Toronto Furies season preview: Furies undergoing a changing of the guard

Retirement, strong draft allows younger players to start leading the team

At the home rink of the Toronto Furies, hockey is already going full force in mid-September.

An oldtimers game, a boys team, and the Etobicoke Dolphins girls hockey league each use up precious ice time in Toronto's west suburb.

And right across from the Dolphins are the Furies, a team looking to bounce back after a down season in 2015-16 when they finished fourth in the five-team league with a record of 6-16-2. Natalie Spooner led the team in scoring with 17 goals and 30 points in 22 games, good for fifth in the league.

Coach Sommer West and general manager Rebecca Michael chat rinkside, just out of range of the Zamboni entrance and the thwap of pucks hitting the glass. The team has been practicing together for a couple of weeks on its own but on this night, the coaches will finally see for themselves how their top draft picks, like defencemen Renata Fast and Erin Ambrose, fit into their vision for this season.

Defense First

Defense was an issue that both West and Michael identified as one to be addressed at the draft and on the ice. The Furies had the second worst goals against with an average of 3.63. None of Toronto's defenders finished in the top-10 in scoring at their position while Michelle Bonello led the group with eight points in 24 games.

Coach West went as far as to say the defense required "a little bit of a rebuild."

"It's not secret to anyone that last year we lacked a bit on the back end," says GM Michael. "We had great goaltending but we needed to engage skilled, calm, talented defencemen who could get the puck and control the game and make that first pass to our forwards. It was definitely a conscious decision [to draft defencemen]."

Fast and Ambrose were taken with the Furies' first two picks, with Fast chosen second overall. Both hail from the Clarkson University hockey program.

"With any team, there's a point in time when you have to start a little bit of a rebuild, and we're lucky we have good goaltending, but we needed to rebuild our defence," says West.

"We've had a couple of years where we've lost [defensemen], so we've been looking for a Fast and an Ambrose to come in and fill those positions so that we can get our forwards, who have speed, the puck."

Five returning defencemen are at training camp while four draftees, including Fast, Ambrose, and Carlee Eusepi -- another Clarkson product -- will push for playing time.

The Furies practically run onto the ice, quickly forming into two groups for drills before starting a blue and white game. A defender take a puck to the ribs, a post rings behind goaltender Sami Jo Small; hockey is not polite when it first announces itself each season.

Glut Of Goaltenders

Small, 40, continues to push for playing time. The veteran goaltender returns to the Furies after a one-year absence to find a role alongside Christina Kessler, who's played the majority of Toronto's games the past three seasons. Sonja van der Bliek, who boasted a 2.73 GAA in five games in 2015-16, and draftee Alex Armstrong round out the position which both Michael and West see as an obvious strength.

"It's absolutely a position strength," Michael says. "We have experience at the CWHL level [and] the international level. What happens after camp? I don't know. We leave a lot of that up to our goalie coach, Jamie McGuire. [But] having the Sami Jo Smalls and Christina Kesslers, who can act as mentors to the new goalies coming in, is beneficial [and] essential to us."

The coach laments that the staff can only see so much of the goalies with limited ice time and few pre-season games.

"It comes down to the coaches watching them in practice, putting them through their own goalie practice, going into those [exhibition] games with a game plan," says West.

Forward Thinking

The forwards seem to be least-concerning to coach and GM. West says that it should be a good year for the group with an improved defense better able to get them the puck. Spooner heads a core forward group made up of Emily Fulton and Carolyne Prevost. Michela Cava, the Furies third pick and first at forward, will look to impress at camp.

One forward is conspicuously missing from the training camp roster -- Kori Cheverie, who retired this offseason and became the first female coach on a men's CIS team, the Ryerson Rams. Cheverie, the Furies' all-time leader in points, finished second in team scoring last year. She's been on the ice with the Furies when time allows, already applying her new profession to her old one.

"I had the opportunity to play against Kori in university, the Furies, and then watched her play from my position as general manager," says Michael. "She brought everything to the rink with her. We're gonna miss having her sense of leadership and calmness in the room."

Coach West thinks she saw a coach in the making.

"[Cheverie] may not have been the fastest player but she was very smart," says West. "She slowed the game down and those players can sometimes be the better coaches. She loves the game, our team, the organization, she wants to see [the CWHL] grow. This is what she now does for a living all day long so she can give us that extra hand because, for myself and my other coaches, when we leave [the rink], we also have other jobs."

Also missing from camp are two players who recently announced their retirement— both forward Alyssa Baldin and captain Michelle Bonello won’t be returning to the team. Bonello will  focus on becoming a firefighter, while Alyssa Baldin will coach girl’s hockey for the Oakville Hornets.

The Furies will hope to fill that leadership void with the group that comes out of the 36-player camp.

"We're sort of going through a changing of the guard with our team," says Michael. "We went from having a ton of vets and very few rookies to younger veterans. There's a new leadership core that I see and they've already expressed it."

As the Furies look forward to their home opener on October 15 at the Mastercard Centre, the CWHL looks ahead to its 10th season.

"I've wanted to stay in this game to see it grow because where we are now is what women deserve," says West. "If you want to play at the highest level, you should be playing for free, you should be getting paid, you should be getting full attendance, you should be flying to games. I'm not saying we should be just like the NHL -- we need to be our own entity -- but it's coming. I hope it comes sooner than later but I've loved watching where we've gone.

"Hopefully this year's a big year, it would be cool."