By: Matt MacCormack
Rachel Llanes has the moves.
Whether it’s carving up opponents with her signature on-ice speed, or keeping Northeastern’s athletes in prime physical condition, the San Jose, California, native never ceases to be in motion.
But of all her moves, it is Llanes’ next one that is the most exciting. Starting this October, the 5’3 forward will be one of the first women in the continent to lace up the skates in a paid professional league.
“It’s exciting, definitely, for the sport,” Llanes said. “It definitely gets women’s hockey on the radar.”
This summer, Llanes signed a contract with the Boston Pride, one of the four inaugural members of the National Women’s Hockey League, the first women’s league in North America to pay its players. Alongside the Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters, the Pride will kick off the league’s opening season on October 11.
“We’re all just thrilled to be here,” said Hayley Moore, the general manager of the Pride who was instrumental in gathering support for a team in Boston. “We’ve all been working really hard to make this a reality.”
The NWHL represents an opportunity for Llanes, who played four seasons for the Northeastern Huskies from 2009 to 2013, to continue her hockey career. Llanes eclipsed the 100-point plateau in her senior season at NU, a year in which she was also named to the Hockey East All-Academic team.
After graduation, Llanes said she wanted to continue playing, and found the opportunity through the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Llanes said she enjoyed two seasons with the Blades, the only team of the league’s five members based in the U.S. At the same time, the lack of salary and team funding made things difficult.
“The competition in the league is great,” Llanes said. “But we had to pay for everything… it makes it kind of difficult for it to work out for some people.”
Now in the NWHL, Llanes will get paid and also won’t have to travel to Canada every other weekend. Officials said the teams will also provide customized equipment for their players.
“We call ourselves a player’s first league, and luckily we have so much more to offer them than they’ve ever had in the past,” Moore said. “It’s really not like I need to sell anything to them. It’s just making everyone aware of what we have to offer.
When she first heard of the opportunity from league Commissioner (and former Northeastern teammate) Dani Rylan, Llanes said she was blown away. She tried out for the Pride, made the team, and signed a contract this summer.
Head Coach Bobby Jay, who also has had stints as an assistant with Harvard men’s hockey and the U.S Women’s Olympic Team, said he’s excited for what Llanes brings to the Pride.
“She’s definitely quick…[but] she brings character, too, with her speed,” Jay said. “She’s a character kid and that’s what I think is exciting for us to have her here.”
Amanda Pelkey, another Pride forward, echoed Jay’s assessment. Pelkey, who scored 105 points over the past four years at the University of Vermont, said she knows Llanes from when the two attended high school at the North American Hockey Academy.
“Her speed is unreal. She’s gritty, she has a quick release with her shot,” Pelkey said. “I’m excited to have her be on our team. I’m looking forward to it.”
Pride goalie Brittany Ott, who faced off against Llanes at the University of Maine from 2009 to 2013 and also was her teammate with the Blades, said Llanes’ leadership will be key for the upstart franchise.
“She’s definitely a player to push you in practice and make you become better on and off the ice,” Ott said. “It’s awesome having her on our side instead of playing against her.”
While Llanes embraces her role as a leader on the ice and in the locker room, she said she prefers to let her work ethic and play do the talking.
“I’m not that big voice in the locker room,” Llanes said. “I think I’m one of those players who leads by example, and gets the job done anyway to help my team.”
Although the NWHL will provide Llanes with a hockey salary for the first time, the team only plays about once a week. To keep busy, Llanes plans to keep her job as a Graduate Assistant with Northeastern’s Strength and Conditioning department. But the former Husky said balancing a full schedule is nothing new, given her time as a player at NU.
“College hockey is definitely a lot different than what I’m doing now with the professional league…You’re on the ice six days a week, you’re a full-time student as well,” she said. “Being able to balance all of those things and not wear yourself out by the end of the day or the end of the week is something I probably learned in college.”
Helping to train the next generation of Husky athletes is something that Llanes said helps her maintain her own form.
“While I’m doing [my job] I’m learning how to take care of myself on a more detailed basis,” Llanes said.
One of the members of the next generation is NU senior forward Kendall Coyne, a U.S Olympic team member who should shatter records in her final year in black and red. It just so happens that Coyne was drafted by the hometown Pride with the third overall pick in this year’s inaugural draft. Llanes, who played with Coyne for two seasons at NU, is excited.
“She’s probably the easiest player to find on the ice the way she can just create space and jump in open lanes,” Llanes said of her former teammate. “I’m excited for her to play next year.”
But for now, most of Llanes’ excitement is channeled towards this season, where she will represent not only the NWHL and the city of Boston, but the entire sport.
“It’s a player’s league. It’s an opportunity in the history of women’s hockey to be a part of something special,” Llanes said. “I think I’m honestly living the dream.”
Photo Courtesy of Hockey East