SHOWTIME! Dunne Signs Pro Deal With NWHL's Connecticut Whale

Cassie Dunne's appearance at a May NWHL free agent camp in Marlborough helped eventually land a contract

Lady Ice Lions graduate Cassie Dunne has signed a professional contract with the Connecticut Whale of the National Women's Hockey League for the 2017-18 season, the team and league announced on Thursday.

The deal, like all NWHL contracts, is for one season. Financial terms were not disclosed, as is also the case across the league.

"I am ecstatic to join the Whale for the 2017-18 season!" Dunne exclaimed. "This league gives me the chance to continue my passion while also providing me with the opportunity to be a part of something bigger - an organization that is committed to growing the game. This has always been important to me and I'm excited that I will be able to be a player in that growth and movement."

"I'm thrilled for Cassie," Penn State head coach Patrick Fung added. "She has worked extremely hard over her four years to get to this point. She's made incredible improvements each year, from being an undersized freshman out of Tier 2, to a seamless jump to ACHA Division 1, to captaining the national university team to a bronze medal in Kazakhstan."

"All of it comes from extreme drive, sweat and sometimes tears."

It's no exaggeration to rank Dunne's collegiate career among the finest in team history. The Wyndmoor, PA native arrived from the Princeton Tiger Lilies in 2013-14, and immediately added a new dimension to the team's defense group while helping the Lady Ice Lions to the 2014 ACHA Division 2 national championship game. PSU had a national-best 1.20 team goals against average despite playing nine games against the division's highest-scoring team (California) or against a past or future Zoe M. Harris Award winner (West Chester's Becky Dobson and North Dakota State's Kacie Johnson).

The team jumped to ACHA Division 1 during Dunne's sophomore year but didn't miss a beat in qualifying for the ACHA National Tournament, despite the uptick in competition.

She saved her best for last though, finishing second on Penn State in goal scoring as a senior, while setting program records in power play goals for both a single season and a career. Dunne, who was the club president and an alternate captain in 2016-17, earned ACHA Academic All-American status and ECWHL First Team All-Conference honors to cap the season, and was a finalist for ACHA All-American selection.

Even with all of that, her crowning achievement came in February, when she captained the U.S. National University Team to a bronze medal at the World University Games in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Despite entering the December, 2016 Team USA selection camp as a relative unknown, she quickly became a central part of the historic squad and earned the trust of the coaching staff, including head coach, former NWHL bench boss, and U.S. Olympic legend Shelley Looney.

Her well-known calling cards are speed and puck-moving ability with a nasty edge, but she's also demonstrated underrated abilities to fit just about anywhere in the lineup (she logged increasing numbers of shifts at forward as her career progressed), in just about any game situation (she specialized as a penalty killer on Team USA in addition to her power play exploits back home), and with just about any type of defense partner, from the very similar (Michigan State's Kelsey Jaeckle at World University Games) to the vastly different (Kim Badorrek '15, earlier in her career).

Dunne wrapped up her Penn State career this past spring as one of the team's most successful players ever

"There have been good days and bad ones, and it's been a pleasure watching Cassie grow as a hockey player, and more importantly as a person," Fung said. "Now it's time for her to get to work once again and make the most of this opportunity she's been blessed with. I can't wait to see this next chapter."

Dunne joins a Whale squad that has occasionally looked like one of the league's stronger teams over its first two seasons, but has also occasionally looked like the opposite. In 2015-16, Connecticut finished in second place with a 13-5-0 record but lost to the Buffalo Beauts in the league semifinals. Then, last year, the Whale finished 5-12-1 - winning just once in their last ten games after a 4-4-0 start - and ended up with another playoff semifinal loss, this time to the Boston Pride.

Ryan Equale, a player at the University of Connecticut in the 1990s who has spent most of his time since coaching youth hockey in the Nutmeg State, was named the Whale's third head coach in late June. With Equale's arrival well after the beginning of the NWHL's summer free agency period on May 1st, he needed to get up to speed quickly. One source of information was Hayley Moore, the Pride's former general manager and now the NWHL's deputy commissioner, who saw Dunne skate at the league's free agent camp in Marlborough, MA in May and recommended her to Equale.

