Team Toronto of the PWHL opens the season on New Year's Day. Let's get to know everyone.
GM: Gina Kingsbury
Kingsbury, a former player from the era of leagues that came and went like summer flowers, comes to Toronto from Team Canada. Her draft record shows she knows Team Canada, but will look outside that comfort zone for players.
Head Coach: Troy Ryan
Kingsbury did not go far to find the coach, plucking Troy Ryan right off the Team Canada Women's bench and setting him down at the draft table to construct their team. They did this all on live TV, and they looked extremely collaborative to me.
Manager of Hockey Operations: Tuula Puputti
Puputti is a former goalie with Team Finland and was the GM of the women's national team of Finland for a decade before joining the PWHL.
Assistant Coach: Rachel Flanagan
Flanagan has been the head coach at the University of Guelph women's team since 2007.
Assistant Coach (skills): Mike Ellis
Ellis had been a men's coach for years in Europe before he became a skills consultant to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He left for the Lightning in 2019-2020, but he returns to Toronto for his first job in women's hockey (as far as his Elite Prospects history shows).
Assistant Coach (video): Stefanie Thompson
Thompson has been the video coach for Team Canada's U18 women's team.
Head Therapist (Karyn Fanstone)
Fanstone has been with the U18 women's team as well and was with the Marlies last year.
Strength and Condition Coach: Jeremy Steinbach
Steinbach has worked with Team Canada Women at the Olympics and Worlds.
One of the interesting things about this league is that the stars we know best, who fill the top 12 players of Team Canada and Team USA as well as the top European and Asian players, will be spread out over six teams. Watchers of Worlds and the Olympics will be confronted with players they've never seen in prominent roles. National team depth players will be up two or three lines on pro teams.
We're used to seeing the concentration of talent in men's hockey when the NHL players form up national teams. This is the reverse, and it will give opportunities to new players to become our favourites, but we're all going to start out a little in the dark on some players' true abilities. I promise you, I'm in the dark on a large portion of this Toronto team, and learning about them is going to be a big part of the fun.
Toronto has 23 rostered players, but Victoria Bach will join the team late due to educational priorities. Toronto is also the most heavily Canadian team by nationality, although many players have come through the NCAA or American PHF teams.
From the net out...
- Kristen Campbell
- Erica Howe
- Carly Jackson
Campbell is the starter, and has been with Team Canada. Howe and Jackson are from the PWHPA and PHF respectively.
Top defender Jocelynne Larocque plays a traditional shutdown style. She's there to clear the crease and prevent zone entries.
Renata Fast is, well, fast! She's more of a puck-mover and offensive threat.
Both Fast and Larocque are Team Canada veterans as is Lauriane Rougeau.
The rest of the crew are younger, NCAA and PHF players with a few seasons in the Swedish league sprinkled in:
- Olivia Knowles
- Kali Flanagan
- Emma Keenan
- Jessica Kondas
- Maude Poulin-Labelle
The big names are:
- Sarah Nurse
- Blayre Turnbull
- Emma Maltais
- Natalie Spooner
- Jesse Compher
The first four are Team Canada, Compher is Team USA.
Emma Maltais is the shortest, fourth youngest and biggest physical agitator Toronto has. She will get under everyone's skin, and she's got scoring talent too. She is my second favourite after Nurse and could teach a class on playing while short. (She's the eighth biggest by weight, and is made of rock near as I can tell.)
Maggie Connors, a recent NCAA graduate would like to crack that list and have everyone know her name.
Hannah Miller has played for years in China, first in the CWHL and then the Russian women's league as the team moved after the CWHL folded.
Jess Jones is a veteran of the CWHL, a contemporary of Spooner, but never in the national team's sights.
Kaitlin Willoughby, a contemporary of Nurse, got to play one CWHL season before it folded. Brittany Howard can tell the same story, she moved from the NCAA to the Furies and beyond last season with the Six, that was it for league play. Rebecca Leslie had one year with the Inferno before it all fell apart. Samantha Cogan has a similar story, as does Victoria Bach, however she had national team play as well.
Alexa Vasko was born in the magic year for women's hockey: 1999. Like several others on Team Toronto, they graduated out of NCAA hockey and have walked right into a pro league. Some of them played a single season doing touring exhibition games with the PWHPA, but they arrived at a time where the aspirations were going to come true.
Kingsbury and Ryan picked quite a few players in their 30s for this team, but they also picked seven players born in 1999 and 2000. The bulk of the workload is going to be taken up by the players in between. Oh, and the oldest player on the team, Larocque.
For the in-between aged players, those Sarah Nurse's age not the veterans, they've spent years since 2019 trying to find some way to keep playing through years where the aspirations of a pro league weren't a sure thing. Those players are the hardest to have a handle on if they weren't national team stars like Nurse.
There was some unhappiness, borne of unreasonable expectations, about how Toronto drafted and signed players. They didn't get a star goalie or this or that star forward and they didn't just draft someone out from under another team. Most if not all of the players wished for weren't attainable.
Team Toronto had a very interesting and unusual challenge at the draft. They knew Montréal and Minnesota each had a pool of players that were going to need to play for their teams due to outside concerns like families and second jobs. They knew that meant those two teams could load up on scoring skill.
Boston was getting Hilary Knight and Hannah Brandt, Ottawa, Emerance Maschmeyer.
Toronto had Larocque, Nurse and Turnbull and then had to wonder what kind of team they should be, and what kind they could be.
I think they chose to be a counterpunching team because it was a path that was open. They're feisty, big – Montréal is zippy, small and skilled. Toronto has some pesky players, tough players, physical players – Nurse is one of the most aggressive players at using the body effectively. I think they're going to be, with Boston, two very annoying teams to play against, while Montréal and Minnesota try to wow with sick hands and agile feet.
I will mention here that something that's flown under the radar a little is that women's hockey is changing its approach to body checking and how it enforces rules. Gone are the days of every incidental contact drawing a whistle. We've also moved on from the stage where scrums along the boards ended up with someone getting a penalty because the referees thought they had to do it that way.
The referees in the PWHL games this season will come partly from the AHL, ECHL and junior hockey leagues, and they will not be indoctrinated in the old ways of viewing physicality in the women's game. They will, as one report from the training camp scrimmages in Utica had it, let them play. This is going to favour Toronto a very great deal.
Ottawa is harder to judge on style – they're young, international and are coached by the woman who made Czechia into medalists. They'll be fast and unselfish.
New York is also hard to judge, but they have the hot young goalie in Abbey Levy, so they were building out from that.
We'll see how Toronto's strategy works, but if you made me guess, I'd say Minnesota is going to kick ass and decline to bother to take names. The rest of the teams will sort themselves out from there.
We'll see what happens.
For information on streaming and broadcast options, we'll have previews of games up for you. You're covered wherever you live, though.