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The elite goalies in hockey's most exclusive club

Julian Catalfo / theScore

TORONTO - Friendly voices in the crowd razzed Erica Howe when the 31-year-old veteran goaltender debuted between the pipes for PWHL Toronto.

Before the league launched, Howe fought fires in neighboring Mississauga, Ontario. Over breakfast at the station, colleagues urged her to prolong her pro playing career and attempt to earn a coveted roster spot. Howe heard their chirps when she relieved Toronto starter Kristen Campbell at home against Ottawa in January.

"They were yelling in the stands. They were acting like fools," Howe said. "I got to see them afterward. They were like: 'This atmosphere is incredible. I'm so happy you did this and had this opportunity.'"

Erica Howe. Troy Parla / Getty Images

Within the PWHL, Howe is part of a select club. A dozen netminders are tasked with stifling offensive dynamos in the momentous inaugural season. Even the backups for the six teams are Olympic medalists or have compiled eye-popping save percentages at past stops, be it in college or defunct pro circuits.

Four Canadian goalies (Campbell, Ann-Renee Desbiens, Emerance Maschmeyer, Corinne Schroeder) and Team USA's go-to duo (Aerin Frankel, Nicole Hensley) start in the PWHL. They're complemented by the next-best Americans at the position, European standouts, and alumni of the shuttered Premier Hockey Federation and Canadian Women's Hockey League, where Howe dominated at times earlier in her career.

Creative playmakers and prolific snipers play in the PWHL, but the league's average save percentage is .923. That dwarfs the NHL's current .904 stop rate.

One "rockstar" headlines each squad's depth chart, Howe said. Backups and third-stringers battle for fleeting opportunities to shine throughout a 24-game season.

"Goalie's one of the deepest positions in this league," said Hensley, a three-time world champion and perennial U.S. Olympian. "Every team has two really good ones, and probably three. It's an elite club to be part of."

PWHL goalies vary in height - New York's 6-foot-1 rookie backup, Abigail Levy, towers over the 5-foot-5 Frankel - but are invariably intelligent. Anticipating how a scoring chance will develop helps them thwart it.

"They come into the net and they understand where the pass is going to go," Howe said. "They find ways to make saves because they're smart and they make smart decisions."

Besides hockey IQ, agility and tranquility in the crease are vital attributes.

"To get to this point in your career, you have to be technically sound. You've got to be a pretty good skater. You've got to read and think the game really well," Hensley said. "Every one of us has a special combination of those skills. That's why it's so much fun to go out every night and compete against each other."

'Backbone' of teams

When the PWHL's foundational signing period opened last summer, Desbiens, Frankel, and Maschmeyer were the goaltenders who inked contracts. Another eight goalies were selected in the first draft out of 44 who declared. Free agents like Howe, on leave from firefighting, outdueled competitors at training camps to land the remaining roles.

Since No. 1 jobs are so scarce, retaining one demands excellence. Schroeder, a 24-year-old emergent star from Manitoba farm country, stumps shooters for New York despite facing a league-high 34.2 shots per outing.

"My main focus at this point is being consistent," Schroeder said. "Working on the mental piece of being focused for every second. Playing a full 60 minutes. That way, I'll give my team a chance."

The deployment of these goalies differs from the NHL. Games are more spread out, and there are only three sets of back-to-backs on the entire PWHL schedule. Teams can maximize a starter's workload, as Ottawa's done with Maschmeyer, without risking exhaustion.

Content to ride Campbell's hot hand, Toronto played her throughout an ongoing nine-game win streak. Campbell supplied highlights like this doorstep denial of Boston defender Megan Keller.

Frankel's brilliance, combined with flashes of promise from rookie pro Emma Soderberg, steadies Boston at the other end.

"They allow us to be aggressive. They've been our backbone," Keller said. "We can play with such confidence in front of them because we know they're going to do their jobs."

The Minnesota franchise reunited Hensley with close friend Maddie Rooney, a longtime summer training partner and American national teammate. Unusually accomplished for a second banana, Rooney led the U.S. to Olympic gold in 2018. She's authored two of the PWHL's seven shutouts to date. Hensley has limited four opponents to one goal.

Mutual respect and appreciation for each other's talents spurs them to perform to their potential.

"Whoever's in the net, we're super supportive of each other," Hensley said. "We've known each other for a long time. We know each other's tics. We know what each other needs to play well."

Nicole Hensley. Nick Wosika / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images
Elaine Chuli. Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images

Montreal's strong tandem hails from either side of a healed divide. Desbiens, Canada's usual international starter, previously boycotted the PHF as a member of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, which staged a series of showcase tournaments over several years while advocating for the PWHL's creation.

The early PWHL saves record - 45 in a game - belongs to Montreal backup Elaine Chuli, who has no senior international experience but was a top PHF goalie. Defensive gaffes get cleaned up regardless of who's in the net.

"That being said, we really try to focus on defensive habits and details," Montreal head coach Kori Cheverie said. "Our goalies give us a chance to win every night. But that doesn't mean our players get let off the hook or can cheat the game."

Around the PWHL, defenses are holding firm in Year 1. The average team scores 2.36 goals per game. The NHL hasn't featured so little offense since the 1930s, per Hockey Reference.

No PWHL team's goal differential is higher than plus-9 or lower than minus-6. That stems from the closeness of scores. Most games played league-wide (25 of 46) have been decided by one goal, and 15 required overtime. Some shots can't be contained, but blowouts or track meets are a rarity.

"You see a lot of 3-2 scores happening," Campbell said. "All of the goalies in this league have to come up with quite a few Grade-A saves throughout games due to the caliber of play."

Star trajectories

Before they turned pro, PWHL goaltenders boasted glittering resumes. At the college level, their career save percentages mostly surpassed .930. Desbiens and Frankel won the Patty Kazmaier Award as national MVPs.

