Nine o'clock at night is when most people's days are winding down, but practice is just about to get started for the Boston Pride.
Although they play at Warrior Ice Arena in Brighton, the spacious, state-of-the art practice facility built for the Boston Bruins, the women's pro hockey team practices late at nights about a half-hour away in Braintree. That's when ice is available and, given players' jobs and lives outside of the team, when everyone can get together.
Forward and Harvard alumJillian Dempsey, who has been with the Pride for all five seasons of the team's existence, is used to the grind of teaching fifth-graders in her hometown of Winthrop by day and gearing up in a contact sport by night — which she admits with a chuckle is sometimes less difficult than dealing with 10-year-olds.
"Hockey is a job, but it's also what I love to do. It's my passion," she said. "It's something that at the end of the workday I can look forward to, being at the rink or being in the gym, training, doing the sport that I love."
Dempsey is one of the best players in the history of the Pride and the National Women's Hockey League. She's part of an organization that's heading into the post-season with a 23-1 record and aiming to raise the Isobel Cup, the NWHL's championship trophy, for a second time.
But the success of the Pride comes during one of the most pivotal seasons for not just the club, but also the league.
"I would say, for someone who's been in the league since day one, this is the best team that I've been a part of," said Kaleigh Fratkin, who's been with the Pride for three seasons and played college hockey at Boston University. "Off the ice, on the ice, kind of all the way through with everything that's going on, even the resources that we have. It's really made it a special year."
Fratkin has had stints with two other teams, but said this season has been different.
Before the first puck dropped, the team was purchased by a group led by Miles Arnone, a local investor, making the Pride the only team in the league that is currently privately owned, and only the second team to be privately owned in league history. All the other teams are currently owned by the league.
Arnone and his children had followed the Pride, and he's invested in Chipwich, an ice cream cookie sandwich company that partners with the league. That familiarity set him down the road to discussions about buying the team. He thought local ownership would raise the level of professionalism for the players and the team's engagement with the community.
"Tip O'Neill said all politics is local, right? And in some ways, that sort of premise applies to ownership of a business too," Arnone said. "If you're not on the ground every day in that same area working with the management group and the players and interacting directly with the fans, it's hard to do the best job you can do, right?"
Under Arnone, chairman of the ownership group, the team has secured better equipment, made better travel arrangements for its players, provided food after practices and other little things most other organizations take for granted.
"Those sort of things, while not in the net, you know, massively expensive, they show that we care about their performance and their happiness as players. And that comes through, I think, in their performance on the ice," he said.
The private ownership has also done big things like hire Hayley Moore, the former deputy commissioner of the league and former general manager for the Pride, as team president. She doesn't take the responsibility of being an example for the rest of the NWHL lightly.
"I think that [private ownership] is definitely the way in which the league hopes to continue to progress at the team level and to be able to sell off other teams," Moore said. "And really we take a lot of that on our shoulders to kind of create the blueprint and see what other teams are capable of by being privately owned."
During the off season, the league expanded the number of regular-season games from 16 to 24, started a deal with streaming service Twitch to show games online and reached a new collective bargaining agreement with the player's union that increased salaries and offered a 50-50 split of sponsor-related revenues.
But while significant changes were made, there was a point where the future of pro women's hockey in the U.S. and Canada was unclear.
Last March, the Canadian Women's Hockey League announced it would be shutting down completely.
About a month after that, more than 200 players announced they would sit out of any league in North America this season in protest of low wages and lack of resources. Some of those players formed the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), which has toured around the country hosting its own showcases.
Suddenly, the Boston Pride players' future in hockey seemed hazy.
"You know, there was a time at the beginning of the off-season where I didn't even know if I was going to be playing hockey," Fratkin recalled. "Just with kind of all the chatter and all the background noise that was happening. Talks of boycotting and whatever people were calling it."
"It was definitely a crazy time, and there was tremendous uncertainty," Dempsey recalled. "I didn't know what this season was going to look like, but it felt right in my gut to be playing in the NWHL and to continue with the Boston Pride and continue with this league."
Dempsey's attitude seems to be the prevalent among players.
It's also the mindset of Head Coach Paul Mara.
Mara, who played in 734 NHL games, said the team went after the players it wanted.
"Even if the boycott ended today, I think we're pretty satisfied with the team that we have here in Boston," Mara said. "The way our leadership in the locker room [is], the way our players interact, both on and off the ice, is second to none that I've seen in this game. So I think that we're pretty happy with what we have in here."
For Hayley Moore and the organization, the focus was going forward and advancing the game, despite the circumstances.
"And we've been able to prove that this season that we are growing, and that's momentum that we're looking to carry into the future," she said.
Looking at how the season has gone, Moore's words seem to ring true. Along with having the best team in the league, Boston hosted this season's All-Star weekend, which brought fans from across the NWHL to Warrior Ice Arena for a sold-out game featuring the league's best players.
Dempsey had her own squad for the game, Team Dempsey. Fratkin was on the opposing Team Packer, named in honor of Madison Packer of the Metropolitan Riveters in New Jersey.
"I remember at the end of the game ... we were losing, I think, four to two, and there was maybe a minute left or so and there was an empty net. We pulled our goalie and I blocked a shot and the crowd, like, erupted," Fratkin said. "I'm like, 'It's a 4-2 All-Star game, what are people erupting for?!' But it's just a testament to, I think, [not just] Boston sports fans, but women's hockey fans in general. There really is a fan base there."
That excitement was visible at the team's last home game of the regular season earlier this month, when the stands were packed and spectators in the sellout crowd lined the hand rails and concourse to get a spot to watch the action on the ice against the Connecticut Whale.
The Pride won 4-1 and finished the season with a four-game win streak and a spot already secured in the Isobel Cup Semifinal on March 8.
A deep roster has helped the team reach this level of success. But another key may be somewhat simple: chemistry.
"It feels like this group is excited to be here and coming to practice," Dempsey said. "And even though they're late night practices and everybody has a career, people are thrilled to be walking into the locker room and to be here. And having that energy and that enthusiasm and making the most of every skate together is something really important to building that on-ice chemistry as well."
The Isobel Cup is this team's ultimate goal in the immediate future. And while no one knows what the future holds, the NWHL seems steady at the moment. The league announced new funding in November. There's even whispers of expansion to Canada.
For Arnone, the objective is to eventually get to the point where NWHL players can commit to hockey full-time and earn a viable livelihood. He also hopes everyone gets on the same page when it comes to women's pro hockey.
"Look, I hope more than anything that we find a way to reconcile with the PWHPA players and unify everybody under the umbrella of a single league playing across North America in the U.S. and Canada," he said. "I can't guarantee that that will happen, but I like to think that as we continue to improve the league and show what, not just independent ownership, but the league's general progress is that we'll be able to build those bridges and reconcile."
The players of the Boston Pride and the NWHL have been through a lot in the past year. But despite any changes or what happens next, one thing remains true: The chance to keep playing the game is what makes the late night practices, the pressures of a boycott and the sacrifices of life in the NWHL worth it for Jillian Dempsey and her teammates.
"I think it's been definitely an interesting experience seeing the start of (the NWHL) and then some dips and then here we are now bouncing back, stronger than ever it seems," she said, "and I think it's on that push forward to continue to improving and progressing."