A new set of Original Six rivalries ready to rock the PWHL

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Toronto versus Montreal: Canada’s two solitudes, who’ve been thrashing it out on ice since 1917.

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Montreal against Boston: More meetings and beatings than any two teams when bitter playoffs are included.

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Boston clashing with New York: Two towns at odds since before the American Revolution, stoked by the same passion that fuels Red Sox-Yankees .

All are great NHL Original Six rivalries that endure. And if the Professional Women’s Hockey League is to gain some quick traction with fans beyond their primary demographic of young women and girls, tapping into just a small vein of those embedded feuds would be ideal.

Not to the full extent of old-time line brawls of course, but now that the PWHL is launching, it’s time to move from congeniality to some animosity.

The geography of its first half-dozen entries certainly lends itself to that, with two other teams who have a dog in this fight: Ottawa and St. Paul, Minn.

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“It’s important for the game and the fans to get behind whatever city they cheer,” said Gina Kingsbury, general manager of Toronto. “Many of us come from the best sports rivalry in general, Canada and the United States on the women’s side. It’s a battle every time we meet and it would be great to create that in this league.”

Kingsbury brings a unique perspective — born in Saskatchewan, raised in Quebec and now wearing the blue of the yet-to-be nicknamed Toronto franchise.

“The natural rivalry would be Toronto-Montreal. For me, it’s like I just completely turned my back on my home province,” she said. “But I already feel the energy to want to represent Toronto and beat Montreal. I don’t even think we have to create it, it’s going to happen.

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“I love the fact our athletes, many who are already on the national team, are so competitive. I can guarantee you when (Toronto’s hard-skating forward) Blayre Turnbull faces off against (Montreal’s dynamic) Marie-Philip Poulin, it’s ‘our friendship off, let’s go, let’s see who wins.’”

Because each PWHL team had to build rosters from scratch, other than a few free agents, including those who petitioned the league to stay in or near their hometowns for family reasons, Kingsbury thinks parity will keep the standings close and foster that vehemence.

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“Through the snake-style draft, everyone got some great assets. Every single athlete I’ve talked to in all cities, they’re aiming at winning it this season,” she said.

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“I’m getting to know Toronto very well. It’s a world-class city, a sports city where people are passionate about their teams. What other city would you want to represent in the women’s game, with the amount of players who come from here? The population of women’s hockey at the grass roots level in Ontario is 50% of Canada.”

Some players will have to change their childhood allegiances. The 29-woman Toronto roster — all of whom played NCAA hockey — includes Beaconsfield, Que., native Lauriane Rougeau, two more from Ottawa (Rebecca Leslie and Samantha Cogan) as well as goalie Erica Howe.

There are three Canadian defenders on Toronto who will have to cut ties to the Minnesota-area universities they attended, Jocelyne Larocque, Jessica Kondas and Olivia Knowles.

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Some of that old college friction from playdowns to the Frozen Four will surface around the league, too.

“There are going to be rivalries and I can’t wait to watch them grow,” said Burlington blueliner Renata Fast, a big Leafs fan growing up. “You think of the Battle of Ontario between Ottawa and Toronto, or Toronto-Montreal. Go back to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League days and that was the biggest rivalry ever at that time.”

When Toronto wasn’t involved in various incarnations of other leagues that came and went with so much instability in women’s club hockey prior to the PWHL, a perennially solid squad did exist in the suburbs, the Brampton Thunder.

Its star right winger, Jayna Hefford, now PWHL chairperson, was always going helmet-to-helmet with Montreal’s Caroline Ouellette, who just joined Hefford in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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“Those (Montreal-Brampton clashes) were very heated in my lifetime,” Ouellette said. “So, it’s going to be the same in the PWHL with Montreal-Toronto.”

Ouellette now coaches the Concordia University Stingers in Montreal, but doesn’t feel it’s win-or-bust for her hometown’s PWHL side.

“I didn’t mind the Leafs when I was growing up (supporting the Canadiens), it was more the games against the Bruins that I struggled with,” she said with a laugh. “They were so hated. Hopefully we can re-create that in the PWHL.

“I would still want Toronto to do well and I think when any Canadian teams win, we do well as a game and more kids get involved. They identify with who’s doing well. It brings a lot of visibility to the sport. Whether it’s Toronto or Edmonton (in the National Hockey League), I want them to have success.

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“In the PWHL, now you have the ability to compete for your city, your own club.”

There remains some grey area within the league, which has postponed the announcement of team names, schedules and home arenas until all their business and marketing plans are complete.

It is projected to begin play in early 2024 and there will be a break built in so players of all stripes can congregate for their national sides in the world championships and Olympics.

“Jayna and I were able to set rivalry aside (in the worlds), along with Jennifer Botterill,” Ouellette said. “They were two of my linemates most of my career.

“When we came together for Team Canada, we wanted to win for the red and white. They made me better, made me compete at the highest level possible.”

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The PWHL model eventually should result in better players getting into those best-on-best tournaments.

“I feel for kids right now, they’ve been waiting years for this,” Ouellette said. “I loved what I had in the CWHL (its first player to reach 300 points), but it was breaking my heart that they didn’t have a (highly publicized) championship, a goal-scoring championship trophy to follow through the season.

“Now they do. Six teams, the best in the world, it’s going to be incredible hockey and it’s going to work. People are craving it, they want to watch it.

Hefford is thinking beyond Toronto-Montreal.

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“When you add Ottawa into the mix, as an Original Six, there’s a lot of old rivalries that will be renewed.”

Michael Hirshfeld, GM of Ottawa, has Canadian national free agent Brianne Jenner and goalie Emerance Maschmeyer, and made American defenceman Savannah Harmon his first pick.

“There was certainly a rivalry between Caroline and myself that got intense at times,” Hefford said. “Not just us, but between other teammates. Yet the second you put on the Canada jersey, it was quite different and I hope that (spirit) stays alive in the PWHL.”

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