It made headlines when the New York Riveters signed netminder Jaimie Leonoff to a $10,000 salary for the 2016-17 season. The Canadian netminder had backstopped the Connecticut Whale to a second-place regular-season finish and was widely acknowledged to be one of the best goalies in the entire NWHL.
When news leaked of a netminder in New York encountering visa issues, new-to-the-league goalie So Jung Shin was the first name to pop up in discussions, as Leonoff had played in the league for the past year without encountering visa issues herself.
However, it appears Leonoff may indeed be the player stuck out in the cold.
Leonoff, who was a huge get for the Riveters during the first few months of the offseason, does not appear on the New York roster, did not dress for either of the preseason games and her jersey is not available for sale in either of the NWHL’s online stores.
As a Canadian, Leonoff would be unable to work outside of the world of hockey should she secure her visa through the NWHL. Should she have been granted a visa through another company outside of hockey, it would prohibit her from earning money from playing hockey. Last season, she worked for the New York Islanders in order to play for the Whale. If her career path changed, it would likely prevent her from playing for the Riveters.
The NWHL has not released a statement indicating that she is no longer with the Riveters, nor has the team officially added Katie Fitzgerald per any such press release, but that hasn’t prevented the league from selling her jersey or letting her attend practices. The league has remained mum, despite attempts to clarify New York’s goalie situation.
If Leonoff’s departure from the roster means that she’s left the Riveters, what does that mean for the team?
The answer is somewhat uncertain. Should she be out for part of the season, the whole season, or even for good, her loss could have a real impact on the Riveters’ year if her backup isn’t ready to step into the limelight.
Leonoff was the clear No. 1 goaltender after her signing, given her experience in the NWHL already, with Korean-born, Canada-trained goalie Shin considered a terrific backup.
Out of netminders who played more than four games, Leonoff posted the highest save percentage in the league last year with a regular-season save percentage of 0.936, despite a goals-against average of 2.96 per game. In the postseason, her save percentage went up even further (to 0.947) while her goals-against average was only 1.51, despite her team’s loss in the first round against the Buffalo Beauts.
Shin, while untested in the NWHL to the extent Leonoff was, is still a strong goalie, going by her stats over the past three seasons. Shin posted an average save percentage of 0.935 during her three years at St. Francis Xavier University in Canada, and as a netminder for South Korea’s women’s national hockey team, has averaged a 0.950 save percentage during her last three years as well. Her numbers stack up favorably when compared to Leonoff but her verdancy could work against her.
Another area of concern is the level of competition Shin routinely faces on the South Korean team, which is ranked 24th in the world and is listed as a member of Division IIA, two full levels below the U.S. and Canada. Shin’s high save percentages internationally may very well not translate to stopping pucks against members of the U.S. women’s national team.
What the potential loss of Leonoff means for the NWHL is another matter entirely. Leonoff is daughter to Joel Leonoff, one of the few known investors in the league. Leonoff was clear in his interview with espnW’s Pat Borzi: he is invested in the league financially in large part because his daughter is invested emotionally. If Leonoff’s daughter is out of the picture, what can that mean for his investment with the league?
The amount of his investment has not been disclosed, but with a start-up like the NWHL it’s safe to say that every penny counts. A departure by Joel Leonoff could leave an enormous hole in the league’s finances, just as Jaimie Leonoff will leave in net.
Clearly, the absence of Leonoff from the Riveters leaves us with more questions than answers.
UPDATE: In response to this article, Leonoff reached out to the league to clarify that she is injured, not suffering from visa issues.