At 5’ 2” and perhaps 130 pounds soaking wet, Micaela Long isn’t the image of an enforcer in the National Women’s Hockey League. However, that is how many who are unfamiliar with the league in general might see her, thanks to one play.
Most casual hockey fans don’t know Long, a depth forward on the Connecticut Whale of the four-team NWHL. A 2010 University of New Hampshire graduate, she finished off her senior season as the Hockey East scoring champion and a First Team All-Star. She also played in four consecutive NCAA tournaments, and won three regular season conference championships and two league titles with the Wildcats.
Durable and reliable, Long didn’t miss a single game in either high school or college, and she left UNH a Patty Kazmaier Award nominee after scoring 126 points in four seasons. She dreamed of, and constantly worked towards, the Olympics but never managed to crack the National Team roster.
She only realized that hockey was more or less over for her when, in 2012, her job at the American School for the Deaf took her from the Boston area, and from the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, where she had played for two seasons. Three years later, the NWHL took shape; Long was asked to join.
“I felt like I wasn’t done with hockey,” she says. “As much as I love my teaching career there was always something missing and I knew it was hockey. But I couldn’t play for the CWHL in Boston and that was my only option. When the league started and I heard about it, and they say the word ‘Connecticut’ … paid or not paid, that’s amazing.
“Growing up and wanting to be in the NHL, wanting to be in the Olympics, this was my life for 20 years. And now they’re saying it’s within driving distance, asking if I want to play. How do you say no to that? It’s a dream come true.
“This is worth every sleepless night I had,” she continues. “A dream I never thought would be possible. Being paid is one thing, but just playing again ... having that missing piece that was gone for three years for me, you know, was really nice.”
Long’s return to hockey was not without its pitfalls.
The first NWHL game of 2016 erupted in a brawl between the Whale and the New York Riveters when Long pushed Riveters captain Ashley Johnston to the ice.
NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan was asked at the beginning of the season how four teams could play each other again and again over an 18-game season. “They’ll develop a great rivalry,” she said with a smile.
Rylan was not wrong.
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Though the NWHL was not new to fights between teams—the majority of tension-filled games where players were spoiling for a fight involved either the Riveters or the Whale––they were indeed new to marketing the physicality of the women’s game to fans and media outlets.
Although open-ice hits are not allowed in the women’s game, that doesn’t mean physical play disappears entirely. In its place is a hybrid of boarding overlooked by the referees and legal hip checks that sometimes turn into shoulder checks, or even fisticuffs between two teams that just plain hate each other. Still, the physical aspect of the women’s game is underplayed by teams and media alike, which might be why Long’s hit on Johnston created a firestorm of views, commentary and publicity for the NWHL.
In at least one other instance where teams fought, specifically when the Riveters and the Pride came to blows earlier in the season during their very first matchup, the cameras cut away, leaving the announcer to fill in the blanks for fans watching.
Instead, when Long’s hit on Johnston set off a line brawl between the Riveters and Whale, not only did the cameras zoom in, with the play-by-play announcer detailing every blow with amazed fervor, but within hours the league had cut a highlight reel of the fight from start to finish. Media outlets picked up the video and it exploded on social media, making headlines throughout the Northeast and Canada. In some states, it made the local news, helping the NWHL find its way into tens of thousands of homes whose inhabitants had been unaware of the league.
The video, which has garnered more than 74,000 views, is the second-most played of all ones on the NWHL’s YouTube account, behind only the video detailing Whale defender Molly Engstrom’s punch to the jaw of Olympic team captain and Buffalo Beauts forward, Meghan Duggan.
Long's hit drew a one-game suspension from the NWHL's Player Safety Committee, and while she didn’t expect the fight to be featured on the evening news the following day, she saw both the good and bad in it.
“It got more publicity for the league,” she says. “I know it was on the news, it was all over Facebook, it was all over Twitter, it was all over ... you know, it was on CSN in Canada. I had Canadian friends that I hadn’t heard from in forever that reached out and said, ’I didn’t know you were playing hockey.’
“In that sense, it’s great. Any publicity is good publicity, I think. If we can get more people to watch online and in the stands, sure. Luckily, [Johnston] wasn’t really hurt. In that sense, me sitting out a game to get that many more fans, that’s good for sure.”
Back in action, Long scored her first goal of the regular season a few games later. She'd opened the Whale’s season with the club's very first goal in a preseason match against the U-18 Connecticut Jr. Rangers, and went on to notch its very last one of the regular season in a match against the Riveters.
Long finished her campaign on the Whale earlier this month, pleased with her progress but not satisfied with the way her season ended. She sat comfortably in the top third of her team in scoring with 10 points, and was part of a three-way tie for second in postseason points. Despite a surge by depth players late in the season and Long’s quick feet and multiple assists, the Whale exited the postseason in the first round.
Many of those 74,000 viewers, however, will likely only remember Long for her late hit on Johnston, sensationalized as it was.
Although the actions that resulted in her first suspension brought a surge of attention to the league, Long knows many new fans are looking for more of the same. It's something she is not keen on providing.
“The downside is that something like that [fight] is getting more views than someone getting a hat trick or making a very skilled play,” she says.