By Michael Gutnick
PHOENIX – Carlee Turner was one push of a button away from ending her hockey career.
On Feb. 1, the Boston Pride forward, 23, thought she had played in her last professional competition, a 7-1 win over the Buffalo Beauts in a National Women’s Hockey League game.
Less than 48 hours later, the NWHL announced that the remainder of the 2021 season in Lake Placid, New York, would be suspended due to positive COVID-19 tests and safety concerns.
“It was such a bummer,” Turner said. “I don’t think anyone really believed that we were going to play because the same thing happened last year, too. And they didn’t end up playing.”
Weeks went by without any new developments, and Turner began contemplating hanging up her skates and heading back home to Scottsdale.
“I was planning on leaving and going back home to Arizona on March 17th,” Turner said. “When we ended, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going home.’ I was actually going to book my flight even earlier than that.”
While isolated with the Pride in Lake Placid, Turner said she thought, “I should just go home now” and wondered, “Why am I even here?”
But she never booked the trip. And suddenly, rumors of a potential return to play began to circulate.
Turner quickly scrambled to make phone calls to Boston Pride coach Paul Mara, a former defender with the then-Phoenix Coyotes, and General Manager Karilyn Pilch.
“Are these rumors true?” Turner asked.
To her surprise, they were. The trip home would have to wait.
Turner and the Pride returned to action and went on to overcome all of the adversity that came with their season to win the NWHL’s 2021 Isobel Cup on March 27th at Warrior Ice Arena in Boston.
“It was such a whirlwind,” Turner said. “We wanted it so badly. We put in so much work from last July. We went through the ups and downs of losing in the bubble and then it being ripped away from us for COVID-19 reasons. To finally know that we had won, it was the most exciting thing.”
The Pride, one of the four founding teams of the NWHL in 2015, claimed its second Isobel Cup and the first since the league’s inaugural season. Boston was supposed to face Minnesota in the 2020 Isobel Cup Finals, but the series didn’t happen amid the pandemic’s emergence.
That was just the latest challenge the fledgling NWHL has faced since its arrival, including funding issues, shortened schedules and murky politics. Salaries are often at the center of debate, with teams given a $150,000 salary cap for 20 players (which averages to $7,500 per competitor). Furthermore, the league doesn’t receive nearly as much exposure as the National Hockey League.
But that hasn’t stopped the league from continuing to make strides, even during the global pandemic.
“No one really knew exactly when it was going to start or how the season would transpire,” said Mara, who has coached the Pride for the last three seasons. “When we finally raised that Cup, it was basically a year coming. Last year, the same thing happened 24 hours before the Isobel Cup final, it was canceled then, too. To finally have it and all the culmination of their work, it was just great to see.”
Turner joined the Pride for the 2020-21 season after graduating from the University of New Hampshire in three years.
She attended high school at Scottsdale’s Cactus Shadows and played hockey on boys teams in the Desert Youth Hockey Association.
As one of eight new players on a Pride team that had gone 23-1 in the 2019-20 regular season, Turner embraced the unusual circumstances of playing her first season of professional hockey in a bubble setting, similar to the NHL’s Return To Play Plan last summer.
“We came in as rookies, knowing the Boston Pride only lost one game last year, which is unbelievable,” Turner said. “That even by itself was nerve-racking. Once we got to the bubble, that was even more nerve-racking … but the team, the captain, the leadership, the coaches were so great that they helped take those nerves away from us.”
Before the Pride arrived at their hotel in Lake Placid, Turner spontaneously came up with an idea along with teammate Briana Mastel during the bus ride.
“We should vlog together,” Turner said.
“We should do a vlog,” Mastel replied, jokingly.
“‘Wait, I’m not kidding though, do you want to vlog?’” Turner said.
The two conspired to create The Lion’s Den, which provided a behind-the-scenes look at their month-long stay in the bubble.
Welcome To The Lions Den🦁
Follow along and watch Episode 1 ⤵️
— Boston Pride (@TheBostonPride) January 24, 2021
Turner showcased the setup of the locker rooms, hosted games with her teammates and described her daily routine on game and rest days.
While setting up for one of her videos, Turner saw something familiar in the corner of her eye: members of the Arizona Coyotes on cardboard cutouts in the stands.
“I was so surprised,” said Turner, who attended several Coyotes’ games growing up. “We were doing a vlog and then I was like, ‘Wait a second.’ I took a double take, and I was like, ‘There’s the Arizona Coyotes.’ I was so taken back.
“I had no idea about it. It was cool to think that someone was watching out there supporting this fellow Arizona kid, because there’s not many of us, but we love the support for sure.”
The Pride won three of their seven games during the regular season before the league shut down on Feb. 3 due to positive COVID-19 cases among multiple teams, including Boston.
