PWHL Ottawa left Upstate New York as the only team without a win after three pre-season games.
But head coach Carla MacLeod headed back to Canada proud of her team, more focused on the improvements they made than the story the scoreboard told.
“It’s been a great week for us,” she said after the team’s final pre-season game, a 3-1 loss to Boston.
“Our whole intention was always focusing on us and what we’re doing and trying to get better every day.”
Since MacLeod and GM Mike Hirshfeld started building the Ottawa team in September, they’ve been focused on creating culture first. They’ve looked for people who are good teammates, with grit and hard work key parts of the team’s identity.
It’s one of the reasons why the team went into training camp with the majority of its roster signed to contracts, and why Ottawa didn’t pick anyone up off waivers.
“To bring someone in from the outside that we’re not as clear on and we don’t have as much of an understanding of, I think just wasn’t a risk that we were willing to take at this point,” Hirshfeld said.
At the team’s first on-ice session at TD Place last month, MacLeod wanted to focus more on having fun and getting the team comfortable with one another. She felt on-ice chemistry will build naturally from that comfort.
“It’s a different approach but I think it’s an amazing one,” said forward Emily Clark.
“You build the foundation off the ice and I think there’s no cap to what we can do on the ice if you have a good foundation. It just comes down to being great teammates and what we want that to look like every day, what we want the energy to be like at the rink every day.”
Ottawa may not have a household name like Marie-Philip Poulin or Hilary Knight on the roster, but it’s filled with players poised for breakout seasons, who may find themselves playing bigger roles than they’ve gotten the opportunity to play before.
Forward corps led by Jenner
That roster begins with forward Brianne Jenner, who was one of Ottawa’s marquee free agent signings, along with Clark and goalie Emerance Maschmeyer.
It’s not clear whether Ottawa will name a captain in its first season, but it would be a surprise if it wasn’t 32-year-old Jenner, who’s got one of the most impressive resumes in women’s hockey.
Ottawa defender Jincy Roese has played against Jenner for years, but after a few weeks of watching her at practice, Roese has a whole new appreciation for her game.
“I would love to have her leadership and how she can just finish on the puck,” Roese said. “She’s unreal at that.”
Joining her up front is Clark, a player who Jenner once described as the heartbeat of Team Canada.
Clark’s often doing the dirty work on the national team, playing more of a grinding role rather than a skilled one.
But a number of PWHL players described her as the most underrated player in the league, praising her ability to play any role on any line.
A sign of things to come might be Clark’s production last season on the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) circuit, where Clark found herself getting big minutes with Team Harvey’s. She finished second among players with 23 points in 20 games, trailing only Poulin.
“This year in the PWHL, you’re going to see a lot more offence from (Clark) and people will start understanding why the people who have played with her for so long have so much respect for the type of game she plays,” Toronto forward Blayre Turnbull said.
Grit and goals
Forward Hayley Scamurra is a hard-to-play-against power forward, someone who’s given players on Team Canada a headache over the years primarily on USA’s bottom six.
But she has more skill than she’s been able to showcase with the American team, according to Roese, who described her as someone who always emerges with the puck on her stick.
Forward Gabbie Hughes will make her professional hockey debut this season with Ottawa, after spending the last five years leaving her mark in the University of Minnesota Duluth’s record books.
She spent most of that time centreing the team’s first line, a tall task in a tough college conference, according to her coach at Minnesota Duluth, Maura Crowell. By her fourth season, she was a top-three finalist for the Patty Kazmaier award for the best female college hockey player, losing out to future PWHL first overall pick, Taylor Heise.
“Her edges are fantastic,” Crowell said. “You talk about goal scoring and just being a feisty player on the ice, she’s got all of that.”
Players to watch
Former Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) MVP Mikyla Grant-Mentis was disappointed to not hear her name called in this year’s PWHL draft, but was happy when it meant she got to pick her destination.
Expect her to score goals this season, but Hirshfeld saw more to her game than that during the pre-season.
“We wanted to see her compete, which she did great,” the GM said. “She really worked hard on her backchecking and defensive side of the game in Utica.”
Another player who earned her spot on the team via training camp is Akane Shiga, who will be the only player in the PWHL this season from Japan.
It will be Shiga’s first time playing professionally in North America, learning new teammates, a new city and a new language all at once. Ottawa has a translator who’s with her about 95 per cent of the time.
Hirshfeld said the team has “adopted her with open arms and made her feel welcome.”
Shiga will also be the youngest player in the PWHL this season, at only 22 years old. The GM sees her ceiling as high, especially now that she’ll face elite talent regularly. Her skating and hockey IQ are among her top attributes.
One last forward to watch might be Daryl Watts, a former Patty Kazmaier winner who ended her hockey career early, feeling it wasn’t a viable career path. She came out of retirement to join the PHF’s Toronto Six last season, but had some catching up to do after spending so much time away from hockey.
She spent this off-season training with former NHLer Gary Roberts, according to the Canadian Press, and could have more to show with a longer-than-usual off-season under her belt.
Ottawa was the only team to use its first three draft picks on defenders, and the team’s GM felt their skating and play stood out in pre-season.
With the fifth overall pick, they chose Savannah Harmon, a player who worked her way on to Team USA’s radar after winning two NCAA titles with Clarkson University.
When Harmon’s three-year contract was announced, Hirshfeld praised her leadership skills and described her as a complete player. She was a nominee for defender of the year with the PWHPA last season.
Crowell, who coached Bell alongside Hughes with Minnesota Duluth, said she might be one of the best skating defenders out there.
“With that background as a forward, she’s very comfortable getting up into the offence and creating, whether it’s from the blue line or activating on rush plays and different things like that,” Crowell said.
Hirshfeld selected Roese in the third round, and she stood out on both sides of the puck in pre-season action.
“She’s definitely part of our leadership team,” Hirshfeld said. “You really see her acting as a mentor to some of the younger players.”
Rounding out the top four is Czech national team captain Aneta Tejralová, a strong skater who loves blocking shots.
Maschmeyer to get starting opportunity
In net, Ottawa is led by Maschmeyer, who learned the game while facing countless shots from her siblings on the family farm in Bruderheim, Alta.
Maschmeyer has long been Ann-Renée Desbiens’ backup on the national team, but will get the opportunity to be the starter in Ottawa. She stopped all but one shot that came her way during regulation in her pre-season start against New York.
“She made some saves that were just kind of mind-boggling,” Watts said.
She’ll be joined by German national team goalie Sandra Abstreiter, who will make her professional debut after playing at Providence College, and Rachel McQuigge, who has eight professional starts under her belt last season with the PHF’s Metropolitan Riveters.
McQuigge looked a bit sharper in her pre-season start, keeping a stacked Boston team to three goals with many big players out of the Ottawa lineup. But both goalies, at 25, have lots of room to grow.
Ottawa will open its season on Jan. 2 at home against Montreal.