It took about 14 minutes for Blayre Turnbull to make Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) history.
The pre-season game between Toronto and Boston earlier this month didn’t count in the standings, but it felt like a milestone when Turnbull, the pride of Nova Scotia’s Pictou County, scored the first, second and third goals of the pre-season.
It marked the start of a new and exciting chapter in professional women’s hockey, and a new path for Turnbull, who’s spent her career with Canada’s national team in more of a defensive role.
“We’re all really excited and happy for this moment to finally be here,” Turnbull said after that first pre-season game.
Coverage of the first PWHL regular-season game on Jan. 1 at 12:30 p.m. ET (New York at Toronto) will be available on CBC Gem, cbcsports.ca, the CBC Sports app for iOS and Android devices, and CBC TV, beginning with a pre-game show at 12 p.m. ET.
Toronto will have no shortage of offensive weapons this season. The forward group will be led by Turnbull and Sarah Nurse, two of the first players Toronto signed, with quality depth to be found on the third and fourth lines.
The team will also have arguably the best defensive pair in the league in Jocelyne Larocque and Renata Fast, who continue their partnership on Toronto’s blue line after several years together on Team Canada.
Behind the bench, they’ve got a coach in Troy Ryan who has plenty of familiarity with a good chunk of his roster, ranging from the players he’s coached on Team Canada to fellow Nova Scotians Allie Munroe and Carly Jackson. Both played for Ryan almost a decade ago on Nova Scotia’s Canada Games team.
It all means a lot of players on the roster have familiarity with each other, too. That could give Toronto a slight edge at the beginning of the season, when teams across the league are still figuring out their chemistry.
Toronto seemed dominant at times over three pre-season games. But the team also let a couple games get away from them, including a blown 3-0 lead against Minnesota.
Physical and hard to play against
Asked to define his team’s identity, Ryan described a team that sounded more like the first version of Toronto that appeared during the pre-season, a squad that was physical and hard to play against.
“Physical, but honest,” the coach said. “We’re not looking to cheat anybody. We’re going to be an honest, hard-working team that I hope people coming into Toronto are going to know they’re going to get a tough game against us.”
It all starts with Nurse, a player who’s transcended the sport as one of the faces of women’s hockey.
WATCH | Nurse to lead Toronto on and off the ice:
She’s the type of player who can play anywhere in a lineup. But she elevated her game to a new level at the 2022 Olympics, where she set a record for number of points (18) scored in a single Olympic tournament, besting Hayley Wickenheiser’s 17 points from 2006.
Most importantly, she came up big when it mattered. She scored the opening goal against the Americans in the final, and assisted on the Marie-Philip Poulin goal that ultimately secured the Canadians the gold medal.
In April, with the prospect of an early exit on the line at the world championship, Nurse saved the Canadian team’s season with an overtime game-winner against Sweden in the quarterfinals.
“She’s constantly trying to improve and grow her game and she’s just a two-way, 200-foot, all those typical quotes you can give on players,” Ryan told CBC Sports during that tournament.
Off the ice, Nurse will undoubtedly be one of Toronto’s leaders. She was one of the players who negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the PWHL’s ownership group as a member of the players’ association’s executive.
Nurse looked great in the pre-season on a line with Turnbull and forward Victoria Bach, who was named to the team as a reserve. Bach is expected to miss the first month of the season as she finishes a teaching degree.
Defence to remain key part of Turnbull’s game
Turnbull will be expected to provide offence for the team, but don’t expect her to lose the defensive conscience that’s helped her carve out her place on Team Canada over the last few years.
She expects her offensive opportunities to flow from what she brings defensively.
WATCH | Turnbull scores hat trick for Toronto in first PWHL pre-season game:
“That’s part of my game that’s gotten me to this point in my career and it’s not going to change,” Turnbull said during the pre-season.
“Even though on this Toronto team I might not be the player that’s going out all the time to take the D-zone draws and whatnot, I think those important defensive moments and defensive plays are what will allow me to have offence in my game.”
Burlington, Ont.’s Emma Maltais enters her first professional season with her hometown team, even though it feels like she’s been around senior women’s hockey for a long time.
Maltais is already an Olympic gold medallist and two-time world champion with Team Canada, mostly adding energy in a bottom six role.
But that role with Canada has been growing. She spent some time higher in the lineup during Rivalry Series games this year.
Maltais is turning pro after a collegiate career with the Ohio State University that saw her named a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the top female college hockey player, twice. She also owns the Buckeyes’ all-time record for points (206 in 169 games).
