Fans of the Connecticut Whale didn’t know what to make of new head coach Colton Orr at first. After all, he was competing in the Battle of the Blades in Toronto while the team began its season under the guidance of interim head coach and former Whale goaltender Laura Brennan. But the new bench boss earned some recognition for the way his team played after he fulfilled his obligations north of the border.
On Tuesday, Orr made an appearance on TSN Radio and spoke about Game of Thrones, his appearance in the movie Goon, and his year as a head coach in the NWHL with Matt Cauz.
“It kind of just fell into my lap,” Orr said on Toronto 1050. “A couple of teams reached out to me to do some coaching. I wasn’t sure what my plans were for that season, I knew I had to do the Battle of the Blades up in Toronto, so I was only able to commit to joining the team halfway through the season.”
The Whale finished the year with a record of 2-20-2 after going 2-12-2 in 2018-19, but the team’s record does a poor job of telling their story. The Whale underwent a transformation that created a lot of buzz among dedicated NWHL fans. Sometime around the beginning of January, after Orr had joined the team, things started to click for the Whale.
“Once I did get there and was able to be a part of the league and the Connecticut Whale it was an unbelievable experience,” said Orr. “Not only the hockey and everything, but [seeing] how committed these women and players are to growing the game of hockey and growing girls’ youth hockey — how important it is to them.”
Perhaps more so than any other NWHL team, the Whale earned a reputation for battling in each and every game. Frequently overshadowed by the collective skill of the opposition, the Whale had to rely on structured defensive play, blocking shots, and jumping on hard-earned opportunities to bury the puck.
Connecticut famously battled the then undefeated Boston Pride into a shootout after being tied 1-1 after 65 minutes of hockey on Dec. 28, 2018. The Whale dropped that game and were blown out of the water 7-2 by the lions of the league the next day, but the team’s momentum had finally shifted. Connecticut picked up its first win of the season on Jan. 11 and won again on Jan. 25 after a rough road trip in Minnesota.
Although the losses continued to pile up, the Whale proved that they were not a team to be taken lightly. General manager Bray Ketchum masterfully recruited key players to bolster her roster including Janine Weber, Allie LaCombe, Brinna Dochniak, and Katelynn Russ. That new talent meshed beautifully with a team defined by its work ethic. Regardless of what the scoreboard said, there were no easy games against the Whale for the opposition. There was no out-working Orr’s squad.
The dedication of his players left a lasting impression on the first-year coach, who knows all about putting in hard work on and off the ice.
Orr paved his way to an 11-year NHL career the hard way: through big hits and bruised knuckles. An undrafted enforcer, the Winnipeg-native won the hearts of fans in Providence in the AHL and in Boston, New York, and Toronto in the NHL. So, it didn’t take him long to recognize just how invested and passionate his players on the Whale were.
“They (all) work off the ice,” Orr noted. “I had players who lived about three hours away who would drive three hours there and back to practice (just) to be a part of the league, to help grow the game. So that, at some point, these young girls who are playing youth hockey will have a league to play in. A sustainable league they can call their own, and that’s what it is really all about right now. Growing the game and getting the word out that there is a league, that there is professional women’s hockey.”
The former NHL forward believes that the 2019-20 season was a successful one for the league. He also mentioned that Ketchum and the coaching staff did whatever they could to provide a “pro experience” for the Whale players this year.
The Whale worked with Ben Prentiss, a strength and conditioning coach who works with numerous NHL players, and he hopes that the team will have its own locker room next season. That, of course, not only reveals just how invested Orr was and is in the Whale, but also hints that he could be back behind the bench next year. Now 38 and just had his third child with his wife Sabrina, he has all the inspiration he needs to help build women’s hockey in Connecticut.
“I’ve got a daughter who’s seven, who plays hockey, and I’d love to see her be able to play and have a league one day.”