Furies look to improve despite pre-season turnover

Recent retirements leave hole a younger core is ready to fill

There's nothing like sudden change right before the hockey season starts, but the Toronto Furies will try to take it in stride.

The night before the final roster was announced, Michelle Bonello and Alyssa Baldin stood up in the Furies' dressing room and told their teammates they were retiring. Each had the difficult decision to make between continuing their careers on the ice and off of it, and the choice trickled down to the rest of a team trying to bounce back after a fourth-place finish with 10 new faces in the lineup.

Bonello, a veteran of the Furies for five seasons, was the captain but will now pursue her other dream of becoming a firefighter. Inheriting the captaincy is CWHL standout Natalie Spooner who led the team in scoring last year.

Filling in for Bonello on defense will be a host of new players, including the Furies' top two 2016 draft picks Renata Fast and Erin Ambrose. Both will have to find a way to help improve the back end while filling the shoes of a key contributor and a Clarkson Cup champion.

"It was kinda bittersweet with Bonello leaving, we're definitely going to miss her and Baldi [Baldin] a lot this season but it's an honour and I'm excited to step into the position and follow the footsteps of the leaders we've had already and hopefully make this a winning team this year," said Spooner ahead of the last team practice before Saturday's season opener.

"She was almost like a motherly figure," she said. "She was always there for you and easy to talk to and very supportive. On the ice, she was so poised and so competent on the blue line."

And while that blue line will miss that veteran presence, it was the intention of Toronto's staff that they improve the defense from the previous year -- something GM Rebecca Michael believes she addressed at the draft.

She also knows the choice to name Spooner captain was a slam dunk.

"It was a no-brainer and a unanimous decision among our staff," said Michael. "She never brings anything happening outside in her life [to the rink]. The other girls feed off that."

Spooner will be part of a younger core of vets that hope an improved defense will better get them the puck on the fun end of the rink.

"[Bonello's] created quite a legacy here and there's no doubt Natalie is going to follow greatly in her footsteps," Ambrose said. "Obviously, [Bonello and Baldin] had a big impact on the Toronto Furies and the CWHL, so that's a big thing for us to carry on. Renata and I are really gonna try and follow in Bonello's footsteps."

About Bonello, Fast added, "You could tell, when she made her announcement in the room that she was well respected."

Fast, the second-overall pick in 2016, and Ambrose both hail from Clarkson University and are more familiar with each other than most of the new players. They'll have to deal with a quicker pace and an uptick in skill come Saturday.

Both were among the 24 women named to Team Canada on Friday for the upcoming Four Nations Cup tournament in Vierumaki, Finland.

Michael believes that the spectacle of two accomplished CWHL players retiring at training camp has a long-reaching impact on the incoming talent, that the difficulty of retiring shows what it means to play in this league.

The 10th season of the CWHL has already begun, and the meaning of the milestone is dictated by women at all stages of their careers. Spooner has a Clarkson Cup and two all-star games under her belt and has been a big part of the league's growth. Fast and Ambrose are entering their first campaign having spent more time as fans than contributors.

Fast remembers going to see the old Burlington Barracudas which starred four-time Olympian Becky Kellar.

"I remember going to CWHL games, maybe 10 years ago, and seeing the strides they've made since is awesome," she said. "There's a place to play for players coming out of university."

Ambrose was at Markham Centennial Arena in 2014 when the Furies won the Clarkson Cup.

"Coming out of university knowing we had this place to play was exciting," she said. "I had the draft circled on my calendar all summer because I was excited to find out where I was playing this year."

With all the change and turnover in Toronto, the simplest solution to the Furies finding their feet will be the drop of the puck on Saturday.