The NWHL will be returning to the Pittsburgh area for the third consecutive year during the 2018-19 season, Pittsburgh Hockey Digest has learned. The date and teams will be announced at a later date. The Pittsburgh Penguins teased the announcement last week on social media, and have hosted the league’s last two visits to the area at their practice facility.
The professional women’s hockey league, which is entering its fourth season in 2018-19, has never had a franchise based in Pittsburgh, but has made the Steel City a neutral site venue in each of the last two seasons.
In 2017, Pittsburgh hosted the second annual NWHL All-Star Game at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township. The team captained by Amanda Kessel, sister of Penguins winger Phil Kessel, beat the team captained by then-Robert Morris assistant Kelley Steadman in that contest. Kessel was the game’s MVP. Former Robert Morris star Brianne McLaughlin was the starting goaltender for Team Steadman.
In 2018, the Buffalo Beauts, the closest NWHL franchise to Pittsburgh, played a regular season game, again at the Penguins’ practice rink, beating the Connecticut Whale, 4-3. Former Robert Morris captain Rebecca Vint scored a goal and had two assists for the Beauts in her return to Pittsburgh.
In total, five players with Robert Morris connections have played in the NWHL and all for the Beauts, with Morgan Beikirch, McLaughlin, Steadman, Vint and Ashley Vesci all lacing their skates as pros in Buffalo. The Beauts also hold the NWHL draft rights for 2018 Robert Morris graduate and all-time leading scorer Brittany Howard.
The league had four teams in each of its first three seasons, but has expanded westward to include a fifth team, as the formerly independent Minnesota Whitecaps will join for the 2018-19 season. Pittsburgh has been seen as a potential expansion market for the league for quite some time.
“Pittsburgh is not only a great hockey town, but a town that is going to embrace women’s hockey,” league commissioner Dani Rylan told Pittsburgh Hockey Digest in 2017.
“I think the people are great, the area is great, I think it lends well,” NWHLPA director Anya Battaglio said to PHD’s Brian Mitchell in January. “It’s such a hockey community. With (going against a) Steelers game, we still filled up the stands. Watching people come inside the rink who are excited about women’s hockey. When we tweet about it, and we give them a taste, Pittsburgh just goes bananas. Working with the Penguins is great. That team is so open for ideas and for collaboration, honestly it would be a great spot.”
It’s not believed that the league will expand beyond five times for the 2018-19 season, but future expansion remains a goal of the league.