Around the Rink in the PHF: Week 7

Lots of big news, plus we look ahead to the huge Whale-Six series, and why has Toronto been so successful?

Welcome back to Around the Rink!

It’s been a minute, hasn’t it? Thanks to all of my teammates at TIG and everyone else for their support as I dealt with some things in my personal life over the last month. Especially wanted to make sure to say thank you, again, to Madison Packer, Nate Oliver, and Allie Thunstrom for their messages to ask if I needed anything, and to make sure all was going well; meant the world to me.

Also, thank you to all of the players/staff of the six teams for all of your openness, your time, and especially your assistance when I piece these columns together. I hope that everyone had a healthy, and safe holiday season. A lot happened since we last posted one of these so let’s stop wasting time.

And here, we, go!

Point Shots

1* Just prior to this past weekend’s games, the PHF announced the dates for six games that had to be rescheduled. Minnesota will now visit Toronto on Feb. 12-13, and Boston will be in New Jersey to play the Riveters on March 5-6. But the biggest news (to us) is that Boston will make up their games in Buffalo on March 19-20 - which is a week after the PHF season was scheduled to end originally.

It was basically the only move left to make with games on every weekend from now until mid-March. If any other series are postponed between teams not named Buffalo and Boston, we’d expect them to also be held on March 19-20, too.

1.1* The 2022 All-Star Showcase/Classic/Game(s) was been relocated from Toronto to Buffalo due to covid restrictions in Canada that would have 1) prevented fans from attending, 2) just been a headache for the 30ish players that would have had to trek back and forth across the border in the middle of omnicron doing its thing. Buffalo now becomes the first city to host two times after they hosted the inaugural event in their previous home rink.

Stay tuned to The Ice Garden as I will have a look back at the 2015 All-Star Weekend ahead of the 2022 edition.

Privately, some have suggested that maybe the focus should’ve been on completing the season and navigating those hurdles, rather than adding another hurdle. If you gave the players truth serum, I’d bet that more than a handful would say they don’t really feel like All-Stars after five, six, or eight games played. Heck, one player was selected to participate after playing just two (2!) games?

Going forward, if it is deemed necessary to have All-Stars gather in one location together - please do it after the season so the players can be elected to participate following and judged on a full body of work where everyone is on equal footing. Also, bring back the Skills Competition. That’s what fans want. That’s how you market your stars, your personalities. I will die on this hill!

2* Speaking of Buffalo…how about the job done by Beauts fans to win not one, not two, not three, but all four of the remaining All-Star spots for their favorite players. From Jan. 4-9 no one received more votes online than goaltender Carly Jackson, and forwards Cassidy Vinkle, Autumn MacDougall, and Kennedy Ganser. How cool must that feel for those four players, who surely felt the BuffaLove when they were notified of their selections? Well done Beauts fans, well done.

3* Speaking of All-Stars…how awesome was it to see Boston’s Jillian Dempsey, Minnesota’s Allie Thunstrom, and the PWHPA’s Sophia Shaver competing at the ECHL All-Star Classic in Jacksonville on Jan. 17? All three players were fantastic, and Thunstrom even popped in a goal in the first period.

Perhaps in the future, we could see more crossovers like this? Wouldn’t be the worst idea with how passionate fans of minor league hockey teams can be. Why not see if we can tap into those fanbases? AHL, ECHL, doesn’t matter, but the ECHL was obviously very open and supportive to the players while they were in Jacksonville.

“The craziest thing about this weekend with the format (Jacksonville + Dempsey vs. a team of ECHL All-Stars + Thunstrom & Shaver) is like five or six of the All-Stars got loud boos from the crowd,” Thunstrom told us via text. Jacksonville fans were booing players from teams in Orlando, Florida, and Norfolk.

4* Obviously the big news dropped on Tuesday about the Board of Governors investing at least $25 million dollars into the PHF. We have it covered from all angles here at The Ice Garden, which you can find either via our home page or over on the right-hand side of this very column as part of our most-read articles.

Another great read on the investment can be found at On Her Turf via Alex Azzi, which you can find by clicking the word here. I really enjoyed her work and the important questions she posed such as - why make this announcement now? Is more expansion beyond eight teams planned? Could this lead to a merger between the PHF and the PWHPA? Stick taps to Alex for a job well done!

