Shannon Doyle has been with the NWHL since its inception back in 2015. This upcoming season will be the sixth and final season for no. 6 with the Connecticut Whale and the league, and what better way to skate off into the sunset than taking the Isobel Cup from commissioner Dani Rylan lifting it over her head? That’s the dream for Doyle as she prepares for one more season, one more chance at that elusive Cup, and one more go-round with the Whale.
She is always upbeat, always happy to see you, and always smiling. Even when her team was struggling during massively-long losing streaks, you would never know it because she always has the same demeanor. Doyle truly loves the game of hockey and it would be a feel-good, happy ending to her professional career if she was able to hoist the Cup at the end of next season.
End of an Era
“Winning the Cup, for me personally, would really be a nice bookend or closure on a huge piece of my life,” she told me via phone from her home in Connecticut. “I don’t foresee me playing again after this season. Just with work and family stuff.”
“It worked out nicely, kind of storybook. Six years; and my favorite number is six, so it’s nice! I’ve been on the high-flying, first-year Whale team where we started 10-0-0 – kind of like the Boston Pride from this past season. In those playoffs, it just didn’t work out for us.”
The Whale flamed out in the opening best-of-3 series against the Buffalo Beauts that spring after winning the first game and didn’t win a playoff game again until this past March when they beat the Beauts in Buffalo.
“I’ve been on the other side of the Whale, where we’ve gone 0-10 for stretches,” said Doyle. “I just feel really good about this team, coming out of the end of last season I feel like we gained momentum and made some big culture changes. We found great leadership with Colton Orr as our head coach and being able to play in the same rink in Danbury for another year.”
Doyle added that it hasn’t been announced, but at the end of last season the plan was 100% to remain in Danbury to keep that continuity in place for the players and staff.
“We have the same coaching staff, the same GM – that consistency for us is massive and we haven’t had that here in a while. We have a really great core group of players who are so determined and hungry to get Connecticut to where they know it can be,” the Whale captain added. “We have some amazing talent that is coming in that is fresh, excited, and full of energy for the upcoming season.”
Both Orr and GM Bray Ketchum Peel will be entering their second seasons with the Whale and their impact was certainly noticeable during last season as compared to the previous regime. If it was noticeable to others outside that group, it had to be crystallized within that group as well.
“You don’t realize how important it is when you don’t have that stability and you’re working so hard every year on the ice and trying to come together as a team,” Doyle confirmed. “Having to get to know a coaching staff, or a new GM, what their goals are and trying to learn that as you go is just an added level of mental stress that you don’t need as a team.”
“Knowing right from the get-go what exactly the expectations are culturally, the expectations that the coach and GM have for themselves and our organization is just a massive relief for myself as a returning player, and I’m sure all of our other returning players.”
“It’s a nice foundation piece for the incoming players where they can see who you were last season. They can confidently say – I know who that coach was, read some interviews, or I know who Bray Ketchum is, rather than someone who is unproven.”
Doyle has played a total of 85 NWHL regular-season games, seven playoff games, and participated in two All-Star Games over the past five years. So she’s seen it all as far as the league goes. The good and the not-so-good that comes along with starting something from the ground up.
“One of the things that we are fighting for right now in the league is – developing a league where I don’t have to make a choice because my other job is asking too much of me, and those kinds of decisions will force someone out of the game,” said Doyle. “Slow and steady, but we are getting there.”
“The biggest growth I’ve seen in the league is the ability to have more of a dialogue between the league office and the players. It’s not a futile one where you say things and never hear back, or see changes or action” she said. “I feel very heard, I feel very seen, and I feel like my opinions truly do impact what happens in the league at this point for Season 6.”
“There is just continuous outreach from Anya (Packer, Head of the NWHLPA). She is always asking us for our opinions instead of us having to go to someone about something we don’t feel is right or can be done better.”
