By Ryan Williamson | Oct. 04, 2018, 10:17 a.m. (ET)

The U.S. women's ice hockey team celebrates at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018  on Feb. 22, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.

 

As the 2018 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team was capturing the nation’s attention this past winter en route to winning a gold medal in PyeongChang, life continued back home for the National Women’s Hockey League.

Despite the league’s biggest stars missing the 2017-18 season to train with their national teams, the NWHL’s four East Coast-based teams played on, with the Metropolitan Riveters, based in Newark, New Jersey, taking home the Isobel Cup as the league’s third champion in three years.

Now, with the 2018 Olympians back in the mix, there’s reason for optimism as the fourth NWHL season kicks off on Saturday. Not only will the league welcome back 11 members of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, but it will also introduce its first expansion team in the Minnesota Whitecaps.

Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming NWHL season.


The Coming Season
Founded with four teams in 2015, the NWHL features an October to March regular season, followed by the Isobel Cup Playoffs. Teams play 16 regular-season games, with each taking place on a Saturday or Sunday.

The league breaks for All-Star Weekend on Feb. 9-10. Another expected highlight is an NWHL-NHL doubleheader on Dec. 9 when the Minnesota Whitecaps play the Buffalo Beauts ahead of the Boston Bruins-Buffalo Sabres game at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.


Beauts, Riveters Flying High
If you’re looking for Olympians, look no further than Buffalo. Of the NWHL’s five teams, the Buffalo Beauts feature the most U.S. Olympians with four. Emily Pfalzer, Dani Cameranesi and Nicole Hensley all played on Team USA in PyeongChang, while Lisa Chesson was a member of the 2010 U.S. team that won the silver medal in Vancouver.

Chesson tallied a goal and an assist in 14 games last season, and now she’ll have plenty of reinforcements. This star-powered group will be aiming to lead the Beauts to a second Isobel Cup in three seasons.

To do so, they’ll have to get past the defending champion Riveters, who welcome two-time Olympian Amanda Kessel back into the fold. Kessel is an offensive juggernaut who scored a hat trick in the 2017 league all-star game. She’ll join 2010 U.S. Olympian Erika Lawler and 2014 U.S. Olympian Shelly Picard, who led the team in Kessel’s absence last year. 

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Amanda Kessel competes at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018  on Feb. 22, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.

 

Here Comes Minnesota
No state supports girls’ and women’s hockey quite like Minnesota, which has more registered players than any other state and provided seven Minnesota-born players to last year’s Olympic team. Now the state boasts an NWHL team, too.

The Whitecaps, despite their long history as an independent team, become the NWHL’s first expansion team. They make their NWHL debut on Saturday against the Riveters at the brand-new TRIA Rink in downtown St. Paul.

As the Whitecaps prepare for this moment, the team has leaned on local products to help bolster its lineup. Minnesota has three two-time Olympians, including Lee Stecklein and Hannah Brandt. Both are suiting up for their hometown team after growing up in the Twin Cities suburbs and playing college hockey with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

They’re joined by fellow two-time Olympian and Chicagoland native Kendall Coyne Schofield, who had a team-high 21 shots on goal in PyeongChang while recording two goals and an assist in five games.


Rounding Things Out
The Boston Pride also features three Olympians, including Gigi Marvin. The three-time Olympian from Warroad, Minnesota, scored a goal in the gold-medal-clinching shootout against Canada in February. Two years ago, she was a part of the inaugural Pride team that took home the first Isobel Cup. Aside from leading Boston to the championship, she was named the 2016 NWHL Defensive Player of the Year and made the 2017 NWHL All-Star team.

Fellow 2018 Olympians Amanda Pelkey and Haley Skarupa join Marvin in Boston. Pelkey was also part of that inaugural Boston team. She’s scored nine goals and eight assists in 33 regular-season NWHL games. This will be Skarupa’s first season as a member of the Pride after spending the 2016-17 season playing for the Connecticut Whale.

The Whale are the fifth member of the NWHL. Though the Whale doesn’t have any Olympians, it does feature 16 U.S.-born players on the roster.

 

Gigi Marvin celebrates at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018  on Feb. 22, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.

 

Other Olympians In Action
While 14 U.S. Olympians are skating in the NWHL this year, five others have opted to play in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. This group includes three-time Olympians Kacey Bellmany and Hilary Knight, two-time Olympian Brianna Decker, 2014 Olympic silver medalist Megan Bozek and 2018 Olympic gold medalist Alex Rigsby. 

Sidney Morin, who played on the 2018 U.S. team, is spending the season with MODO Hockey of the Swedish Women’s Hockey League.

Meanwhile, five members of the 2018 Olympic team return to their respective college programs. Three Olympic gold medalists – Cayla Barnes, Megan Keller and Kali Flanagan – will play for Boston College this season after taking a redshirt season last year. 

Fellow Olympic gold medalist Kelly Pannek returns to the Minnesota Gophers and Maddie Rooney returns to play for the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. Goaltender Rooney enters her junior season with the Bulldogs after being the hero in the shootout of the gold-medal game against Canada earlier this year.

Ryan Williamson is a sportswriter from Minneapolis-St. Paul. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.