Home games, fans and congregating in their own locker room are hockey-season cornerstones the Toronto Six didn’t get in its expansion year.
The COVID-19 pandemic not only limited the Six to a seven-game season, but curtailed the players’ interaction on and off the ice because of gathering restrictions.
The Six opened training camp this week at Canlan Sports-York looking forward to a more “normal” second season of practices and games in a rebranded league.
“This is going to be a totally different year. It’s like we’re starting all over again, kind of,” Six forward Mikyla Grant-Mentis told The Canadian Press.
The Premier Hockey Federation opens its seventh season Nov. 6 after six years as the NWHL.
Lifting the word ‘women’ out of the league’s name works for Grant-Mentis, who last season became the first Black woman to be named league MVP.
“We just want to be called professional athletes,” said the 23-year-old from Brampton, Ont. “We all play in this league, but not everyone identifies as female. It’s being inclusive.”
Toronto is the lone Canadian club in the six-team league alongside the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters and Minnesota Whitecaps.
The PHF plans to expand to Montreal in 2022-23.
Toronto kicks off a 20-game regular season Nov. 6 on the road in Buffalo before hosting the Whale in weekend series Nov. 20-21.
The league announced in April it would double the salary cap for each team this season to US$300,00, which is an average of $15,000 per player on a 20-woman roster.
“The increase in the salary cap was a huge stepping stone for the league,” Grant-Mentis said.
“We’re not making millions at the moment. We obviously can’t live off this money at the moment, but we’re going in the right direction. Probably in three or four years we’ll be making enough we won’t have to work at another job.”
BTM Partners owns the Six, the Pride and the Riveters. Johanna Neilson Boynton is chairman of the Six and husband John Boynton holds the same position with the Riveters.
Toronto played its expansion season in a bubble in Lake Placid, N.Y., in front of no spectators at Herb Brooks Arena.
The Six went 4-1-1 and clinched the top seed in the Isobel Cup playoffs, which were suspended Feb. 3 on the eve of the semifinals because of COVID-19 cases among players.
Instead of crowning a champion after 24 games over 14 days, the season halted after 15 games.
“It was very short, but I would describe it as very explosive,” Grant-Mentis said.
“We didn’t start off very hot in the bubble and then out of nowhere, it was like ‘boom,’ and we were on a high the whole time. Obviously then things got shut down, which kind of sucked. I think if the tournament kept going nothing would have stopped us.”
The Cup was eventually rescheduled for March in Brighton, Mass. Toronto lost 6-2 in a semifinal to eventual champion Boston.
Grant-Mentis tied for the regular-season lead in points with five goals and four assists in six games in Lake Placid. She also had a goal and an assist in the semifinal loss to Boston in Brighton.
First-year coach Digit Murphy stepped out of that job, but continues as Six president and director of player personnel. Mark Joslin of Richmond Hill, Ont., is Toronto’s second coach in as many years.
He most recently coached and managed the Toronto Patriots of the Ontario Junior Hockey League for four seasons.
Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James joined the Six coaching staff as an assistant.
“We’ve been friends for almost 40 years,” Joslin said. “When I got this opportunity, it was a no-brainer. AJ was my first call. I crossed my fingers and held my breath and she took the invitation with open arms.”
The Six has eight returning players from last season, including two goaltenders. The team has a custom-built locker room at Canlan and skates on an Olympic-sized ice surface.
“The York University facility that we’re playing at, they’ve built an absolute gorgeous pro-style locker room,” Joslin said. “We have our dryland facility and dryland strength and fitness coach there.”
The Six skates twice a week during training camp, and Joslin wants to eventually increase that to three times.
The PHF doesn’t include players on the Canadian and U.S. national teams, who have previously refused to join the NWHL.
They belong to the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) which is working toward a sustainable league with a living wage and competitive supports the male pros get.
The NHL is taking a wait-and-see approach with the two women’s hockey entities before it gets involved in a women’s pro league.
The PHF requires, players, coaches, officials and team staff who come into contact with each other on a daily or weekly basis to be fully vaccinated, but “medical and religious exemptions to vaccination will be considered on an individual basis by the commissioner’s office,” the league says on its website.
Weekly PCR tests, temperature check before practices and games and daily health surveys are also among the PHL’s COVID-19 protocols, as well as wearing masks except when on the ice or during strenuous training.
“I think to the best of our abilities we will be able to have a normal season this year,” Grant-Mentis said. “We’ll be able to be together more, travel, be on the bus and fly places. That’s when teams gel the most.”
— With files from The Associated Press