PWHL

Mikyla Grant-Mentis fighting for one of few jobs with PWHL Ottawa as team hits the ice

Friday's practice was the first for the Ottawa team, and the first chance for Grant-Mentis to show the vision and offensive skill that made her MVP of the Premier Hockey Federation in 2021.

Former Premier Hockey Federation MVP 'excited to fight for my spot' in new league

Mikyla Grant-Mentis of the PHF's Toronto Six smiles through the cage of her helmet after scoring a goal.
Former Premier Hockey Federation MVP Mikayla Grant-Mentis, seen above in 2022, is vying for one of just six spots on PWHL Ottawa's final roster. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Mikyla Grant-Mentis grinned ear to ear as she kneeled on the TD Place ice, chatting with Ottawa head coach Carla MacLeod.

The Professional Women's Hockey League (PWHL) team hit the ice for the first time on Friday, and for Grant-Mentis, it was a moment she's been craving since she arrived in Ottawa earlier this week.

"It was awesome," Grant-Mentis said after her first practice. "It was the best time I've ever had at a practice, to be honest."

It was the first chance for Grant-Mentis to show the vision and offensive skill that made her MVP of the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) in 2021, and the start of her battle to lock down one of six roster spots remaining in Ottawa.

"I've never been put in this position before, so I'm excited to fight for my spot," Grant-Mentis said. "What I would bring would be just my heart, my grit and then the fun aspect of hockey as well because I'm a little bit of a jokester sometimes."

It also marks the end of a turbulent and extra long off-season for the 25-year-old from Brampton. Grant-Mentis planned to return to the PHF's Buffalo Beauts on a contract that was due to pay her in the neighbourhood of six figures.

A female hockey player is smiling as she kneels and speaks to her coach. The player is wearing a black jersey that says PWHL on it.
Grant-Mentis, right, shares a laugh with head coach Carla MacLeod during PWHL Ottawa's first practice on Friday. (Kim Valliere/Radio-Canada)

That all changed when the PHF was sold and shut down at the end of June, with the new owenship group creating the PWHL in its place.

"After a couple of days of processing, I came to the realization this is probably the best, to get all the best players in one league and really build up the women's game from the ground up, " Grant-Mentis said. "It sucked, but at the same time it was a good thing for women's hockey."

Grant-Mentis was able to focus entirely on hockey last season, quitting her second job as a delivery driver. But she found herself looking for work again this summer while waiting for the PWHL to begin. She found jobs working at a golf course, bartending and coaching.

12 players fighting for six jobs

All 15 rounds of September's draft passed without Grant-Mentis hearing her name.

But it didn't take long for her phone to ring. She heard from MacLeod and Ottawa GM Mike Hirshfeld as soon as teams could contact free agents, something she said made a difference in deciding to accept a tryout with Ottawa.

A female goaltender wearing a white jersey is pictured over the shoulder of a skater wearing a black jersey, with Howran written on it.
Defender Victoria Howran and goalie Maschmeyer are pictured at PWHL Ottawa's first practice on Friday. (Kim Valliere/Radio-Canada)

She'll be entering a league that's building from scratch, with team names and logos yet to be determined. Grant-Mentis isn't deterred by that. After stepping on to the ice on Friday, and getting to know the team this week, she feels like her long off-season was worth it to be here.

"With the PHF, we had eight years to really get to where we were last year," she said.

"This is the first year, things aren't all going to go the right way. But as long as we all learn from it and we can make it better for the second year, I think that's honestly the way it has to be. Nothing's ever perfect the first year."

Eleven other players join Grant-Mentis in fighting for the last roster spots available. Hirshfeld, who watched Friday's practice from the TD Place stands, will need to make two cuts by Nov. 29, and plans to lock in his 23-player roster by Dec. 9. The league will begin play in January.

Ottawa has only nine forwards under contract, which could work in Grant-Mentis' favour. The group of seven forwards vying for a spot also includes Natalie Snodgrass, a nominee for PHF rookie of the year with the Minnesota Whitecaps last season, and Akane Shiga, a star on the Japanese national team.

A hockey team kneels in front of the boards, as their coach shows them a play.
Players on PWHL Ottawa hit the ice for the first time on Friday, beginning with a full-ice scrimmage. (Karissa Donkin/CBC)

Hirshfeld said he promised players who accepted a tryout with Ottawa that they will have a real chance to grab a spot.

"If you play to your abilities, you buy into our culture, you try and fit in, you're a good teammate, you're going to have a legitimate shot to make this team."

Grant-Mentis has already left a good impression with at least one teammate: forward Emily Clark, who played alongside her during line rushes. She said Grant-Mentis was fun to watch and good at making herself available for a pass.

"Her patience and her spots to shoot are pretty incredible," Clark said. "I think I can learn a lot from her this season."

'Something special cooking'

Stepping on the ice for the team's first ever practice, MacLeod took in the moment. She filmed a short video to send to her mom.

There's always talk in women's hockey of changing things for future generations, but on this day, MacLeod thought of the women who came before in leagues gone by, who dreamed of this day too but never got to see it as a player.

MacLeod began practice with a full-ice scrimmage followed by line rushes, all part of her desire to make sure players had fun during their first on-ice session.

The scrimmage showed some early hints of chemistry, including what looks like a connection between Brianne Jenner and Gabbie Hughes, who's in her first year of professional hockey but stood out at the Rivalry Series for Team USA earlier this month.

A female hockey player smiles, with an ice surface behind her.
Forward Emily Clark says the Ottawa team already has special energy. (Kim Valliere/Radio-Canada)

But MacLeod isn't focused on making lines just yet. She has time on her side: The team will spend six weeks in camp, including a trip to Utica, New York next month for a series of pre-season scrimmages against the other PWHL teams.

"At the end of the day, the first thing is getting everyone comfortable so they can play to their max, and then beyond that, that's when you start to find chemistry," MacLeod said.

That doesn't mean the team hasn't started creating an identity. Hirshfeld has described his ideal team as gritty and skilled, filled with players who are good teammates. You can add the word fun to the list, one MacLeod has used a lot this week.

Clark can already see that vision taking shape.

"There's an energy about this group and definitely something special cooking," she said. "I just can't wait to see day by day, watch that grow."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. You can reach her at karissa.donkin@cbc.ca.

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