5* All six teams named their Players Association representatives right before Christmas/while we were away, and they are - Kaleigh Fratkin, Mallory Souliotis (Boston), Autumn MacDougal, Dominique Kremer (Buffalo), Kaycie Anderson, Rebecca Morse (Connecticut), Theresa Knutson, Allie Olnowich (Rivs), Maddie Rowe, Allie Thunstrom (Minnesota), Shiann Darkangelo, Emma Woods (Toronto).

5.1* On January 3, it was announced that Alex Sinatra was elected as the new PHFPA Executive Director, filling a spot that hadn’t been filled since Anya Packer vacated it to become the GM of the Riveters back on April 8. “We are particularly enthusiastic about having Alex lead us through an upcoming period where we expect a vast influx of investment into the league and, with that, significant opportunities for our players,” said Fratkin.

Here’s hoping that Sinatra’s presence will help level the playing field for the six teams. Some teams are getting more ‘perks’ than others. Some teams are marketing certain players with extra merchandise featuring their name/likeness, but not all of them. Let’s also not forget that each player that signed during the off-season signed while the Director position was vacant, and each player was basically their own agent.

6* Toronto Six netminder Samantha Ridgewell, who was stuck behind early MVP candidate Elaine Chuli, left the team on Jan. 14 to take a starting job in Sweden with HV71. Over the past two seasons, Ridgewell made three starts for the Six (0-1-2) and saw 16 minutes of mop-up duty in Toronto’s lone playoff game last March.

“It’s not easy to be a backup goalie, but Sam never complained, she always came to practice, and she always worked hard,” said Head Coach Mark Joslin in the press release announcing her departure. This leaves former Riveter Tera Hofmann as the backup to Chuli, so the Six will be just fine - as she is more than capable of filling that role. Hofmann has made two appearances this season, taking over for Ridgewell at the end of a blowout in Boston on Dec. 5 and starting/finishing the game against the Beauts this past Sunday.

“I wasn’t aware she was leaving until it was announced. I’m really glad that she’s going to have an opportunity to play overseas and hopefully she plays lots of games,” said Hofmann after Sunday’s game. “At practice now we only have two goalies, so a little bit less ‘rest time’. But I think we don’t practice enough anyway; it will be good to get more shots, it’s always nice to get more shots. We miss her already.”

Surely Hofmann will see more ice time, but as she explained she’s already grown so much since joining the Six this off-season. “This year has been a new experience for me and I think I learned a lot about different ways that I can support my team that aren’t on the ice,” the netminder told us. “Through that, I’ve become a better player. I will just continue to support my team the best I can whether it’s on or off the ice. There is so much value that is unseen in being able to support your team off the ice in the ways that they need to be supported.”

We’d like to wish all the best to Ridgewell going forward. While I wasn’t able to meet her (thanks covid), she was always very helpful whenever I reached out to her for a quote or help with a story. Go win a ‘ship with HV71 Samantha!

6.1* Two days prior to Ridgewell’s departure the Six announced the signing of forward Natalie Marcuzzi, who played in Toronto’s inaugural season. She had one assist in the regular season (six games) and added another assist in the Six’s playoff loss to Boston. She was Toronto’s 4th round selection (22nd overall) at the 2020 Draft.

Her addition to the roster offsets the loss of All-Star Michela Cava who left the team to return to play for the KRS Vanke Rays. Coach Joslin confirmed that it wasn’t a surprise at all to them, ‘we only had her until January 14; her last weekend was going to be the games vs. Minnesota that were postponed.’

Having said that, he has been impressed with Marcuzzi since she re-joined the team for practices. “It’s amazing. I didn’t know what to expect because I had only seen her on game tape until she came to practice two weeks ago. So she hasn’t played all season and I thought she was great today,” Joslin said after she picked up the first of her two assists over the weekend.

“She skates and works hard, she plays heavy; you’re not going to replace someone like Michela Cava with her offensive prowess. But Marcuzzi brings a different element to our team, and is a welcome addition for sure.”

6*2 The addition of Marcuzzi also may have energized fellow RMU alumna Leah Marino, who snapped a five-game scoreless streak in Saturday’s game - she started the party and ended it with the game’s opening and final goals.

“We played together in college during my freshman and sophomore year and she’s a huge inspiration to me. I looked up to her, an upperclassman, she was a captain, and obviously a great player. When I signed she didn’t think she was going to be able to play this year because of her day job. As the season went on she couldn’t stay away,” exclaimed a visibly-giddy Marino.

