Gabel and Fortino excited for latest PWHPA showcase in Toronto

Team Sonnet Ella Shelton, left, celebrates a goal with teammate Loren Gabel during first period PWHPA Dream Tour hockey action. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

A couple of days ago, PWHPA All-Star Loren Gabel made a bold prediction ahead of this weekend’s Dream Gap Tour showcase in Toronto.

“Toronto is going to be playing in the final for sure,” the forward said of her team, with gusto. “Come on, it’s our town!”

You had to love her confidence. And on Friday, Gabel’s prediction came true, albeit a bit early. It turns out her Toronto squad didn’t have to win its way into the final, after all. Toronto’s getting a bye straight there.

On Friday, the PWHPA announced that Montreal, has pulled out of this weekend’s Toronto showcase due to Quebec’s new restrictions around COVID-19. What that means is Toronto will go straight to Sunday’s final and play the winner of Calgary and Minnesota, who face off on Saturday at Port Credit Arena.

Fans who had tickets to Saturday’s previously sold out 4 p.m. game will be refunded, as the league is taking safety precautions, so it’ll be played in front of no fans. Sunday’s final, however, is still set for 2 p.m. at Scotiabank Arena, and since it can be filled to half capacity, fans can buy tickets on Ticketmaster. The game will also be broadcast live on Sportsnet and Sportsnet ONE, and for the first time ever in Canadian broadcast history, the game will also be live-streamed on Sportsnet’s TikTok account.

Sportsnet has a lineup of Olympic medallists contributing to Sunday’s broadcast, in Manon Rheaume, Jennifer Botterill and Sami Jo Small. Also involved in the broadcast are Ailish Forfar, Caroline Cameron, Faizal Khamisa, Harnarayan Singh and Jeff Marek (none of them won Olympic medals, though).

Two-time Olympian Laura Fortino did, and the Toronto defender will be playing in Sunday’s final. She’ll have her parents, three brothers, and a bunch of cousins and aunts and uncles in the crowd.

“I think this one hits a little closer to home for us, we’re from here and our team’s from Toronto,” said Fortino, who’s a long-time former member of Team Canada. She assisted the overtime Olympic game-winner in 2014, when she faked a shot and then made a beauty of a pass to a wide open Marie-Philip Poulin, who hammered it home for the win, as Poulin has been known to do (over and over and over again).

“I think the excitement, the anticipation – you could tell at practice this week, the jump is a little higher and we’re just really looking forward to the weekend,” Fortino added.

Fortino is a six-time world championship medallist, and both she and Gabel were on the team that won bronze at the 2019 worlds. But when Canada named its roster for centralization ahead of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, both players were released.

They had a chance to play their former teammates last weekend as members of the PWHPA all-star team, in a two-game series to help the national team prepare for Beijing. And the PWHPA all-stars nearly earned a victory, tying up Saturday’s game late in the third, but eventually settled for a 3-2 loss.

“I thought we were gonna pull out the win — it was a great game, it was so intense,” Fortino said. “And we’re doing something bigger than ourselves, we’re showing that the gap between the national team and the all-stars is not very big.”

“Us just putting a team together for one weekend, I think it showcases a lot about women’s hockey and the talent that there is in our game,” added Gabel. “We’re not playing with players we usually play with, we didn’t even have a full practice. Knowing that that’s what we went into, I think it was just a great and positive experience. It would’ve been nice to get a ‘W’ but they obviously played really well.”

Gabel’s release from the national team earlier this year came as a surprise to her, and to many. The 24-year-old put up a point per game in her senior world championship debut in 2019. There, she was MVP of a game against Finland, was named to the all-tournament team and tied teammate Natalie Spooner for second-most goals in the tournament, with six. In 2019, Gabel earned the Patty Kazmaier Award as the best player in NCAA college hockey, and she holds the all-time goal-scoring record at Clarkson, with 116.

“Honestly, it definitely stung a lot when I first found out,” Gabel said, of her release from Team Canada. But she points out surrounding herself with positive people has been key, and she’s continuing to dedicate herself to working on her game, putting in daily time in the gym and skating and skills work in addition to her team’s twice-a-week practices. It’s a future goal for Gabel to get back on that national team. “Over the last year, my confidence honestly has been rising,” she added.

It has helped to have Fortino by her side, too, playing in Toronto. “We’ve been there for each other and have been really positive with each other,” Gabel said. The pair are even teaming up to run The Laura Fortino Hockey Christmas Development Camp in Hamilton, Ont., over the holidays.

In addition to running hockey camps, Fortino also works in nutritional services at Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton, where two or three days a week she assists dieticians to ensure patients have all their nutritional needs taken care of. “To work in that field is pretty amazing,” Fortino said. “I think the biggest thing that’s hard to see is the shortage of nurses, and just seeing how that affects patient care, and these nurses — I have such a high regard for nurses. I always have but when you see it firsthand? They’re exhausted and they go through a lot on a shift and then the shortage and that all affects patient care.

“I try to go above and beyond and help the nurses in the best way I can. It’s a team effort but it’s certainly been challenging.”

Rewarding, too, she adds. And Fortino puts in all this work in addition to pursuing a Masters in Education, working with the Hamilton Bulldogs in player development, doing private skills sessions to keep her game sharp, and playing for the PWHPA’s Toronto chapter. “It’s busy,” she said.

Fortino is on the ice three or four days a week for practice, but there’s nothing like an actual game, of course. Sunday at Scotiabank Arena will be just the seventh game of the season for both Gabel and Fortino.

“Every chance we get together to play in a game, we make it count and have fun and it’s a positive environment,” said Gabel, who had an assist in two games at the last Dream Gap stop in Truro, NS. “Playing games is something we always look forward to and I think that brings more hype to this weekend as well, being at home.”

“I’m just so excited for this weekend and excited for our team,” added Fortino, who had a goal at the first PWHPA stop of the season. “Any time you have a showcase in your home city in front of your home crowd, it’s so special.”

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