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This week in the PWHL: Toronto undefeated in February, Minnesota’s Jaques hits her stride | CBC Sports

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In her first seven professional games moving up and down the PWHL Boston lineup, Sophie Jaques failed to register a point.

But it’s been a whole different story for the rookie defender after a trade to Minnesota, where she fits in seamlessly beside one of the best defenders in the league in Lee Stecklein.

On Tuesday night, in a game celebrating Black History Month, Jaques put up what felt like a statement game. She scored her first career PWHL goal when she backhanded a puck over Toronto goaltender Kristen Campbell’s pad.

With less than 30 seconds left in the game, she scored a second goal to force extra time, salvaging a point in the 4-3 overtime loss to Toronto.

Over five games in purple, Jaques has put up three points and is quarterbacking a power play unit, showing the offensive talent that earned her the Patty Kazmaier Award as the best player in college hockey last season with Ohio State University.

WATCH l Jaques talks about her first PWHL season on Hockey North:

Sophie Jaques on being involved in 1st-ever PWHL trade, adjusting to life as a pro

Host Rob Pizzo is joined by 2023 Patty Kazmaier Award winner Sophie Jaques after being traded to PWHL Minnesota.

She played 25 minutes on Tuesday against Toronto, more than anyone else on Minnesota except Stecklein, a sure sign of head coach Ken Klee’s trust in her work.

“Getting to compete against the best players every single day, I feel like I learn so much and just am continuing to get better,” Jaques told Rob Pizzo on CBC Sports’ Hockey North last week.

While Jaques had a stellar game on Tuesday, it was Toronto forward Sarah Nurse’s second goal of the night that held up as the winner.

After a shaky start in January, Toronto has finished February unbeaten.

While head coach Troy Ryan didn’t like his team’s play on Tuesday, he has to be happy with the overall picture in February. Three of the five wins have come in regulation, earning precious points in a league where so many games are decided by one goal. 

As of Friday, Toronto sits in third place with 21 points, one point behind Minnesota with a game in hand. Minnesota has lost three in a row.

A female hockey player in a white jersey, with Toronto written on it, has the puck on her stick on the ice. A number of players in purple jerseys are visible on the bench behind her.
PWHL Toronto forward Sarah Nurse prepares to pass the puck during a game against Minnesota on Tuesday. Nurse scored two goals, including the overtime game winner. (Kelly Hagenson/PWHL)

PWHL committed to New York market

Tuesday’s game drew 2,718 fans inside the University of Minnesota’s 3M Arena at Mariucci, the smallest crowd to watch a home game in Minnesota this season. Their typical home, Xcel Energy Center, was occupied by the NHL’s Minnesota Wild that night.

Over six games at Xcel, the PWHL has attracted just shy of 8,000 fans per game, including two games that surpassed the 10,000 mark.

It’s been more of a challenge in the other American markets. Boston, which plays more than a half hour’s drive outside the city in Lowell, Mass., has drawn fewer than 3,400 fans on average over eight games.

The story is similar in New York, which is splitting its games between the New York Islanders’ home arena (UBS Arena) and a rink in Connecticut (Total Mortgage Arena). New York’s four home games so far have drawn about 2,200 fans on average.

Players in cream and teal coloured jerseys compete on the ice.
PWHL New York is splitting its home games between UBS Arena, pictured here during a February game against Montreal, and Total Mortgage Arena in Connecticut. (Nala Burton/PWHL)

Speaking to reporters during a mid-season update on Wednesday, PWHL advisory board member Stan Kasten said attendance so far this season, even in the lower-attended markets, has “blown away” the conservative projections the league had coming into the first season. 

Even though the team’s home games have posted lower attendance numbers than other PWHL markets, Kasten insisted New York will be “a permanent part” of the league’s future.

“We’re going to be in the New York market,” Kasten said. “Can I tell you where or when? Not just yet, but in the off-season we’ll address [it], and we’ll address that quickly in the off-season because obviously work has to be done.”

The league has started working on the schedule for next season, which will likely include finding ways to get the game in front of more fans in markets that have shown a lot of demand, like Toronto and Montreal.

You can also expect to see more neutral site games in NHL markets that don’t have PWHL teams, similar to what the PWHL is doing with one-off games in Pittsburgh and Detroit in March. Per the collective bargaining agreement, the 2024-25 season will see teams play a minimum of 30 games each, up from 24 this season.

“That is just a feature that has been a lot of fun for us this year,” Kasten said of neutral site games. “Expect it to be a feature of next year’s schedule, only quite a bit more.”

A female hockey player in a green Boston jersey skates on the ice.
Boston, which plays in Lowell, Mass., at the Tsongas Center, has drawn an average attendance of fewer than 3,400 fans in eight home games. (Michael Riley/PWHL)

Celebrating women’s hockey’s past, future

It’s been almost a year since the Toronto Six won the final Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) Isobel Cup championship, before the league was shut down to make way for the PWHL. The team’s players and staff were celebrated at an event in Etobicoke last month, receiving championship rings.

The players designed the rings, which were paid for by former PHF owners John and Johanna Boynton. 

There’s a cactus on the side in honour of the Isobel Cup final being held in Arizona. “Got your six,” a military term that means “got your back,” is engraved on the inside.

Finally, the rings have the final score: a 4-3 win in overtime.

“Everybody down to the bus driver got a ring,” said former Toronto Six president Sami Jo Small.

Twelve members of the championship-winning Six are on PWHL rosters this season. 

To name a few, Michela Cava has seized a top-six role in Minnesota with Taylor Heise injured. Tereza Vanišová sits in the league’s top 10 point-getters with Montreal. It feels like Daryl Watts is building momentum in Ottawa.

Two women show off large championship rings.
Former Toronto Six players Michela Cava, left, and Leah Lum show off their Isobel Cup championship rings, presented at a ceremony in February. Cava now plays for PWHL Minnesota and Lum for PWHL Montreal. (Richard Coffey/RCoffeyMedia)

But for Small, the standout so far has been Montreal goaltender Elaine Chuli, who’s embraced a back-up role behind Ann-Renée Desbiens after being the starter on the Six. She leads the league with a 1.24 goals against average after four starts.

“I think what I’m most proud of her for is she’s been a starting goalie most of her life,” Small said. “And so now suddenly, as the player that has to come in and you’re playing a lot fewer games, but the expectations are still very high, she has just performed marvellously.”

The event wasn’t just a celebration of the Six. Players and builders were invited from all former professional women’s hockey leagues in Ontario, ranging from Ontario Women’s Hockey League founder Fran Rider, to those who toiled in the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, to name a few.

In most cases, they’re leagues that folded suddenly, a painful ending with no real opportunity to say goodbye to something they loved.

“That’s what I think is really [what] I wanted to get out in the open was the history that these people had created and the amazing steps that they had made to advance the game of women’s hockey, and that where we are now in women’s hockey is because of everybody in that room,” Small said. 

PWHL Toronto GM Gina Kingsbury and head coach Troy Ryan attended the ceremony, representing the future and continuation of pro women’s hockey.

“There have been so many leagues that have helped us get to this point, and it was so nice to be able to close this chapter,” former Six defender Saroya Tinker, now the PWHL’s manager of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and community engagement, said on Hockey North this week.



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