“We’re lucky to have her back (on the team) and it’s been awesome. It’s been exciting to see her in the locker room, we still do our same handshake; she’s just a great asset for us as we go into this second half of the season - in the locker room, and on the ice.”

The Six have proven that they can play with anyone - not named Boston so far, and adding Marcuzzi to their forward depth just makes them all the more tough to defend as we sprint towards the playoffs over the next eight-ten weeks. They also will now look a little different when they see Boston again to close out the season in what will likely be huge games.

7* I’d like to personally and publicly thank the Toronto Six and their Director of Media Relations Justin Levine for their virtual postgame press conferences when they are at home. Obviously, I can’t be at every game, and neither can my colleagues and with it still being covid-y out there - why are the other teams not doing this?

I understand with protocols and omnicron and all that we’re trying to not interact in person as much as previously, I get all that.

But other teams: how many reporters are at your games to cover your team? Now, how many would you be able to reach if you made your head coach and one-two of your players available a half-hour after your game ends for a total of 15-20 minutes?

In a weird schedule quirk and also thanks to covid, I’ve yet to see the Toronto Six play a game in person (which I hope to change Saturday). But having said that, I feel like I’ve been able to build a relationship with coach Joslin and some of the players due to their virtual pressers. I can’t thank them enough for their openness and availability - makes my job a billion times easier.

8* I really wanted to lead with this, but there was so much to get to since I last posted an ATR. Please don’t be mad at me Cap! Congratulations to Connecticut captain Shannon Turner for playing in her 100th NW/PHF game on Saturday - and scoring a goal to cap off the win, against your rivals, was just a BOSS move too.

Shannon is one of the players that has been a big help to me over the years, always available to help me keep my finger on the pulse of all things Whale, or always available to answer any questions I may have about some league news. Her endless positivity and dedication to the game is a big part of how we all got to this point in time and while I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to be there, I was so happy to see the franchise celebrate her remarkable accomplishment.

Fifty years from now when kids look back at the history of professional women’s hockey one of the names they frequently will see is yours, Shannon (Doyle) Turner, and it has been my honor to cover this chapter of your life and career.

9* Is Toronto vs. Connecticut the new Boston vs. Minnesota? The upcoming two-game series in Danbury will have major implications on how the standings play out down the stretch. After the two games, the Whale will have only six games left, while the Six will have seven left. Connecticut could leapfrog Toronto and take sole possession of first place with two regulation wins. Toronto could open a nine-point gap between the two teams if they win both in regulation. If they split, things would basically remain the same - with the Whale three points out of first place - but Toronto would hold a 3-1 record in head-to-head games.

“They’re a great team and I feel like we have a target on our backs now in any game we go into,” said Toronto captain Shiann Darkangelo on Sunday, looking ahead to the upcoming series. “It’s not a super long season, right? So every game is important, every period is important. For us, we just have to build off of what we did well this weekend, carry that into practice this week, as well as into the first period on Saturday.”

When we spoke to Coach Joslin after Sunday’s triumph over the Beauts he gave us some insight into how he’ll prepare his group for the PHF’s version of Clash of the Titans.

“It’s going to be a great challenge for us next weekend, we’ll make sure we are 100% prepared and give it everything we’ve got,” said Joslin. “I’ve got about 45 clips pulled from each game that we played Connecticut here. The first game was 5-1 and we had a great second period. The second game I thought we were great, were up 3-0 and we let them back in the game.”

“I’ll watch those and then watch their games from this past weekend in detail to see what they are doing differently. They have great depth and are obviously well-coached,” he added. “Tuesday and Thursday we’ll practice in our home rink and on Wednesday I’ll get us on the smaller ice to prepare for the upcoming games in Danbury.”

10* Pretty remarkable that the Six are now 18 games (one playoff) into their existence and the team’s overall record is 13-3-2. That has been accomplished with two different coaching staffs and a total of 32 different players. How have they been able to be so successful? I asked Coach Joslin and the players that very question this weekend.

Angela James and I have known each other for like 40 years, so we’re very close and have good chemistry together - and I think it filters down to the players. Our chemistry in the locker room as a team is fantastic, the girls are doing anything for one another,” said Joslin. “It shows on the ice, they are so passionate about making each other better in every practice, every game. They’ve bought into what Angela and I have been teaching and employing, systems-wise.”

