all the things she hopes to accomplish between now and the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Last season's Patty Kazmaier Award winner for Northeastern and a 2014 Olympian, Coyne splits time among her home in Denver, a job in Chicago and occasional games for the independent Minnesota Whitecaps in Minneapolis. Meanwhile, she squeezes in online coursework for a master's degree in corporate and organizational communication.

"I think that's the busiest part of it all -- being in school, trying to train like a professional athlete and making ends meet," Coyne said. "But we do it because we love it."

Coyne's exhausting schedule would have been even more challenging had she opted to play in the National Women's Hockey League like many of her peers on U.S. national team.

But Coyne, the third overall pick in the league's 2015 entry draft, and No. 2 pick Hannah Brandt of Minnesota, a fellow national teamer and a four-time Kazmaier top-10 finalist, chose paths that united them on the same line with the Whitecaps -- with no regrets.

The Whitecaps, eyed by the NWHL and the Canadian Women's Hockey League for potential expansion, feature more than a half-dozen former and aspiring Olympians. Players aren't paid, but that's irrelevant to Coyne and Brandt, who earn income from other sources. That the NWHL cut salaries by 50 percent several weeks into the season, citing cash-flow issues, validated their decisions. But neither enjoys seeing the NWHL struggle.

"I follow [the NWHL] a little bit just because I have some teammates I care deeply about," Coyne said. "But other than that, not really. It's a distraction.

"Until those two leagues come together, we're not going to see much growth. They need to come together and become one. That's how all great leagues became one. One look at the NFL, the NHL. It's common sense."

It's all about location

This is an important winter for Americans pointing toward Pyeongchang in South Korea, especially those out of college who need competitive games to stay sharp.

NWHL paychecks, even before the salary cuts, weren't extravagant. The 2015 No. 1 overall pick, Alex Carpenter, signed with Boston for $19,500.

Boston acquired Coyne's NWHL draft rights, seemingly a natural fit given Coyne's Northeastern roots. Except Coyne, after six years in Massachusetts -- one at the Berkshire School, four at Northeastern and one training with the Olympic team -- was ready for a change. She had other things tugging at her.

Originally from suburban Chicago, Coyne moved to Denver to be with her boyfriend, Denver Broncos offensive lineman Michael Schofield. (They got engaged earlier this month.) Former U.S. national team coach Ken Klee steered Coyne to the Colorado Thunderbirds, an elite boys age-group program, to practice with their under-18 team that included Klee's son, Mason. From a prior internship, Coyne landed a part-time job with the Chicago Blackhawks in fan development.

By joining the Whitecaps, Coyne felt she had everything she needed without the NWHL. Careful planning helped her economize on flights to Chicago, where she spends seven to eight days a month, and Minneapolis. The Whitecaps mainly play on weekends against college and club teams.

"Everyone thought I was going to play for Boston because that's where I went to college," Coyne said. "People were a little shocked, like, 'Why are you going to play for the Whitecaps?'

"The financial situation would have been the same here or in Boston. The money the NWHL offered me was nothing compared to what I was getting out here. I would have broken even with the travel, missing a practice here and there, whatever it was. I prefer to skate with the boys anyway. And the people here are awesome. That's more important than a penny or a nickel or a thousand dollars."

Brandt faced a similar decision when Connecticut traded her rights to New York, which set up a potential reunion with former Minnesota linemate and 2014 Olympian Amanda Kessel.

Brandt said she never crunched the numbers before deciding to remain in suburban St. Paul and live with her parents.

"I never really got that far," she said. "I just knew it would cost a lot more than living in Minnesota. Ultimately, it didn't necessarily come down to money, but I think financially I'm better off here."

Brandt works part-time with a firm that provides services to the disabled and the elderly. She trains at her alma mater with fellow U.S. national and Whitecaps teammate Stephanie Anderson.

"The resources I have here are unbelievable," Brandt said. "I didn't know what I was going to get out there. It was definitely a question mark. And I didn't know how the league would do. Obviously, there are questions with that, so it was definitely a safer thing to be here in Minnesota."

Staying in shape

Coyne stays with Brandt when she's in town for Whitecaps games. One recent weekend, Coyne's flight here from Denver landed about 3:40 p.m. CT on a Friday. By 6:45, she and Brandt were in uniform at Ridder Arena, skating in warm-ups. Coyne had a splashy breakaway goal plus an assist in a 5-4 overtime loss to the University of Minnesota, the defending NCAA champion.

"That's a premier line," Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. "Kendall, as you saw on the first goal, has so much speed. She goes from zero to 60 in about two seconds. You have to be so aware of her. And Hannah is so simple and so smart. The USA Olympic team is going to be happy with her too."

Coyne emerged from the dressing room for a quick interview before showering and catching a ride home with Brandt. "Her family has been amazing to me," Coyne said.

Next up: A morning bus trip to Minnesota-Duluth, where Coyne and Brandt combined for three goals and six assists in a 5-2 victory that afternoon. Coyne flew back to Denver the next morning.

"It was a good change of pace to get out of Boston," Coyne said. "I found kind of a new home, a great training facility with the Thunderbirds. The Whitecaps provided me with a great opportunity to stay in shape and play with some amazing players and good people."

Klee, who coached the U.S. to back-to-back world championship gold medals and remains under consideration to coach the Olympic team, has no issue with anyone bypassing the NWHL.

"The NWHL only plays one game a week," he said. "It's not like it's two or three a week.

"They're all figuring out what works for them, especially with such a big group that's out of college. Some need a more structured time commitment. Others like Kendall and Hannah can figure out what they need to do to stay in shape, so when they come to an Olympic selection camp, they're as ready as they can be."