A few weeks ago, The Ice Garden “sat down” with four PWHPA players with different professional backgrounds from different training regions. We asked all four players the same questions about the first season of the PWHPA to help paint a picture about what the collective experience was like for players in 2019-20.
That experience is likely to change for the 2020-21 with the reduction in chapter regions and each region’s training hub having a cap of 25 players. These changes were made to provide players with a more professional training environment. But, before we get too wrapped up thinking about season two, let’s hear from the players about what it was like to be in the PWHPA in season one.
What area do you think the PWHPA was most successful in this season?
Melanie Desrochers, Montreal: I think the Toronto showcases were awesome, especially the first one with having such little time to prepare. That was where I felt we had the most success. I didn’t play in Chicago, but from my perspective I think it’s nice that it was supported with some NHL backing so I think that’s a successful point.
Personally just from playing I think Toronto was really good. There was a lot of games in the second showcase in Toronto with six teams. Every game had a good showing of fans.
As far as training regions, it’s hard for me to speak to others, but I think Montreal did it quite well for us. It was an easy transition. A majority of us have played the CW before so we had our similar practice time and stuff which didn’t really change. We have a good volunteer base there that stuck with us. We had access to physical therapists and more, like the equipment manager.
Jacquie Greco, Buffalo: I thought they did a really good job with the showcases and attracting really good sponsors for each individual one as well as the whole associations’ sponsorships. I thought they got really good companies to back them both in the US and Canada and show that a lot of these companies are willing to support women’s hockey and willing to support all these ladies. I thought that was a huge thing for us and it really actually shocked me every single time they that we got a new sponsor. I was really impressed.
Hanna Bunton, Calgary: I think their inclusivity was probably where they were the most successful. It all happened really fast and they were able to get a really good handful of women’s players, not only in Canada in the US but around the world to be part of the movement. They were successful in making it happen so fast, and coming up with a pretty good year based on the timeline.
Katelyn Rae, Toronto: I think getting the game out to different places like Arizona, places that don’t really have women’s program which is nice so all the little girls can see that. Even the Toronto showcases, there’s a big showing of little young girls, which was kind of the focus of the PWHPA in some aspects, just getting more visibility for the young girls to see that they can play professional. But also, I think they did make a good impact in trying to make a professional-quality league through sponsorships and all that. So, I think just giving the visibility to the young girls and also working on the business side of things were both successful.
What was the biggest challenge you think the PWHPA faced this season?
Desrochers: Time, I think that was the biggest challenge. We had such little time to like get things prepared. With this coming year, I’m so excited. COVID-19 is going to change a lot of things, but we would have had a lot more time to prepare, and just make everything that much better. So I think the biggest challenge was really time - not having time to find ice time or to find adequate facilities that can house that many girls. Its not just about ice time but its hotels, travel, and a lot of it.
I was definitely impressed with what was done and the efforts that everyone put in to get it done. I think as a member and I could assume that a lot of my counterparts would agrees, we have to be patient too. But I think everyone has understanding that it was going to be something worth doing, so we just had to be a little bit more flexible.
Greco: I would probably say the consistency of amount of games. The regions are so spread out that Calgary couldn’t play Boston every other weekend; it wasn’t logical. Having the showcases was really nice because they brought all those regions together. Girls were able to play each other from other regions and also play with girls from other regions. Sometimes the Montreal girls stayed with the Montreal girls but a lot of times other girls were mixed in with different regions, and I thought that was really cool.
But I think having more showcases and more games definitely would have been more helpful. I think they knew that going in and I know they tried to get as many games as possible and as many showcases as possible. The ones we did have were really great and the cities they picked were amazing.
Bunton: Going from pretty much all the players playing in a league — whether it was people graduating from the NCAA, people playing in the CWHL, whatever it was the year before where they were playing — you kind of have that end goal of an elite championship or you’re playing with the same team all year.
So I think the PWHPA this year was obviously different in that sense you were playing on different teams with different players when you went to showcase. I think it was just an adjustment period for everyone. We’re so used to being part of a team. Growing up playing minor hockey and then going away to school wherever we went and being part of a league and kind of playing for that bigger purpose at the end and I think that was probably a challenge that everyone faces.
Rae: One of the big things I think was timing. It didn’t really give a lot of time to create a plan for the season, but I think for the time they did have, they came up with a good schedule. In Toronto, we had a bunch of inter squad games which was very helpful. That was a big hurdle, just getting ice, all that stuff that most organizations already have at that point.
And, also getting the college players into it because we had already started talks with other teams, so trying to get the new grads like myself into it. I know we were talking to Kacey Bellamy just because she was our old assistant, so it was very like it was rushed but it was needed to be.
What was the biggest adjustment for you playing under the PWHPA structure compared to a typical league structure?
Desrochers: It was definitely an adjustment, especially not having regular games, because not everyone could attend every showcase. I think it’s totally understandable with such short notice between the league folding and starting the PWHPA, and logistically I can imagine it was a nightmare. So, I think like the biggest adjustment was more like a mental adjustment, knowing that you’re probably going to play fewer games.