Desbiens' 55 shutouts in 122 appearances represent the NCAA record. Her successor at Wisconsin, Campbell, blanked three straight playoff opponents to clinch the 2019 national title. Howe won the 2014 Frozen Four with Clarkson. Hensley, an alumna of small-school Lindenwood, owns the NCAA marks for saves in a career (4,094, or 33.3 per matchup) and single game (90 in an epic three-overtime defeat in her freshman season).

Schroeder's splashiest pad save as a Quinnipiac graduate transfer produced a claim to fame: She became the first women's college goalie to be credited with a goal when Maine botched a pass to the slot.

Her peers' international heroics uplift juggernauts and underdogs. At 20 years old, Rooney's 40 saves in the 2018 Olympic final keyed Team USA's shootout triumph over Canada. Soderberg held Canada to six goals on 111 shots over two recent world championship quarterfinals that Sweden barely lost. Sandra Abstreiter's 49 saves for outmanned Germany in the 2023 knockout round capped the American margin of victory at 3-0.

PWHL action is an evaluation tool for national teams; goalies can play their way onto a roster at a rival's expense. That happened to Schroeder, whose hot start to the season persuaded Canadian management to tap her, not Campbell, as the third goalie of choice for a recent Canada-U.S. exhibition slate.

Campbell's omission from the Rivalry Series could have been awkward. Toronto head coach Troy Ryan and general manager Gina Kingsbury work the same roles for Canada. Responding admirably, Campbell recorded a .954% save percentage with three shutouts during Toronto's long win streak and wound up on Canada's world championship roster.

Kristen Campbell. Mike Campbell / NurPhoto / Getty Images

She needed time to ramp up. Campbell only played 14 games with the PWHPA or internationally in the three years that preceded the PWHL's launch, per Elite Prospects. Newer pros who were workhorses in college over that period - Frankel, Schroeder, Levy, Abstreiter, and Soderberg - got consistent ice time and played more than 60 games apiece.

By showcasing their gifts, the PWHL charmed a rapt audience. Girls in the crowd have held signs that read, "Future PWHL goalie."

"That's exciting. I'm so glad they have this opportunity to look forward to and work toward," Schroeder said. "None of us had that growing up, really. The Olympics was our dream goal - and still is, for many. But it's really nice to know they aspire to make it to this league."

The next wave

For decades, superb netminding in the women's game has intensified marquee matchups. The six Olympic finals contested by Canada and the U.S. ended in the following scores: 3-1, 3-2, 2-0, 3-2 (OT), 3-2 (SO), 3-2.

At the 2002 tournament, Hall of Fame forward Jayna Hefford escaped on a breakaway to net Canada's golden goal. A decorated playing career - Hefford won four Olympic titles - familiarized her with the logjam in the blue paint.

"I remember playing with Kim St-Pierre and Shannon Szabados and Charline Labonte. You'd have a third-string goalie who would be a top goalie in the world," Hefford, the PWHL senior vice president of hockey operations, told theScore in a recent interview.

"There just aren't a lot of spots for goalies, unfortunately. But it's exciting to know for our teams that, regardless of which goaltender they're using, they have a good chance to win the game."

Aerin Frankel. Danielle Parhizkaran / Boston Globe / Getty Images

The original PWHL markets have shown unprecedented support. Fans raised the women's pro hockey attendance record from 8,318 (Montreal at Ottawa, Jan. 2) to 13,316 (Montreal at Minnesota, Jan. 6) to 19,285 (Montreal at Toronto, Feb. 16). Neutral-site games will take place at Detroit and Pittsburgh's NHL arenas on the March 16-17 weekend.

Expansion isn't imminent. The league's in no rush to add teams, Hefford said, but being able to ice more goaltenders would be a plus.

"That might keep that conversation alive at different points," Hefford said. "We're going to be in a similar situation very soon on the (skater) side. Each year, with the draft class that comes out of the NCAA and attracting more top European players, we're also going to run out of spots for great players. That'll always be on the table as we consider how we grow as a league."

The incoming wave of gifted goalies could include Klara Peslarova. The 27-year-old Czech star's contract in the Swedish Women's Hockey League is about to expire, per The Hockey News' Ian Kennedy. In 2022, Peslarova stoned 55 U.S. shots in a close Olympic loss, then helped deliver Czechia's historic first bronze medal at the world championships. Coming off of an ACL tear, her save percentage in Sweden this season was .935.

The top college prospect is Gwyneth Philips, Frankel's successor at Northeastern. Her .958 career save percentage defies belief.

Many PWHL goalies have one-year contracts. The ascent of budding greats will make it hard to stay in - or join - the exclusive club.

"A lot of good goalies were left off rosters this year," Howe said. "There are a lot of goalies coming up. You'll see more opportunities (once the league expands), but there are goalies champing at the bit to fill those roles."

Ann-Renee Desbiens. Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

Legends of the position influenced the current cohort. Schroeder's childhood idols included Sami Jo Small, a fellow Manitoba native and '02 Olympic gold medalist who co-founded the CWHL. When they partnered on the international stage, Hensley studied the relaxed demeanor of Jessie Vetter, the American six-time world champion. In Montreal, girls painted on Desbiens' helmet wear the jerseys of St-Pierre and Manon Rheaume.

Howe's mask depicts two of her past netminding partners: Liz Knox and Genevieve Lacasse. Those retired goalies balanced lightheartedness with devotion to the craft.

"They're professionals, but they don't take anything too seriously. They might throw out a two-pad stack," Howe said. "Whenever I go on the ice, I know I have them with me. They helped guide me and mentored me to this position."

Silhouettes of firefighters grace her mask, too.

"I've got my crew and my girls," Howe said.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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