When the Toronto Furies announced this week that two players were retiring ahead of the 2016-17 season, it came as a bit of a surprise. As it turns out, this was not necessarily the plan all along.
Forward Alyssa Baldin and defenseman Michelle Bonello departed from the CWHL on Wednesday after three and five seasons in the league, respectively. The Furies announced what the retired players' plans were for post-hockey careers.
.@mbonello4 moves on from leading the Furies to reach her dreams of becoming a fire fighter.— Toronto Furies (@TorontoCWHL) October 6, 2016
Bonello, 31, was the captain before Natalie Spooner was named as her replacement. Both Bonello and Baldin were a part of Toronto's 2014 Clarkson Cup championship team.
Baldin, 26, finished third in team scoring last year, and will leave a hole in the team's offense. Bonello is one of the few CWHL players to have played in both of the league's all-star games.
It is not clear whether the two missed the cut or chose to leave the game on their own. Furies' GM Rebecca Michael was not immediately available for comment.
Either way, Bonello and Baldin's retirement highlights the blunt reality of women's professional hockey.
"I didn't want to quit," said Bonello, as the pair carpooled to coach a girls' hockey practice in Oakville. "That's why we were at tryouts, trying to make things work. When it came down to it, I had to pick one [career] over the other, which wasn't easy. I didn't want to stop. I'll get my life in order and go from there."
The Furies announced their final roster on Thursday, the day after the pair's retirement. Ten new faces made the team after 36 players were invited to camp. Making space even harder to fight for was the fact that 81 players registered for the 2016 draft, the most since 2011. The Furies' top two picks -- defensemen Erin Ambrose and Renata Fast -- both made the team.
"At tryouts, I was very impressed," said Bonello. "They have a lot of talent coming in. I'm kinda jealous I won't be able to play with them but I wish them the best of luck. I think they're in good hands.
"It was hard [to retire] because they're pretty much my second family. For a couple of days, going to tryouts having decided I was going to retire, I was practicing the speech in my head, saying 'I got this, I got this.' The second I opened my mouth to talk to the girls I just started crying. It's been my passion all my life and I wish I could play and make a career out of it but it's hard doing both right now."
Baldin let Bonello do most of the talking.
"We told them at the same time and it was very emotional," said Baldin.
Their announcement comes a few months after another veteran, Kori Cheverie, retired to become the first female member of a CIS men's hockey coaching staff with the Ryerson Rams.
CWHL players are not yet paid a salary, despite the steps the league has made toward finding more exposure. When asked if a salary would have changed their minds about letting go of the game, the former Furies' answers were less than straightforward.
"Yes and no," said Bonello. "Getting paid to play -- like in the NWHL -- that only lasts so long. For me, becoming a firefighter is a career. You're not going to be making millions like in the NHL. We could have easily gone to the NWHL but I think the CWHL is taking the right steps to be able to pay their players. Instead of rushing to pay their players, they know it's a slow process and they're moving in the right direction."
Baldin's retirement decision was weighed heavily by the fact that she loves to coach girls minor hockey, and too often her Furies commitments clashed with those of the team's she coaches. She is also pursuing a masters in education and hopes to find work in the competitive field of teaching.
"I coach Peewee AA girls right now, with Appleby College, and I'm hoping to help out with the Oakville Junior Hornets," she said. "I decided that's my passion in life right now. It's been hard to miss games, especially my Peewee team's games which I missed quite a few of last year. It kinda just breaks your heart a little because you want to be there and they want you to be there. I wanted to be able to be there for my girls and be as committed as they are to the whole game.
“One of the major reasons I wanted to [continue playing] was the fact that, even though I was missing my girls' games, they love coming to the rink and watching our team and their coach play," said Baldin. "I love being able to show them that I play at this level of hockey, one that they can aspire to."
As with all hockey players, the two will miss the little things in the game that some may take for granted. "Walking into a restaurant with 30 girls and seeing the look on the waitress's face," was one of those things Bonello recalled.
Bonello's departure did not come when she would have liked it to, but she looks forward to hopefully finding work in firefighting -- her other passion.