McKenna Brand can add National Women’s Hockey League champion to her impressive resume.
Brand, a 2014 graduate of Park Rapids Area High School, scored two goals and had three assists in five playoff games in helping the Boston Pride capture the 2021 Isobel Cup. The NWHL semifinals and finals were broadcast on NBCSports, giving the professional women’s hockey league national television exposure for the first time in the six-year history of the NWHL.
Brand played a key role on the national stage in Boston’s run to claiming the Cup.
In the semifinals against the Toronto Six at Boston’s Warrior Ice Arena on March 26, Brand had an assist to give Boston a 2-1 lead in the first period and scored a goal as the Pride led 4-1 in the second period. Boston, the No. 4 seed, went on for a 6-2 victory over the top-seeded expansion team.
In the championship game on March 27, the Pride defeated the Minnesota Whitecaps 4-3 to win the Isobel Cup for the second time. Boston won the inaugural Isobel Cup in 2016. Minnesota, the No. 2 seed, advanced with a 7-0 win over the Connecticut Whale, the No. 3 seed.
Boston and Minnesota were supposed to play for the Isobel Cup last season when COVID canceled that game. Boston was favored to win that game, leaving Brand and the Pride a full year to wonder what could have been.
Even though getting a chance to play for the title was delayed, being able to play for the Cup this season put some closure on how last season ended.
“It was awesome to basically have the same setting of the game that was supposed to be played last year. It felt so right to be able to see our season through this year on home ice. Even though we had plenty of new faces on our team this year, I know all of the returners really had that desire to win the Cup after not being able to go for it last year after our incredible regular season,” said Brand. “It was a little strange not playing in a sold out Warrior Ice Arena in Boston, but it was so cool knowing that all of my family and friends could watch on national TV. Honestly it’s hard to put into words how incredible it feels. From not being able to finish the season last year, to facing all of the challenges thrown at us this year, to end it with the Cup feels right.”
After waiting an entire year, Brand and the Pride faced another delay in order to get a chance to play for the Cup.
Last season, the Isobel Cup finals between Boston and Minnesota was canceled because of concerns over COVID. The Pride was going to enter that championship game as the No. 1 seed with a 24-1 record.
In addition to having the 2020 championship game canceled, COVID also impacted the 2020-21 season, which was held inside a quarantined bubble at the Herb Brooks Arena at Lake Placid, New York. Instead of a 24-game regular season, the abbreviated two-week season was supposed to feature round-robin play between the six teams in the NWHL: Boston, Minnesota, Toronto, Connecticut, the Buffalo Beauts and the Metropolitan Riveters.
“It was basically that or nothing. So we were going to make the most of the situation we were given,” said Brand. “The bubble setup was unreal. I absolutely love Lake Placid. That rink has so much history and it was an honor to be able play there again.”
Boston struggled in the bubble, going 1-3 in four games with a 2-1 loss to Minnesota on Jan. 23, a 5-1 win over Buffalo on Jan. 24, a 2-1 loss to Toronto on Jan. 26 and a 4-1 loss to Connecticut on Jan. 27. The Pride didn’t play Metropolitan, which withdrew from league play when players tested positive for COVID.
“We had eight rookies on our team this year and we kinda got thrown right into games up in Lake Placid for our abbreviated season. It was honestly a difficult setting for even returners, so I think it took us a bit to get going and get our feet wet,” said Brand. “But once we did get going, we were very difficult to stop. About halfway through our regular season, I really felt like the regular Boston Pride team was back.”
The regular season ended with Minnesota going 3-0 and Connecticut (2-1), Metropolitan (2-1), Toronto (2-2), Boston (1-3) and Buffalo (0-3) following. Boston earned a spot in the Isobel Cup semifinals by rebounding from a 2-1 loss on Jan. 30 with convincing wins of 6-0 on Jan. 31 and 7-1 on Feb. 1 to eliminate Buffalo in a best-of-three series. Toronto had playoff wins over Minnesota and Connecticut to earn the No. 1 seed.
When players tested positive for COVID, the NWHL decided to postpone the Isobel Cup final rounds citing safety concerns for the players. Instead of playing on Feb. 4-5, the semifinals and finals were put on hold.
“(I was) disappointed, but understood the decisions being made. We actually knew about a week after Lake Placid that the games were most likely going to be played, so we continued to practice three to four times per week leading up to the playoffs,” said Brand. “The day that we found out we had some positive COVID cases on our team was obviously super difficult. We had worked so hard to get to this point just to get COVID. It was pretty awful, but I’m so glad the league was able to make the right decision to pause our season and then give us the opportunity to finish our season on national TV. It means so much (being televised nationally) and I really think it will help the league grow to the capacity it deserves. Just to have eyes on our product and expand our fan base is huge.”
Looking to repeat
After putting up solid numbers in her third season in the NWHL, Brand is looking forward to improving her game and helping the Pride defend the Cup.
The Boston forward scored four goals and had five assists for 9 points in nine games this season. Brand scored the game-winning goal and added an assist in Boston’s 5-1 win over Buffalo, tallied an assist in the 2-1 loss to Toronto, and scored a power-play goal in the 4-1 loss to Connecticut during the regular season.
Brand continued her strong play in the playoffs in helping the Pride raise the Cup. Brand scored a goal in Boston’s 6-0 win over Buffalo and had two assists in the series-clinching 7-1 victory over Buffalo. Tallying an assist and scoring a goal in the Isobel Cup semifinals capped off Brand’s point total this season as Boston ended the season with a 5-4 record.
Winning the title wasn’t a big surprise for Brand, who expected Boston to have another successful season. However, Brand wasn’t prepared for the ups and downs this season provided.
“I expected us to be just as good or better. Looking up and down our roster at the start, you could tell on paper that we were going to be very difficult to beat. I had the expectations that we would win the Cup. For myself, I wanted to build my leadership skills and continue to produce on the ice for my team,” said Brand. “It was honestly such a roller coaster. I’d be lying if I told you it was all sunshine and rainbows for us. We had our challenges through the entire year, but our staff and leadership really got us through those times and it bonded us and made us stronger in the end.”
Even though the season was short, Brand proved once again to be among the top players in the league. Brand was coming off a spectacular sophomore season by finishing second in the league in goals scored with 19 and in points with 36 while leading the NWHL with six game-winning goals. Brand also competed in the 2020 NWHL All-Star Game and finished third in the league MVP voting. In three seasons, Brand has 29 goals and 33 assists for 62 points in 49 games.
After winning the Isobel Cup, Brand is looking forward to next season as the Pride attempt to repeat.
“My love for the game started in PR and I knew I wanted to play hockey as long as I possibly could. Every level that I have played at, starting at youth hockey, I have had people supporting me and helping me reach the goals that I have set for myself. I’ve gotten to this level because of those people,” said Brand. “(My expectations for next season are) the same as this season. Boston is a city of champions and I expect another championship team being put together by our staff this offseason.”