A view from the ice as the NWHL bubble season begins

Toronto Six forward Breanne Wilson-Bennett and Metropolitan Riveters defender Saroya Tinker on the ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Jan 23, 2021. (Michelle Jay)

Lindsay Eastwood is a rookie blueliner on the Toronto Six, the NWHL’s newest franchise. She’ll be blogging for Sportsnet throughout the league’s bubble season, taking place from Jan. 23 to Feb. 5.

This was a weekend of many firsts. We played in our first game as a franchise, I played in my first professional hockey game, and I scored my first professional goal — which was also the first goal in Toronto Six history:

When I popped the puck in the net in the first period of our game versus the Minnesota Whitecaps on Sunday, I wasn’t thinking about franchise history. I was thinking about how we had grabbed the lead. It wasn’t until I went on social media after the game that I realized how special the goal was. My name is now the answer to a Canadian sports trivia question: Who scored the first-ever goal for the Toronto Six?

The outpouring of support was amazing, and it truly touched me as a player. Friends and family reached out along with what felt like the entire Toronto Six fan base. When I say Toronto hockey fans are the most passionate, I mean it. You all are the best.

Being from Ottawa, all of my friends from back home have had a hard time saying they’ll cheer for a Toronto team. But after our first two games, I think it’s safe to say we’ve converted them.

I must admit I was extremely nervous leading up to opening weekend. Ahead of game one, I was sick to my stomach with butterflies. It was a weird experience because I hadn’t been nervous for a hockey game in years, and hadn’t been this nervous since I ran track and field in the eighth grade.

But the nerves come with the territory; I was playing at a totally new level with a much faster pace, and my speed is one of my biggest insecurities as a player. Skating is something I’m constantly working at on and off the ice in order to get faster. So I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up.

The audience also added to the nerves. I knew there would be a lot of eyes on us this weekend for our inaugural games. The NWHL naturally has a larger following than my college team, Syracuse University, even in a normal season for the league. Our first game ended with 40,000 total viewers on Twitch. That laps the audience total of every other game I’ve ever played.

Once I got a few shifts under my belt in our first game versus the Metropolitan Riveters, the nerves drifted away and didn’t come back until our shootout against Minnesota in game two, which we unfortunately lost.

In our first two games I really noticed the level of play is much faster and much more aggressive than I’m used to. Players like Allie Thunstrom of the Whitecaps can give guys in the NHL a run for their money in a puck race. I was nearly eating her dust on the back check.

Not to mention that after going into the corner with the Riveters’ Kelly Babstock, I learned really quickly to brace myself. I noticed that everyone you go to battle with is leading with their body, not their stick. That meant I had to get low and use my body as well. Lucky for me, I’m six feet tall — make that 6’2” on skates — and not a lanky six feet, so my size is my biggest advantage in those situations.

Overall, I think we grew as a team this weekend. Heading into our first game, we didn’t know what to expect. We had never played as a team before. We’ve had only a handful of full-team practices. But we felt the growing pains and worked out the kinks, and started finding our groove.

I could tell we were getting better and better each game. This came as no surprise to me. We knew these games weren’t going to be easy, and we’re a team that’s growing. It gives me confidence to see us improving so quickly.

And although we have yet to pick up our first win, did it ever feel good to be back out there competing. I haven’t had that in-game adrenaline rush for so long — it had been 334 days since I last played in a hockey game. For the first time in almost a year, I felt alive.

Needless to say, Monday’s day off is much needed after back-to-back games. My recovery day consists of drinking my body weight in water, taking some walks to get the legs moving, and — I can’t emphasize this more — stretching.

I think I can attest that every hockey player’s hips are sore from the beginning until the end of a season. Mine are extra sore this time around due to the extended off-season and jam-packed two-week schedule. (And I can’t blame it on age yet, as I’m only 24 and a rookie.) That said, during the game my legs and lungs felt pretty good despite the higher pace than I’m used to. I was expecting them to feel way worse on the ice.

So, what did I walk away with after opening weekend of the NWHL bubble season? A bruise the size of a softball, major T6 pride, and faith for the big things ahead for our team this season and into the future.

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