“In Season 1 everything was great and exciting. I still feel like when I look back at that year and compare it to this past season the communication level has gotten so much stronger, so much more organic because of the respect the players have for the leadership,” explained Doyle.
“And likewise – I feel like they respect the players a lot more, they see where we are coming from (on topics). How much effort both sides have put in have created this amazing relationship that has grown over the past six years.”
Anya + NWHLPA = Perfect Match
Doyle confirmed something that a lot of fans and followers of the league already believed – that Packer, her former teammate on the Whale is without a shred of doubt, the absolute best person to be the head of the Players Association.
“She’s had different roles since I’ve known her and no matter what she is doing she is always incredibly invigorated to move things forward to see change, to see positive support. She’s always been so good at being that person that you can turn to, and she’s there to listen,” said Doyle.
“When it was announced that she would be the head of the PA – I said ‘oh my god this is so perfect!’ I don’t know why this wasn’t a day one thing for her,” she added with a chuckle. “This is literally the perfect role (for her)! She is so driven, so insightful with a lot of different things, but she’s also experienced it as a player.”
“She knows where we are coming from and she hasn’t forgotten that. I can’t even imagine how many emails she deals within a day but no matter how swamped she is, she always replies to us,” added Packer’s teammate of three seasons.
“She really does care about the growth of the league, she knows it starts with the players and taking care of our needs. Being a former player she knows firsthand what they are. She is very articulate, and maybe that is something that doesn’t get brought up a lot. If you are someone who can’t articulate or make clear what your stance is to a mass group of people – oftentimes your voice can get lost or looked over. She does a really nice job – even in a tweet where you only have a certain amount of characters to use – of getting the point across quickly, clearly, and with meaning.”
“It’s so, so important to have someone like that voicing all of our opinions in such a great way.”
Rapid Fire Questions
You’ve worn all of the incarnations of the Whale uniform: blue, white, and green. Which one is your favorite?
“Ahh, I love green, so much (laughs)! The white looks very fresh and accentuates everything else on it. The blue was too much blue in my opinion. Everything was blue – gloves, helmet. I just love the green with the blue helmets and gloves, so green forever!”
Would you rather: block a shot to win a game or score a goal to win a game?
“Ooh, that’s a tough one. I would say if it was OT and I scored the goal in OT to win the game because there’s no stress after. If I block a shot and there are still five minutes left, I still have to stress for those five minutes to hold on to the win.”
This past season we had co-MVPs in the NWHL – Boston’s Jillian Dempsey & Minnesota’s Allie Thunstrom. Which one is harder for you to defend against?
“Gosh, it’s probably not good for me to admit this because my coach will probably read it but, I would say right now Dempsey is a bigger thorn in my side. Just because she is so crafty. It’s hard to defend against someone when a lot of it is anticipation and trying to guess what they want to do. She’s thinking of so many different chess moves at the same time it’s hard to anticipate what she is going to do. That’s one of the reasons I really enjoy playing against her.”
A few years ago the Whale had a charity event at a golf course. How interested would you be in doing something like that again, or maybe even a night of mini-golf with fans?
“Yeah. The event we did was fun and we got to know some fans really well if they were in your foursome. It was cool seeing them at the rink after that. Even if you’re not a fan of golf or a golfer, you can still come to the event and hang out/have lunch with us after. I thought it was really fun. I wish we did it every year!”
It’s been well documented that you are a teacher. Is it easier to teach in class or over video conferences?
“Oh gosh, it is so much easier being in a classroom with your kids and actually interacting with them, having those discussions. Oh my gosh…we miss it so, so much. But we are in summer mode now since we just finished (June 12) and it was very tough not seeing my kids over the last three months. We’re hoping we can all get back in the classroom in the fall and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that!”
Here’s hoping that Shannon Doyle has a perfect ending to what has been a fantastic, yet oft-underrated career as an NWHL trailblazer. On top of being a great hockey player, she is also a terrific human, and who doesn’t love feel good stories.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.