But I think personally my motivation, my values, my vision of where I want to see professional women’s hockey at aligned with the PWHPA. I accepted the fact that I was probably going to play fewer games. But the quality of play didn’t change. For me personally each game was super intense. The skills was there. It got a little bit even harder and more challenging because you’re kind of concentrating the talent within each game.
I think the amount of times you played was definitely an adjustment, but I think there was just this whole other flavor to the year. Because we didn’t have a season and a cup to go for and you were playing with different people you hadn’t always played because they kind of mixed up the teams, I think the whole sport moved as one which was kind of nice. People you’ve played against possibly your entire CWHL career or wherever you played before, these have been your opponent for a long time and now you’re playing alongside them. I think it was kind of nice. The unification and moving forward for a common goal was kind of another adjustment but it was a positive one.
Greco: The Buffalo region was a little smaller; we had seven girls that lived in the area. So we would be on ice together twice a week. But, you can only do so much with seven girls. You can’t run a full practice. The biggest thing with this season was all of our ice times were basically skills skates, which isn’t a bad thing because sometimes in practice you don’t focus on those things. But that was definitely the biggest difference was not having like team practices regularly. It was pretty much one-on-one with a skills coach, honing down those skills.
Bunton: I think it all happened really fast and every region tried the best to make the most of the situation. So with that being said, obviously, there were some challenges, you’d have to carry your bags in and out of the rink, your practice times aren’t at the ideal times or at the ideal location. So I think that was probably one of the biggest challenges. The numbers being different too. You have National Team players being away for different camps. I think that was probably the biggest challenge.
Rae: I think maintaining workouts. I would try to go three or four times a week, whereas at school it’s all scheduled for you, so just trying to find time to work out while working. And then, even ice time like you’re obviously getting less ice time just because of people’s work schedule, and at college you’re on the ice pretty much every day. There’s a little bit of adjustment that way and making your time on the ice count.
What did this year mean to you?
Desrochers: I felt inspired. When the CWHL folded, personally, I was a little bit devastated. Not so much for myself because I work full time and every year I question whether I want to keep playing - not because I don’t love it or I don’t feel capable, it’s just a lot when you work full time and train and you miss out on your weekends. But, I was devastated for any future players.
For the hockey community who positions allied with the PWHPA to come together so quickly, I found it really inspiring, knowing that every member is doing it for a greater reason. I think there’s a lot of selflessness with being a part of the PWHPA. Realistically we realized we probably won’t reap the full benefits of what’s to come with the movement we’re trying to push forward. But it’ll be the following generation. We want them to have everything we haven’t gotten and don’t have right now. We want them to be truly professional athletes and be treated as such. So I think it meant a lot to me just to be inspired by my fellow teammates.
Greco: It was great. I was able to train consistently and play with my group of girls in Buffalo. We were able to go to a bunch of showcases and play some regional games in Toronto, which I thought was nice. But, I’m at a different stage of my life in hockey and my career that I’m playing because I love playing hockey. I love these girls, I love the movement that is behind this. I was honored to be a part of this group and represent everything that it stands for. But, I thought it was awesome and I’m so looking forward to next season.
Bunton: Me personally, I just want little girls to be able to look at different players and have that ability to say ‘that’s where I want to be, I want to play professional hockey.’ Growing up I always looked up to different players whether it was Hayley Wickenheiser or Jayna Hefford. That end goal was I want to play on Team Canada I want to go to the Olympics, but I think that having such a small amount of people have that ability or get that chance in their life.
If you have a league where players can play professionally, it just opens up the door for so many more women’s hockey players. I think it’d be pretty cool for kids to be able to say I want to be like Hanna Bunton and I want to play on whatever team it is in the Professional Women’s Hockey League. That’s what it meant to me this year. I would love to have played in the league, I want to be part of the team and I want that dream to be my reality, but at the same time, it’s going to be little kids’ realities then that’s even more special to me.
Rae: I thought it was a really good experience just being able to see the impact you can have on young girls. Part of the reason why I chose to play Merrimack is because it was a start of something new. That goes into the PWHPA. It was something brand new. The visions of both programs and associations are fairly similar, trying to build and create like a legacy for young girls and somewhere they can dream to play So, that’s what I thought was kind of special, building upon my time at Merrimack and trying to keep that like passion going for creating something new and viable for young girls.
What was your favorite Dream Gap Tour memory?
Desrochers: I think my favorite memory would be would be from Philly. Me, Emerance Maschmeyer, Genevieve Lacasse, Karell Emard decided to go to this diner on Saturday morning to grab some food. We’re sitting there and there was this couple next to us, having breakfast. We started chatting and they asked what we were doing in town. We told them we played hockey and about the PWHPA, and they were big hockey fans. They were like ‘This is amazing.’ And, they ended up buying us all our breakfast. They said ‘Oh, well we can’t stay and attend your matches but we’ll try and swing by the rink to buy some merch if we can.’
But I thought it was such a beautiful memory because we just met these people. And they don’t a daughter who plays hockey, they don’t have any children to play hockey, but they’re big fans of the sport and definitely agree with what we’re trying to to achieve and decided to buy us breakfast.
