When the Professional Women’s Hockey League season began play on Jan. 1, it ushered in a new era of women’s hockey, one where women had the opportunity to continue playing professionally after their college careers are over, much like many men’s hockey players already do.
“I think it’s very exciting for our current players to know that they can now have an opportunity to make a living playing professional hockey,” said the Everett Family Head Coach of Women’s Ice Hockey Doug Derraugh ’91.
With nearly 91 percent of all PWHL players in the league being former college players, 30 percent are former ECAC standouts, with seven hailing from Cornell.
“Before this league, [players] really didn’t have an option to play after school, but just having this option to make hockey your career after you play in college is huge for our game,” said Kristin O’Neill ’20, who currently plays for PWHL Montreal. “And I think it will increase the talent a lot more cause people are pushing and trying to get to the next level each day instead of just knowing that they are going to be done after their four years [in college].”
10 Red alumni made it onto the training camp rosters, while seven made it onto the final rosters across all six teams. Former Cornellians on final rosters include star forwards O’Neill and Jillian Saulnier ’15, defenders Micah Zandee-Hart ’20, Lauriane Rougeau ’13, Jaime Bourbonnais ’20 and Brianne Jenner ’15 and goaltender Marlène Boissonnault ’19.
Not only have the players been contributing on the ice, but they have also been a strong presence amongst the leadership group. Zandee-Hart and Jenner both serve as captains for New York and Ottawa, respectively, while O’Neill serves as alternate captain for Montreal.
“I feel pretty grateful to be representing Cornell at the professional level,” O’Neill said. “I think it’s really amazing to see so many of my former Cornell classmates and those that I looked up to be having such a huge impact, not only in leadership roles but [also] just around the league.”
It is not totally unusual to see this many Red alums making an impact. Cornell women’s hockey has long been a breeding ground for success, boasting numerous Olympic and World Championship gold medalists. The gold-medal-winning Team Canada at the 2022 Olympics featured five Cornell alums, including Derraugh as an assistant coach. However, without a consistent professional league for the women, there was not much opportunity for success outside of national team competitions.
“For myself, I’ve always felt that we [male players] had an advantage to be able to continue our hockey careers after college,” Derraugh said. “Unless you were playing in the Olympics, you didn’t have that on the woman’s side and it was really unfortunate.”
Now with a professional league in place, Cornell alumni are already making their mark in the league. Saulnier, who plays for PWHL New York, scored a goal in the league’s first ever game and O’Neill assisted on the OT goal securing PWHL Montreal’s first win.
Cornell women’s hockey’s presence in the league is a testament to the strong program built at Lynah Rink.
“We try our best to develop our student athletes not just on the ice, but also in their character, their commitment to the classroom and their commitment to their community,” Derraugh said. “We’re looking specifically [here] at the student athletes that have gone on to play professional hockey and you’re seeing that they learned how to be a leader in that field [but] I think also here at Cornell we help our student athletes become leaders in whatever professional field they’re going into, whether that’s law or medicine, you name it.”
O’Neill, a product of the culture, echoed Derraugh’s sentiments.
“Even before I went to Cornell, the culture flourished around leadership, impacting the community around you and work ethic,” O’Neill said. “I think all three of those things are what made Cornell alumni in the league so accomplished… Coach Doug and Edith [Racine] really implement those values in players that go there and I think it’s contagious.”
And right now, there is a team full of potential future PWHL players making their own mark on Cornell women’s hockey. The current No. 9 women’s hockey team has been on a heater, earning their best start in program history after an 11-game unbeaten streak before falling to nationally-ranked Quinnipiac.
The team will look to build on its historic season when they face No. 5 Clarkson on Friday at 6 p.m. and No. 10 St. Lawrence on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Lynah Rink. Both games can be streamed on ESPN+.
“It’s an exciting time for all of us,” O’Neill said, “but especially for Cornell alumni.”