PWHL

How PWHL Ottawa was built from scratch in less than 80 days

Ottawa general manager Mike Hirshfeld is trying to make his team stand out from the pack of six, as he builds a team from scratch in a world where all his competitors share the same owner and resources.

Team will hit the ice for 1st time on Friday with 6 roster spots up for grabs

A man does an interview in front of a red screen.
PWHL Ottawa GM Mike Hirshfeld has emphasized strength and conditioning and mental performance when hiring his first staff. (Pierre-Paul Couture/Radio-Canada)

When players came to the rink in Ottawa for the second day of Professional Women's Hockey League (PWHL) training camp on Thursday, they got to spend much of the day talking about how to build their team culture.

That included working with the team's mental performance coach, Brenley Shapiro.

Having a sports psychologist on staff is common in a league like the NHL, but hasn't been commonplace in the world of women's hockey, where the list of staff has traditionally been razor thin.

It's one way Ottawa general manager Mike Hirshfeld is trying to make his team stand out from the pack of six, as he builds a team from scratch in a world where all his competitors share the same owner and resources. Each team got a budget to hire staff, and how they've chosen to spend that money differs across the league.

"We really felt like the mental performance was critical for us," Hirshfeld said on Thursday. "The strength and conditioning was critical for us. Having the best athletic therapists was critical for us."

Hirshfeld was the team's first employee when his hiring was announced in September. Seventy-four days later, the team now has about 15 staff on the payroll, not including the 29 players who are at training camp this week.

"We want to be the best team in the league," the GM said.

"We want to provide our players with as many resources as we can to help them succeed and help them flourish. We're very conscientious about the team that we built behind the team."

A woman does interviews with several reporters. You can see two microphones in front of her.
Jincy Roese was selected by Ottawa in the third round of the 2023 PWHL draft, one of three defenders in a row chosen by the team. (Pierre-Paul Couture/Radio-Canada)

On the ice, Hirshfeld has prioritized skill, grit and players who are good teammates.

When it came time for the draft, he was the only GM to use all of his first three picks on defenders, selecting Savannah Harmon, Ashton Bell and Jincy Roese, who have all logged time with their countries' national teams. He recognized the talent pool on defence was likely to empty faster than the pool of skilled forwards.

Collaboration a key word for GMs

Hirshfeld's path to being a general manager of a professional hockey team didn't just weave through ice rinks, but also baseball fields and boardrooms.

His first stop in Ottawa came more than a decade ago, when he was working for the Ottawa Lynx, a minor league baseball team that left the city in 2007.

He's also worked as a lawyer and in finance, and before joining PWHL Ottawa, served as executive director of the NHL Coaches' Association for seven years.

His background in law and finance trained him to think strategically and critically, which is why he's focusing his team's money on things that could help build culture now, with plans to eventually bolster areas like scouting.

But the most common word he uses when describing the vision for his team is collaboration, whether that's leaning on head coach Carla MacLeod or other hockey experts he's brought in when needed.

The team looked to Jess Campbell, a coach with the Coachella Valley Firebirds of the American Hockey League, for advice leading up to the draft. Earlier this week, before players arrived in Ottawa to begin camp, Claude Julien met with the coaching staff to offer advice on running a training camp.

"This is a year-long season that will ultimately be a next season and next season," Hirshfeld said. "There's some long-term planning, some short-term planning, some medium-term planning. So we're trying to make sure we're thinking of every eventuality."

Team to hit the ice on Friday

Much of Ottawa's camp so far been focused on getting all the new faces acquainted with one another, including a team scavenger hunt on Thursday.

That feeling out process moves to the rink on Friday, when the players hit the ice at TD Place for the first time.

"For us, it's less about worrying about combos and chemistry right now and just who do we have?" MacLeod, said.

"You can watch video on players, you can see them maybe with your eye but until you're on the ice with them, until you start seeing how they naturally play with others, I think we'd be doing a disservice for our group if we didn't just let them go play for a bit and see what we see."

A woman smiles as she does interviews.
PWHL Ottawa head coach Carla MacLeod will run the team's first practice on Friday. (Pierre-Paul Couture/Radio-Canada)

Going into camp, the team has 17 players under contract, leaving six roster spots open for 11 players who will try to fill them. Every team can have 23 players under contract, plus two reserve players, heading into the first season.

Those 17 contracts Hirshfeld has signed include every one of the team's draft picks, except for Caitrin Lonergan, who isn't at camp this year, and Audrey-Anne Veillette, who is injured.

Even though news of the contracts have been filtering out through the PWHL's social media channels over the last couple weeks, Hirshfeld said the team was finished signing players about three weeks ago.

He didn't want contract negotiations to be a distraction at training camp, but wasn't the only reason why he locked up players quickly.

"We [wanted] to get those players under contract because they get the housing stipend and the relocation expenses and all the benefits that we talked about," Hirshfeld said. "They only get that once they're under contract. That was important for me to make sure they had access to that."

Ottawa's camp invite list included the names of some of the biggest free agents who weren't drafted, including former Premier Hockey Federation MVP Mikyla Grant-Mentis and Becca Gilmore, who just returned from the Rivalry Series between Canada and the United States. Gilmore was signed to a one-year contract before camp, but Grant-Mentis will be vying for one of the available roster spots.

The team must cut at least two players from the camp roster by Nov. 29. The team will then head to Utica, New York, for several days of scrimmages against the other five teams.

Hirshfeld plans on having his final 23-player roster finalized by Dec. 9.

"I think we're going to try and keep the best players we can," Hirshfeld said. "The mix itself, whether it's 12 forwards or 11 forwards or seven or eight [defenders], we'll just let it play out and see how people perform."

When players hit the ice Friday, the players will be under evaluation. But MacLeod also wants to make sure they're having fun.

"If you can start to cultivate that, that's just as critical of a skill as defending a two-on-one," she said. "We're going to try to build the different facets of our game and one of them is enjoyment. We're going to make sure that's a priority."

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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