Greco: I think just meeting some of these players that that I’ve never met before and being able to play with them I thought was awesome. You don’t know how these girls are, what their personalities are, you just see them wearing their team colors. Then you get to play with them and you’re in a locker room with them and everything just clicks and everyone’s just buddies. I thought that was fun was meeting new girls from different regions and different countries and getting to play with them.
Bunton: I think one of my favorite memories was getting to go to the Chicago showcase. There were so many extremely talented players at that showcase. It was in a really cool place that I’d never been to before. I got to play with a lot of new players and against a lot of new players that I’ve never played with or against before and that was super fun. I think everyone had a really good time so that was probably my favorite memory from this year.
Rae: Honestly, I think the first game of the Toronto showcase. None of us really knew what to expect crowd wise. We knew it had been sold out but we didn’t really know what it would look like. The crowd was way better than we ever expected just like energy wise too. So I think that was a big moment and it made us all realize that’s why we’re doing this. This is why we gave up a little bit - to get a lot more. It all became real and our thinking became justified.
How was it playing with players you might not have ever played with before?
Desrochers: Honestly, I thought it was lot of fun. I feel like the hockey community is quite small once you get to this level, you’ve probably played with some players when you were younger or played against them in college. So it was fun to play with players I used to play with back before college when I played at Stony Creek. In the heat of the game you don’t necessarily know who you’re battling against and then you’re skating back up the ice, and you realize it was your training buddy from Les Canadiennes and or the Montreal group and you’re like ‘Oh sorry about that!’
You totally have players you love having them on your team but you hate playing against. Thankfully, Karell Emard was on my team pretty much for all the showcases but I would hate playing against her. In one game against Genevieve Lacasse though, she just stood on her head so that was really frustrating.
Greco: It was an amazing experience. One of the biggest things we want to do in 2020-2021 is get this team consistency so you know each region is training with each other and then they go to the showcases and are a team.
Last year, I thought it was really cool that we got to play with different girls that probably I never would have played with ever - Team USA girls, Team Canada girls that I’ve never had a chance to play with, let alone meet. Everyone is so great and it doesn’t matter if you just met these people four hours ago, you’re going to go on the ice and play with them. The chemistry will be there. We’re all there for the same goal so it really didn’t matter that we hadn’t been playing with each other, hadn’t even known each other, everything clicked and everybody was there for the same reason. I thought it was really really cool to play some of those girls.
Bunton: It was awesome. You get to see so many familiar faces and people that you played with, whether it was at the U18 level or played against at the NCAA level or wherever you went to school. You got to see those familiar faces at the showcase weekends. That was really special. It’s cool when you’re all fighting for the bigger picture.
It’s almost similar to like the CWHL All Star game where you get to play with all these really cool players that maybe you would have never had the chance to play with before. The same thing happened at showcase weekends if you were put on the same team as some of these players and that part of it was really special and really cool as well.
I don’t think I’ve ever played on a team with Marie Philip Poulin. I’ve played against her quite a few times. At the Chicago showcase, I got to play on the same team, so that’s pretty cool having that kind of player in your locker room. Also, Emily Clark is one of my best friends. We played on Team Canada together at U18. I got to play with her in Chicago as well and that was pretty fun getting to play with one of my best friends who I haven’t played with in eight years. So that was another cool experience.
Rae: It was awesome, playing against like Hillary Knight, Poulin, like all the big name Olympic players. And then even the players playing in GTA East like I’ve seen them in the CWHL and their names floating around so it’s kind of cool to play with them, meet them, and build relationships with them so it was actually really awesome.
It was actually really cool getting to play with Kacey Bellamy [her former assistant coach at Merrimack] when they asked me to play with Calgary. She even assisted my one goal that weekend, which was really awesome.
Where would you like to the Dream Gap Tour to play in next season?
Desrochers: I think it would be a smaller Canadian city. The Montreal training group played the Toronto training group in Kingston, just one game, and we had something like 3,000 fans. It was incredible atmosphere. I’m going to say Halifax too, just because we have Jill Saliuner and Blair Turnbull, who are on the National Team. They both have so many grassroots in in Halifax and in Nova Scotia, and it’s such a big hockey province and hockey town. I think if we were to go there we would have an incredible support. I think it would be a good showcase since Worlds was supposed to be there this year. Presumably, it’ll be there next year, but I think that would be fun to go before Worlds to give them a little taste of of women’s hockey.
Greco: I feel like I’d like a big Canadian city, like a Vancouver type of city. It’d be really cool to do something like that.
Bunton: I think somewhere like Vancouver would be really cool or even Victoria. Obviously I’m Canadian, maybe a little bit biased, but I think those are two locations that don’t see a ton of women’s hockey. But when they have had games there they’ve had really amazing crowds and I think it would be cool to be in like one of those big cities in Canada
Rae: I feel like a state or province that doesn’t usually see women’s hockey, maybe go to Calgary, even somewhere like Nashville. I know they had good showings in past women’s event. So, any place like that, reach places where the girls haven’t had much access to see players live in person. I think that could be a fun thing.