A phone call received five years ago made Kaleigh Fratkin think her hockey career had come to an end.
Even though she had just won the 2015 Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s Clarkson Cup with the Boston Blades, the news about being cut from the senior national team after a time with Canada’s development squad was a huge blow.
“At that time, making Team Canada was kind of really the only thing that was there to meet the pinnacle of women’s hockey,” said Fratkin, now with five seasons in the National Women’s Hockey League under her belt. “I thought my career was completely over.”
Instead, she continues to thrive. The Boston Pride player is the all-time defender with most points in the league and earned her first Defender of the Season award in 2019-2020.
NWHL itself continues to expand, as the next season will introduce Toronto Six, the first Canadian team (and sixth overall) in the league. The organization has already signed 16 players but is yet to announce in which arena they will hold games.
Thinking back to her time in the now-defunct CWHL, the fact that the league only started paying its players in 2017, two years after she left, made it not attractive for the then 23-year-old player who had been out of college for a year.
“I was like ‘I’m done playing hockey. I’m packing it in’. I was mentally so drained from seven years of ups and downs. It was a lot to go through.”
But soon after, the NWHL creation and Fratkin’s subsequent deal with the Connecticut Whale gave her a “whole new drive of motivation.”
“It was a pivotal moment in my career. When I transitioned to playing professionally and realizing how much it was building for the women’s game, I felt any adversity I have ever gone through has just been fuel and fire to keep me going.
“I wanted to be done with hockey when I’m not good enough anymore and there are these young girls coming up that are way better than I am, and I’m injured and too old for the game,” Fratkin said.
Growing up as a female hockey player in Burnaby, B.C. made for some of those difficulties. She had only played on boy’s teams up until she made it to college and joined the NCAA Boston University women’s hockey team.
“Where I grew up, girls’ hockey wasn’t prevalent and wasn’t big. Being the only girl, I did face a lot of discrimination, isolation and outcast of being a female player. That itself created a lot of adversity,” Fratkin said.
The deal with the Whale made her the first non-American player to join the NWHL in July 2015, a number that has since grown to 27 from six nationalities last season.
“Maybe at the time I didn’t appreciate it as much, but now I can look back. You know what? That’s cool. I was the first international player that kind of paved the way so that these girls from all these different countries can come play in the league.”
From boy’s hockey to NWHL star
Fratkin herself also came a long way since.
After playing the league’s inaugural season for the Whale, she joined the New York Riveters for 2016-2017. In both campaigns, she played all 18 regular-season games and lost on the playoffs semifinal.
The Canadian then shifted teams once again and joined Boston Pride, going back to where she had once participated in the NCAA and the CWHL. Her faith remained the same for the first two seasons, being a win shy from playing the Isobel Cup in her first two years with the team.
Fratkin then enjoyed the best season of her five-year NWHL career in 2019-20.
The Canadian played all 24 games of the Boston Pride’s almost unbeaten regular-season run (23-1-0), contributing three goals and 20 assists – a career-high in total points.
She carried the level of performance that earned her first NWHL Defender of the Year award into the playoffs. Her goal and two assists in the 5-1 semifinal win against her former team, Connecticut Whale, meant Boston was on its way to its third Isobel Cup final.
However, their chance to win the NWHL trophy for the second time and become the first team to do so came to an end due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The game was originally scheduled to take place on March 13 but was postponed a day before, eventually getting cancelled on May 15.
“For someone that wanted to play for the Cup and has been in the league for a really long time, it’s sad and disheartening because we had a great season, a really good record and a great team. It was a hard pill to swallow,” said Fratkin, the highest-scoring defender in NWHL’s history.
However, the 28-year-old who serves as one of the Boston Pride captains believes the collaborative decision that involved the league, its players and coaches was the right call.
“Everyone was moving on because the season ended. It wasn’t going to make sense,” Fratkin said, mentioning drafts, contract extensions and free agency.
The unfinished season
The reigning-champion Minnesota Whitecaps (17-5-2) were Boston’s opposition for the Isobel Cup.
They felt confident in their ability to duplicate last season’s success when they lifted the trophy at home in their inaugural season, according to their starting goaltender Amanda Leveille.
“Our team worked extremely hard on little details and watched a lot of film on Boston and we started to close that gap,” said Leveille, who holds the NWHL record for all-time wins and is a two-time Isobel Cup winner, on a Zoom interview.
The 26-year-old Kingston, Ont., native mentioned the early “blowout” games between the two sides, and Minnesota’s evolution to become the only team to beat Boston during the season.
“We were pretty confident going into the final that if we played like the last two times that we played Boston, we would be in a pretty good position.
“Throughout the entire season, we just got better with every single game. We were a really strong group that was motivated to fix the mistakes we were making,” Leveille said.
Even though the wait continues for either Leveille’s third or Fratkin’s first Isobel Cup championship, Boston still had “a lot to be prideful of”, the latter said.
That’s why the defender considered it a no brainer when she was offered a one-year extension from the team, the standard length all the players in the league sign for.
Fratkin awaits next season to begin – now scheduled for a November start instead of the usual time a month earlier – training off ice until rinks reopen in Boston.
Still, she considers it a “strange feeling” to have to walk away from the season at that stage, especially when she holds the Pride squad to such high regard.
“We had a great team off the ice. On the ice, we had a very skilled, determined, hard-working team, so it was one of those years that it was so unique, different and very special,” Fratkin said.
“It’s not often to have that come around in your playing career. Usually, the special hockey teams that you play on you win championships with. I look back now and I’m like ‘Wow, we were so good. We could have gone all the way’”.