Moore, incidentally and to bring the story full circle, played collegiately at Brown, where she was a teammate of Lady Ice Lion alumna and 2013-14 Dunne PSU teammate Elizabeth Denis from 2006 through 2008.

"It's been a long waiting game since I attended the NWHL Free Agent Camp in May and I can't express how excited I am that the wait is over," Dunne said. "I am raring to get started!"

This summer, without much fanfare, the Whale has assembled a very solid roster in line with Equale's stated goals of strong leadership and unity. They may have the NWHL's best goaltender in Sydney Rossman, a 2016 draft pick of the team who posted a 1.16 goals against average and a 0.938 save percentage in four years at Quinnipiac University. Rossman's college-turned-pro teammate, Kelly Babstock, is entering her third season with Connecticut and has averaged more than one point per game during her pro career so far.

Most of a stout blueline is back, including Sam Faber, Shannon Doyle and Cydney Roesler, while Anya Battaglino (one of the NWHL's most visible figures as head of the NWHL Players' Association) plays both forward and defense. Prior to Dunne, one the Whale's more recent signings was another player with ACHA connections: forward Stephanie Mock, who played NCAA hockey at Yale, but then moved to St. Louis following her 2015 graduation and became an assistant coach for Lindenwood-Belleville, which qualified for the ACHA National Tournament in both 2016 and 2017.

Dunne sees plenty of capability in her new teammates, which helped her decision to sign with the Whale.

"I can't wait to get to Connecticut and get to work with my teammates," she said. "After speaking with Coach Equale I think we will have a great locker room with a lot of potential, and the Whale has the ability to make huge strides this season."

"The sky's the limit and I'm ready to work for it!"

Dunne is the fourth women's player to play professionally after skating for Team USA at World University Games

The 2017-18 NWHL season gets underway on October 28th when the Whale hosts defending Isobel Cup champion Buffalo, and runs through March. One notable game on the team's schedule takes place on January 14th, again versus the Beauts, but played at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township, PA, in what is now a Keystone State return for Dunne.

Penn State has been the ACHA's queen when it comes to placing players in the various North American women's professional leagues over the years. Andrea Lavelle, a 2002 PSU graduate, played for the Beatrice Aeros of the now-defunct National Women's Hockey League (unrelated to the current NWHL) during the 2002-03 season - the first known ACHA alumna to play professionally. Paige Harrington, set to begin her third NWHL season and first with the Boston Pride, played for the Lady Icers in 2011-12 before transferring to Massachusetts. With Dunne now added to the list, three former Penn State ACHA players have played in an incarnation of the NWHL or in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, while no other school can claim more than one player.

"This should show all players that opportunities and moments are there regardless of timing, stature, or whether you feel it's fair," Fung observed. "Commit and prepare yourself to earn it in those moments regardless."

Elsewhere, UMass has Harrington, of course, while Rhode Island graduate Kristen Levesque played for the CWHL's Boston Blades in 2016-17 and Lindenwood legend Kat Hannah (currently Lindenwood-Belleville's head coach) joined Lavelle in the original NWHL, with the Ottawa Raiders. Liberty's Sarah Stevenson was with the CWHL's Toronto Furies in 2015-16 and Hayley Williams, who attended both Miami and Robert Morris, played for the Buffalo Beauts in 2015-16 and the CWHL's Brampton Thunder in 2016-17.

Dunne, for her part, also considered the CWHL a viable option. She was drafted by the Boston Blades this past Sunday, and had tentatively scheduled a September tryout with the team. However, when weighing the certainty of an NWHL contract against the uncertainly involved with needing to try out in the CWHL, the decision to accept an NWHL deal if one was offered became evident.

Be sure to follow the next leg of Dunne's hockey career through the Whale's Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, as well as through the NWHL's website.

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