There was no knowing if the NWHL would resume as Turner and her teammates remained in quarantine, hoping for a second chance at the Isobel Cup.
Boston Pride defenseman Jenna Rheault, who played hockey with Turner for three years at UNH, knew Turner was considering retirement and could sense her teammate’s anxiety.
“When there was that weird week in Lake Placid, we were like, ‘Hey, this could have been Carlee’s last game,’” said Rheault, who broke her wrist two games into the regular season. “It opened our eyes to the fact that you never know when it is going to be your last game.
“When we were told that we were going to play in these last two games, that lit a fire under me. Because I wanted to win this for this girl because she deserved to end her career on a high.”
After little contact with the league for weeks, Turner and Rheault finally found out together that the league would proceed with the playoffs. Boston was the No. 4 seed, the last spot in the adjusted postseason format.
The Pride was confident as the “underdog,” eager to compete on home ice in its hometown.
“We lost to literally every team, which was unheard of,” Turner said. “The Boston Pride are supposed to be the best team in the league. We’re unstoppable. We came into the playoffs as the last seed, basically as the underdog, but we were just so confident. We played our game. We were in our own city. We said, ‘No one is going to take this from us.’”
Not only did Boston play in Warrior Ice Arena for the first time in nearly a year, the NWHL playoffs were carried live on NBCSN, putting the league and women’s hockey in the national spotlight.
They were the first women’s professional hockey games broadcast on a major national cable network in the U.S., which added to Turner’s excitement about returning.
“When I was talking to my dad on the phone before the game, I was telling him that it was so exciting to be a part of this because women’s hockey is finally going to be on national television,” Turner said. “That’s the biggest thing. They don’t give exposure to women’s hockey.
“The fact that we were on NBCSN, and people from Arizona were sending me Snapchats at bars (while) watching me on TV … that was the thing that made me the absolute happiest. It made huge strides for the league, for women’s hockey and just everyone that is a part of it.”
In the semifinals, the Boston Pride faced the top-seeded Toronto Six, who had gone 4-2 during the regular season, including a 2-1 win over Boston on Jan. 26.
“Toronto is known to be these big-body players,” said Rheault, who was able to return from her wrist injury in time for the playoffs. “The first six shifts, I was like, ‘Wow, I can do this. I’ve just got to battle harder.’ That was the energy on the bench. Then, we just clicked, and we gave it our all and we got the win.”
Boston defeated Toronto 6-2, advancing to the Isobel Cup Finals against the defending champion Minnesota Whitecaps, the team Boston was supposed to face in the canceled championship series the previous season.
The Whitecaps led 1-0 after the first 20 minutes, but despite trailing for the first time in the playoffs, the Pride remained confident.
“I don’t think there was a doubt in anyone’s mind that we were going to play the way that we should, which was amazing because we went through a lot of adversity,” Turner said. “We had all the confidence in the world.”
Boston responded with three goals in the middle frame to take a commanding 3-1 lead, and held on to win the Cup with a 4-3 victory.
When the final horn sounded, the Pride players jumped for joy and raced in excitement to greet their goaltender with open arms.
“That last buzzer went off and all of us finally just celebrated together, everyone was hugging each other,” Turner said. “We were just so happy.”
Rheault said celebrating the Cup with Turner made the moment especially memorable.
“Everyone all gets together, and you do that really big hug with everyone, and then you break off to give hugs to each individual teammate,” Rheault said. “She was the second person that I hugged, and I just cried. She deserved it. We may not have held up a cup at UNH, but we did it here together in her last year with Boston.”
Turner was filled with emotion, waving the Cup over her head in astonishment of winning the ultimate prize that nearly escaped her.
Turner’s teammates and coaches knew that it was her last opportunity to be crowned Isobel Cup champion, and they delivered. They tried to convince Turner to play another season, but Turner knew it was time to make that return trip home.
“It is hard,” Turner said. “I’ve literally been playing hockey my entire life, and it’s hard to give up that dream, but at the same time, I’m ready. I’m so blessed really to leave on a high note like that, to be able to leave on my terms and leave as a champion with the Boston Pride.”
Turner is planning to attend medical school in the upcoming semester, either at Kansas City University or the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Whether it’s a hockey championship or a medical degree, Turner has been an inspiration for many young girls in the Valley.
“From Day One watching her play, I knew she was going to have a big impact on our team,” Mara said. “It couldn’t be more true. She’s an awesome kid and an awesome hockey player.”
“Carlee is just one in a million,” she said. “She’s somebody you meet, and you feel how kind her heart is, and you see how hard she works. She might be younger than me, but she’s definitely somebody I look up to because she has it all together.”
And maybe the vlogging skills Turner picked up during the journey will come in handy as she pursues another career outside of hockey.
“We’ll see,” Turner said with a smile. “I can’t wait for my next adventure!”