ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Beneath the grandstand at TRIA Rink, about 100 people from the sellout crowd of 1,200 waited in the hallway outside the Minnesota Whitecaps dressing room for the players to emerge. Out they came one by one, greeting friends and relatives, signing autographs or posing for photos with kids. The overlapping chatter in a small space made it hard to hear the person next to you.
The scene brought smiles to Brooke White-Lancette and Winny Brodt Brown, two of the four Whitecaps with the club since its semipro beginnings in 2004. Until joining the National Women's Hockey League this season, the Whitecaps never attracted this kind of attention. Co-coach Jack Brodt, Brown's father, remembers games outside the Twin Cities where, just for fun, he stood behind the bench and counted the spectators.
It usually didn't take long.
"Ninety percent of our road games," he said, "there was probably a maximum of 100."
Now, as the NWHL's first expansion team, the Whitecaps are the hottest thing in the so-called Saintly City. League commissioner Dani Rylan said the Whitecaps are the first NWHL team to turn a profit, boosted by a league-record 500 season tickets sold and significant merchandise sales. That's encouraging for a four-year-old league that largely depended on investors and one major sponsor, Dunkin' Donuts, to stay in business.
All eight Whitecaps home games sold out at TRIA, the year-old practice rink of the NHL's Minnesota Wild. Only the Buffalo Beauts, based at the 1,800-capacity HarborCenter, draw better in the five-team league. Many Minnesotans take their hockey standing up, which is why about 200 people hung out at the concourse rails and around the glass earlier this month as the Whitecaps routed the Connecticut Whale 9-0 in their final home regular-season game.
The Whitecaps set up a postgame autograph table, and the line of people waiting wrapped around the end boards, goal line to goal line. White-Lancette, in her dark blue uniform top and shorts, was on her way there when she stopped in the hallway to take in the scene.
"To walk into a crowd like this and see everyone is so excited to be behind us, it's a dream come true for sure," she said. "It definitely gives you chills and makes you feel special. We've come a long way."
Throughout their history the Whitecaps fielded a strong roster of U.S. national team veterans and hopefuls, most with Minnesota ties. This year's team might be one of their deepest. The Whitecaps (10-4) lead the league with 20 points, four ahead of the Boston Pride and the Buffalo Beauts. The Whitecaps must finish first or second to guarantee a home game in the single-elimination Isobel Cup playoffs in mid-March.
Since the NWHL owns and operates every franchise except Buffalo, which Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula purchased in December 2017, the Whitecaps' financial success directly benefits the league's bottom line.
The NWHL launched in 2015 as the first North American women's hockey league to offer salaries. But the league has struggled to keep up with expenses. Salaries dropped from an average of $15,000 that inaugural season to between $5,000 and $7,000. U.S. Olympic gold medalists Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker (a two-time NWHL Most Valuable Player) and Kacey Bellamy jumped to the rival Canadian Women's Hockey League.
Adding Minnesota to a Northeast-based league meant funding air travel, a major expense. But Rylan had high hopes for a Minneapolis-St. Paul market with uncommon support for women's sports. The WNBA's Minnesota Lynx averaged 10,000 per game last season, and the University of Minnesota women's hockey and volleyball teams usually rank among the national leaders in attendance. Last year's NWHL All-Star Game at TRIA, a test event for expansion, sold out. At a meeting in Minnesota during expansion talks, Rylan was surprised to hear attendees parsing the Lynx game from the night before.
"I was sitting [there] thinking, is everybody here talking about women's professional basketball?" Rylan said in a telephone interview from New York. "How amazing. How women's sports are perceived in Minnesota is maybe different than in the [rest of the] world. They look at their athletes as high-profile athletes, period, regardless of gender. It was nice and refreshing to hear, and definitely influenced the decision to move out there as well."
A partnership with the Wild helped the Whitecaps land game and practice ice at TRIA. Three Team USA gold medalists signed on: forwards Hannah Brandt and Kendall Coyne Schofield, who played for them in 2016-17 also, plus defenseman Lee Stecklein. (Brandt and Stecklein are also Minnesotans who won NCAA titles at the University of Minnesota.) Amanda Leveille, another Minnesota graduate and the league's top goalie last season for Buffalo, joined up as well.
Coyne Schofield demonstrated her world-class speed at the NHL All-Star Skills competition this past weekend, finishing seventh out of eight in the fastest skater event -- the first woman to compete at All-Star Skills. Schofield formerly lived and trained in greater Denver, and injured Avs star Nathan MacKinnon, the Central Division captain, asked her via the Avs Twitter account to sub for him.
Those four aren't the only major contributors. Forward Jonna Curtis (seven goals, 10 assists, 17 points), a New Hampshire graduate from Elk River, Minnesota, is one point behind Buffalo's Hayley Scamurra and Maddie Elia for the league's scoring lead. Katie McGovern (Minnesota-Duluth), Amanda Boulier (St. Lawrence) and Kate Schipper (Minnesota) each have 11 points, as many as Brandt and one fewer than Coyne Schofield.
In past seasons, the Whitecaps rarely practiced. Brown said regular practices this season at TRIA and Minnesota's Ridder Arena helped the team jell.
"Having the consistency of being together two or three times a week, just being able to get to know each other as a team on the ice, is very helpful," said Brown, the 40-year-old captain. "Before, we might have a couple practices every couple of months. Now we're able to work on the power play, work on the penalty kill, just kind of break down the game a little more as a team."
Brodt and partner Dwayne Schmidgall founded the Whitecaps so their daughters could keep playing after college. (Schmidgall's daughter is four-time Olympian Jenny Potter, now retired.) Brodt never took a salary -- still doesn't -- and ran a frugal operation. For road games, Brodt rented three vans instead of a more expensive bus, with he, Brown and White-Lancette driving. Four players shared each hotel room. Brodt raised money from sponsors and investors, and players paid $1,000 each just to be on the roster.
Now the league provides uniforms, warm-ups, helmets and sticks, and pays for travel to NWHL games. The Whitecaps scheduled an additional nine college and prep school games that the league doesn't cover. Brodt paid for those with previously raised funds plus the proceeds from a Split The Pot raffle at a Dec. 15 Wild game, which netted the club about $8,000.
Veteran Whitecaps appreciate the improvements. To Brown, the sellout crowds are the most welcome. Though tickets cost $20 per game, double what the Minnesota Golden Gophers charge, they went fast. Former Lynx star Lindsay Whalen, one of the state's most popular athletes, was among the first to commit to season tickets, which helped.
At the Connecticut game, the Whitecaps set up VIP and premier seating sections near center ice and stationed volunteers to check tickets. In previous years, the notion of a VIP section at a Whitecaps game would have been incomprehensible to Brown, White-Lancette, Meaghan Pezon and Chelsey Brodt Rosenthal, the longest-tenured Whitecaps. (Rosenthal is Brown's younger sister.)
Now, it's just another day at the sold-out rink.
"It's unbelievable," Brown said.