‘It feels real’: PWHL takes monumental step forward with historic draft

Taylor Heise gets selected first overall by Minnesota to headline the recap of the PWHL's inaugural draft.

TORONTO — The lights were bright, the music was blasting, fans had their Sharpies in hand, the purple carpet had been vacuumed several times to ensure it was pristine — not a speck of debris in sight — and then in came the stars.

Marie-Philip Poulin strode down that carpet wearing a green-and-white checkered jacket, matching pants and bright white sneakers. Renata Fast sported a diamond-studded suit. Emerance Maschmeyer threw her beige jacket over her shoulder and struck a variety of poses for cameras. Kendall Coyne stopped to sign autographs for fans and then smiled as she looked out at a packed crowd in the atrium of CBC Toronto’s downtown office. 

Among the faces in that crowd: The one and only Billie Jean King, sporting pink-and-purple rimmed eyeglasses.

The moment was historic. It was big. It was flashy. It was, to quote American star forward Taylor Heise: “Iconic.”

On Monday afternoon, the Professional Women’s Hockey League held its inaugural draft to fill out the six-team league set to open its first-ever season, next January.

Minnesota, to nobody’s surprise, used the first overall pick to select the Minnesota-born Heise, the 23-year-old who owns a world championship MVP and Patty Kazmaier award.

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The first-ever No. 1 pick sat in the crowd, straight-faced, right up until the moment when King — the Billie Jean King, one of the backers and biggest champions of the PWHL — announced her name as No. 1. Then a smile took over Heise’s face as she stood up and hugged her parents, walked up to the stage and was congratulated by King and Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, the league’s senior vice-president of hockey operations.

“Being here, seeing the draft, seeing the purple carpet, seeing all my friends here, I think that’s what made it feel real,” Heise said of a moment she earlier described as “surreal.”

“This is really awesome, and I think this league is going to be one to be reckoned with.”

If Monday was any indication, the PWHL will be. So many of the best female hockey players on the planet were in the same building, and in a few months they’ll all play in the same league and they’ll be paid living wages. At last. The PWHL has been years in the making, and Monday was a big, professional step.

It was King who kicked off the afternoon. “Trailblazing is bold, it’s brave, and it can be very scary,” she told the crowd. “But it’s worth it.”

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Jocelyne Larocque, who was Toronto’s pick at No. 2 overall, used the word “ecstatic” more than once to describe the feeling of being drafted to the PWHL. The 35-year-old is one of the best defenders in the world, and she’s won two Olympic gold medals and three world championship titles, but she wasn’t sure she’d ever play in a truly professional league.

“I’ve been playing hockey for many years, and the WWHL and the CWHL had so many skilled players from all across the world, but this feels different, and it is different because of the infrastructure behind it,” Larocque said. “I was getting a little worried that I’d maybe be a fan once all of this happened, but the fact that I’ll get to play, I’m ecstatic and I couldn’t be more excited.”

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Toronto also got perhaps the biggest steal of the draft, picking up Natalie Spooner 24th overall, in round No. 4. The two-time Olympic gold medallist applied for a PWHL compassionate circumstance waiver so that she and her family — her husband and nine-month-old son, Rory — could stay together and continue to live outside of Toronto.

Rory, who was looking sharp in a brown bowtie while he periodically chewed on a plastic carrot, got a hug from Spooner before she headed up to the stage, and he was also standing (assisted, by Spooner’s husband) and watching her press conference.

Spooner was one of the last players to arrive, wearing a shiny green suit with purple piping, and a mega-watt smile. 

“I was in awe,” the forward said, of the moment she walked into the building. “It was amazing. The energy, all the little girls that were lining that purple carpet, they were so excited, it just set the tone for the whole evening, and the setup is amazing.

“You can’t call it anything less than monumental, the fact that we’re here — we’re having a draft for a professional women’s league that has all the right bones in place, has everything in place to be so successful.”

“Today was the moment where it feels real,” Larocque added.

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In the leadup to Monday, Heise had been recording how she was feeling and what she was doing, sometimes on paper, sometimes in her phone.

“I wrote down what I did, the days I did it, just to make sure that I remember this for the rest of my life,” she said. “It’s a piece of history that I’m going to want to hang on to.”

And she isn’t nearly done writing. “I think I’m going to be doing a lot of reflecting this next week,” Heise said, laughing.

Asked what it was like to have King call her name first overall, Heise said, “Oh my gosh,” and then tried to address the magnitude of the moment, but admitted she couldn’t and was just “talking around” what it all means and feels like. 

“I think on my flight home today, I’m going to be sitting there with my brain in a tussle,” she said, grinning.  

“It’s just an iconic moment that some people didn’t expect to happen and some people didn’t think would happen,” Heise added, of the draft. “So, for us, we always had faith, we always knew that we would get what we deserved one day. And I’m glad today’s that day.”

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