Defender Stephanie Sucharda has only been with the Six since October but looks like she’s played with this group for years. “I think the girls on this team have made that transition as easy as it could be. Definitely, at the start of the season, there was a lot of room for improvement, personally. I like to think that I’ve got my stride back and I’m starting to blend in with the team,” the 24-year-old said.

“We have such a good group, and on the bench even we have fun watching each other make such great plays and I’m excited to be a part of that and look forward towards the rest of the season.”

Tera Hofmann was with the Riveters last season, but now she’s with the Six and according to her the team chemistry is just special. “It’s all in the team chemistry honestly. If you love each other, and you care about each other, you’re going to fight for each other,” added the goaltender.

“That, paired with excellent coaching just brings it all together. Even when you’re put in a tough situation, as long as you’re still fighting - that’s the only way to have a chance. That communication and a general sense of camaraderie are what I think put us above the other teams in the league.”

It PHFeels Like the PHFirst Time

Welcome to the Federation! Stick taps to you all - hopefully, they are the first of many.

PHFirst Goal: Stephanie Sucharda (T6), Amy Curlew (T6), Janka Hlinka (CTW), Kennedy Ganser (BUF)

PHFirst Point: Annie McDonald (T6)

PHFirst All-Star Nomination: Elaine Chuli (T6), Abbie Ives (CTW), Taylor Davison (T6), Lindsay Eastwood (T6), Kali Flanagan (BOS), Tori Howran (CTW), Dominique Kremer (BUF), Patti Marshall (MIN), Allie Munroe (CTW), Taylor Woods (T6), Michela Cava (T6), Sammy Davis (BOS), Anjelica Diffendal (BUF), Taylor Girard (CTW), Mikyla Grant-Mentis (T6), Kennedy Marchment (CTW), Meghara McManus (BOS), Emma Woods (T6)

Quote of the Week

“As a defender, I have so much more confidence as a player having Elaine Chuli in the net behind me. Today in the first period it could have been 3-0 the other way if it wasn’t for Chuli. She’s been standing on her head and has been a force for us this season.” — Toronto defender Stephanie Sucharda on the luxury of having an ace goaltender behind her.

My 3-Stars of the Week:

* Mikyla Grant-Mentis (T6) - so not only do the Six have the best goalie right now, but they also have the most dominant offensive force of nature in MGM. She had a hat trick on Sunday to cap off an eight-points (4g-4a) in two games weekend. Hashtag unstoppable.

** Shiann Darkangelo (T6) - I very easily could have picked any three Toronto players from their explosive weekend but I thought Darkangelo was a big factor in that success with a five-point (2g-3a) weekend. After going pointless for four games, the Six captain now has points in four straight (3g-5a).

*** Stephanie Sucharda (T6) - had to show some love to the defender who didn’t want me to remind her about how long it had been since she scored a goal. Not only did she record her first pro goal, but the rookie blueliner posted back-to-back multipoint efforts (1g-3a).

Did You Know?

This is the part of the column where you all get to make fun of and poke fun at me for being a dude. I always had this question, but either forgot or thought it was a silly question to ask players. But over the break I found out…did you know that teams have a Designated Braider!?!?!

I didn’t! According to our friend Allie Thunstrom it wasn’t a dumb question and some players just braid their own hair - she is ‘USUALLY’ not one of those people. So last season, Minnesota’s designated braider was Haylea Schmid, but this season it's Whitecaps newcomer Lexie Laing. Boston may have won the Isobel Cup, but Minnesota stole their MVB.

Thunstrom told me that most teams she has been on have a consistent person to go to and also that some players just do it themselves. It’s also a nice little way for the players to sort of bond with one another. Thunstrom says she can do a standard braid (and was trying to teach herself French and Dutch braids during the time off before the next Whitecaps game). But that Lexie Laing, she can do them all. She’s like a black belt level braider, or the MVB - Most Valuable Braider!

So Thunstrom explained the different kinds (which I’m sure most of you knew): standard braid on a ponytail, French (which is all of the hair in a braid), Dutch (same concept, but inside out so it sticks out from the head, cornrows, and bubble braids. She said usually for softball she’ll go with the bubble braids and for hockey just a ponytail braid. Good thing she has A LOT of hair to work with!

So my mind was blown by all of this because honestly, it’s not something I ever thought of before I started covering women’s hockey seven years ago. I’m sure you all found it goofy of me to ask or not know, but I’m ready for all of the jokes!