You can expect offence from Maltais, but she’s also not fun to play against, playing a lot bigger than her five-foot-three height might suggest.
Players who could see time in Toronto’s top six include veteran Rebecca Leslie, who scored three goals in three games, U.S. Olympian Jesse Compher, and Brittany Howard, whose rocket of a shot earned her a consistent spot on Toronto’s first power play unit.
“Her shot is incredible, so just trying to get her in a position where she can free up that shot a little bit,” Ryan said of Howard’s placement on the power play.
Howard finished top-five in Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) scoring last season with the Toronto Six, and was a big part of the team’s Isobel Cup-winning campaign.
Capping off the list is Team Canada stalwart Natalie Spooner, the type of player any team would love to be able plunk in front of the opposing team’s net. She’ll also add more veteran leadership to Toronto’s dressing room.
Spooner played in one pre-season game for Toronto as she continues to work her way back to full strength. She gave birth to her son, Rory, last December.
One last player to watch is Hannah Miller, who played primarily in China over the last few years. Fast mentioned Miller as someone who could be the most underrated going into the first season, having not played in North America for a few years.
“She’s just such a strong player and has incredible vision and passing skills,” Fast said.
A top defensive pair
On the back end, Toronto is led by Fast and Larocque, two hard-to-play against defensive defenders.
“You look at what they’ve done for the national team together for so long and then for them to be able to continue that and create more chemistry here in the PWHL, it’s just going to make them better and better,” Turnbull said of the two.
WATCH | Fast shares heartfelt story of meeting Larocque:
But the defender who stood out most in pre-season may have been Kali Flanagan. Ryan gave the 2018 Olympic gold medallist consistent time on the team’s number one power play unit, saying he was pleasantly surprised by what she could bring offensively.
Joining them in the top four is Munroe, whose career went through Sweden before she reached the PHF’s Connecticut Whale. Ryan knows he’s getting consistency with Munroe, who was his captain at the Canada Games years back.
In net, Toronto is banking on Kristen Campbell as its number one. Campbell has been Canada’s third-string goaltender for the last couple of years. That, combined with a pandemic that began just as she finished her last year of college, has led to minimal starts for Campbell over the last few years.
Toronto opted to start her in two out of three pre-season games.
“We felt that with the short window here prior to the season starting, the fact that there hasn’t been a whole lot of games or meaningful games in the last four years for our athletes, it was important that we gave the net to our number one and number two, and gave them some experience and some confidence moving into this season,” GM Gina Kingsbury said earlier this month.
Backing Campbell up is a veteran in Erica Howe, who has nine professional seasons on her resume and knows what it takes to win a pro championship. She won the Clarkson Cup with the Markham Thunder of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) in 2018 along with Larocque.
Toronto’s third goaltender, Jackson, also brings championship pedigree as Howard’s teammate and the backup goaltender with the Isobel Cup-winning Six last year.
Toronto will host New York on Jan. 1 in the first-ever PWHL regular season game.
Full Toronto roster
#10 Alexa Vasko (St. Catharines, Ont.)
#17 Samantha Cogan (Ottawa, Ont.)
#18 Jesse Compher (Northbrook, Ill.)
#19 Rebecca Leslie (Ottawa, Ont.)
#20 Sarah Nurse (Hamilton, Ont.)
#22 Maggie Connors (St. John’s, N.L.)
#23 Jess Jones (Picton, Ont.)
#24 Natalie Spooner (Scarborough, Ont.)
#27 Emma Maltais (Burlington, Ont.)
#28 Kaitlin Willoughby (Prince Albert, Sask.)
#34 Hannah Miller (Vancouver, B.C.)
#40 Blayre Turnbull (Stellarton, N.S.)
#41 Brittany Howard (St. Thomas, Ont.)
#3 Jocelyne Larocque (Ste. Anne, Man.)
#5 Lauriane Rougeau (Beaconsfield, Que.)
#6 Kali Flanagan (Burlington, Mass.)
#7 Olivia Knowles (Campbell River, B.C.)
#12 Allie Munroe (Yarmouth, N.S.)
#14 Renata Fast (Burlington, Ont.)
#76 Maude Poulin-Labelle (Sherbrooke, Que.)
#37 Erica Howe (Orleans, Ont.)
#50 Kristen Campbell (Brandon, Man.)
#70 Carly Jackson (Amherst, N.S.)
Victoria Bach, F (Milton, Ont.)
Emma Keenan, F (Calgary, Alta.)
Jessica Kondas, F (Calgary, Alta.)