Toronto's PWHL team opens camp, big on dreams, shy on details

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It mattered little to Gina Kingsbury that training camp opened Wednesday without a team name, home arena or schedule.

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Toronto’s general manager was proudly overlooking the pad at the Ford Centre where 29 women buzzed through medicals, got fitted for equipment and happily filled out paperwork. The Professional Women’s Hockey League and its potential flagship franchise is a living, breathing entity — minus bells and whistles for now.

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“It’s hard to put into words how we’re all feeling, this is years in the making,” Kingsbury said, alongside coach Troy Ryan and players Natalie Spooner, Blayre Turnbull and Renata Fast. “They can’t wait to get on the ice wearing the PWHL logo.

“We’re still getting to know each other, unpacking boxes (the TORONTO sign on the team office just went up), but there’s something unique about the bare walls. We want to see our athletes build from scratch. We’ve told the players and staff ‘You’re painting the walls, creating our identity.’

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“With the fans’ help, we’ll be able to create a franchise in Toronto we all belong to.”

But there’s little there to chew on yet as all six franchises (Montreal, Ottawa, New York, Boston, Minnesota) are in joint operation by the league and its high-roller owners, who’ve held back on revealing the aforementioned planks of the season set to starts sometime in January of 2024. The locals’ sweater colours were posted Tuesday, Cambridge blue with black trim and Toronto across the front.

“Everybody wants the schedule to be announced, see where we’re going to play, but with the timelines (the September draft, free agent signings, launching on ice), I’m okay with that,” Kingsbury said. “I’m beyond excited for our first game, but I’ll take every day, hour and second I have to get ready.”

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Turnbull, a Nova Scotia native, said she’s good to wait until Year 2 if need be to find out a team name, putting trust in the league hierarchy, the Mark Walter Group, part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chelsea F.C.  There has been too long a wait, from attempts to sustain interest in the Canadian women’s national program from the 1990s through several false starts with a viable women’s league that would pay players to rock the boat, even though the league is taking heat for moving slowly.

“Today was like the first day of school,” national team member Turnbull said of knowing some, but not all of the Toronto roster.

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While the 29 Toronto campers had a convivial team dinner Tuesday, it’s down to business later in the week. They have to cut to 23 by Dec. 11, with some exhibition games in Utica, N.Y., the week before.

“We’ve opened positions here, signed (only) 15 athletes, so it’s not like free agents are coming to fight for one position,” Kingsbury said. “It’s a tryout and we want to see who fits the puzzle our coaches will build.”

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Both Kingsbury and Ryan are also contracted to the national team, with the PWHL structuring a break in its schedule for the world championships for the best players of both Canada and the U.S.

Kingsbury said she and Ryan can be flexible with their roster, either 13 forwards, seven defence and three goalies or adding or deleting one player up front or back.

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“There will be pressure all over the ice, defensively and offensively,” Ryan forecast of his team’s style. “This group, that’s the way they want to play and that’s the way we want to coach.”

The Ford Centre logistics, with the Maple Leafs and Marlies often practising with the new women in town, will allow Ryan the occasional opportunity to compare strategy notes with Sheldon Keefe and John Gruden.

“Sheldon and I coached together back in his (Provincial Jr. A) Pembroke days and was in the Hockey Canada program the same time I was,” Ryan said. “He was the first person to reach out with a text when I was announced by Toronto. He’ll be great to bounce ideas off from time to time.”

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