Not Dunne Yet: New Penn State Grad Set to Test Professional Free Agency

Cassie Dunne defends against Russia's Liudmila Belyakova - a former NWHL player - at World University Games

Following a legendary collegiate career, Cassie Dunne could hardly be blamed for wanting more. So that's exactly what she is pursuing.

The brand new Penn State graduate is presently examining options in professional hockey, and has received an encouraging early return in the form of an invitation to a free agent camp for the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL), set for Saturday and Sunday at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, MA. The camp will involve three games, which are scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on the first day, then 9:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on the second.

"I was ecstatic when I received the email to attend the free agent camp," Dunne said. "There is definitely a lot of hard work still ahead of me but I'm honored to be given the opportunity."

"I can only hope that my hard work pays off and I have the same success at the NWHL camp that I did at World University Games camp."

Penn State head coach Patrick Fung was quick to cite Dunne's work ethic as a defining quality that has opened doors for her: "She is a kid that has worked hard to better herself throughout her career and now has a chance to compete for a chance at playing professionally," he said. "I'm extremely excited for Cassie to have the opportunity to extend her playing career beyond college."

While the NWHL event is just two days long, Dunne is aware of her good track record when it comes to making a positive impression quickly, even among numerous top players. Back in December, she entered a two-day camp to select the 2017 U.S. National University Team as a relative unknown. Not only did she make the final roster, she was named one of the squad's co-captains, and eventually helped lead it to a bronze medal at the World University Games in February.

It was the experience at WUG that triggered her current quest.

"Before our big game against Canada, Coach Shelley [Looney] asked the captains to meet and tell her how we were feeling and what the sense in the locker room was," Dunne recalled. "I immediately blurted out, 'During camp in Chicago I fell in love with hockey again and I'm ready to share that excitement with my teammates and help them feel the same way.'"

"Playing against Lindenwood [at WUG camp] reminded me of why I've always continued playing hockey and where my love for the sport came from," she continued. "The game is fast and competitive, it rewards the hard workers, and when the teamwork is cohesive, there's no better feeling in the world."

That Canadian team at the World University Games in Kazakhstan featured players from U Sports (Canada's sanctioning body for inter-university athletics), many of whom will go on to play in both the NWHL and the rival Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL). Dunne and Team USA also squared off against Russia, which featured a bevy of players from that nation's senior national team. One of them, Liudmila Belyakova, played for the NWHL's New York Riveters in 2015-16.

"Playing on the big stage against talented competitors with great teammates was all it took to get goosebumps and a feeling that you're in that exact moment where you were meant to be," Dunne said. "I told Coach Pat when I came home that I wanted to keep playing, I didn't feel like my time was up, and I was ready to do whatever it took to at least be seen by the NWHL."

"As a player, we all hope to play until they tell us we can't, and after her experience at the World University Games this year, I can't think of a better way for Cassie to cap this season," Fung added.

Former NWHL head coach Shelley Looney led Dunne and Team USA to bronze medals in February

Notably Looney, Team USA's head coach at World University Games, led the NWHL's Buffalo Beauts during their inaugural 2015-16 season. Looney's co-coach that year, Ric Seiling, remains with the club as a coach and general manager.

Following the camp, unrestricted free agency will open on June 1st with Dunne then hoping to secure a deal with one of the NWHL's four franchises (all league contracts are for one year, with financial terms undisclosed). There is also a restricted free agency period - during which teams can re-sign their players from 2016-17 - spanning the entire month of May before new players are permitted to sign. With four re-signings league-wide through the first ten days of the RFA period, however, early indications are that teams may be anticipating what the unrestricted free agent pool has to offer.

Each roster includes 15 skaters and two goaltenders as well as six unpaid practice players, with the latter group still eligible to fill in as needed for games due to injuries or other commitments (most players also hold other employment, often in the weekend-gobbling hockey world).

The Wyndmoor, PA native's senior season at Penn State wrapped up with a spot on the ECWHL's all-conference first team and Academic All-American honors. She set a new Lady Ice Lions record with five power play goals this past year and was eleventh in the ACHA in overall goal scoring by a blueliner.

The NWHL is set to begin the 2017-18 season in October, but without the well-known stars of the United States senior national team, which centralizes its ranks to train for a full year prior to each Olympic Games, in this case the 2018 event set for next February in PyeongChang, South Korea. It's a situation that Dunne and other free agents hope helps open the league's rosters up for fresh blood.

Meanwhile, the ACHA has developed a growing reputation among North America's two professional women's hockey leagues in recent years. In 2016-17, the CWHL featured Hayley Williams (Miami/Robert Morris) and Kristen Levesque (Rhode Island). Liberty's Sarah Stevenson was the 17th overall selection in the CWHL draft in 2015, the highest ever for an ACHA alumna, and played for the Toronto Furies during the 2015-16 season. While CWHL players don't draw a salary, the league does compensate some equipment and travel expenses and stands as a viable alternative for many top-end players, particularly Canadians.

Many ACHAers have also found traction playing professionally in Europe, including 2014 Massachusetts grads Chelsea and Raschelle Bräm, who have been with Switzerland's SC Reinach since college. Former Vermont player Emily Ford, whose career with the Catamounts ran from 2013 through 2016, skated with Austria's Neuberg Highlanders this past season.

Largely though, it's been the NWHL that's provided the ACHA with its biggest pro highlights. Williams played for the Buffalo Beauts in 2015-16 and was voted into the league's first all-star game, where she scored a goal. Paige Harrington, who spent her freshman year at Penn State as a Lady Icer in 2011-12 before transferring to UMass, has been with the Beauts for two seasons, helping the squad to the NWHL's Isobel Cup championship in March.

Penn State's history with pro hockey includes both Harrington and Andrea Lavelle, who suited up for the Beatrice Aeros of the old National Women's Hockey League (a forerunner of the CWHL and unrelated to the current NWHL) during the 2002-03 season following graduation and a PSU career highlighted by the 2001-02 Zoe M. Harris Award as the ACHA's player of the year. Others, including 2015 graduate Madison Smiddy and 2011 graduate Heather Rossi, have been invited to NWHL free agent camps but remained unsigned.

"We have had several players in the last few years earn opportunities in the NWHL or in Europe," Fung observed.

"But Cassie's story is a great one of just how far one can develop in a four-year college career if they're willing to commit and work for it."

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