PWHL Toronto hits the midway point adapting and succeeding

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Toronto PWHL hits the halfway point of its schedule Friday night and with few exceptions the season has at least matched and often exceeded every expectation Renata Fast had of it.

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The veteran defender and member of Troy Ryan’s leadership team was one of three foundational players signed by the team in advance of the draft.

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Fast already was a well-known player, having made a huge impression with the Canadian national team. She had previous league experiences in the CWHL and with the PWHPA series, but came into the PWHL expecting bigger, better and faster things than any league she had experienced before.

Her expectations have only been exceeded.

“Aside from our early results as a team, I think it’s beyond anything we could have expected. Everything has gone so smooth, the attendance at our games and just the feeling around the city has been so much more than I expected. It’s even bigger.”

But there was bound to be one area that caught even a veteran like Fast off guard, and that area was in how much the opposition changed from game to game.

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“Every team kind of plays a little bit of a different game,” Fast said. “I think we got so used to playing similar opponents all the time the last couple of years that this year with five opponents, every time it’s a new game plan.

“You have to be a lot more aware of other teams,” she said. “So, I think that’s something that has kind of taken some getting used to. This is a new opponent. We have to run the page right away after a game, regardless of the result, good or bad, just get prepared for that next game because it’s going quick. That’s been the biggest adjustment, I would say.”

It has been an adjustment for Ryan, too, from his national team duties to the PWHL.

The time a national team gets leading up to a major international tournament is so condensed, and the tournament itself is so condensed, that there’s no time to focus on opponents.

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“We actually include way more information about the opposition here than I ever would the national team,” Ryan said. “I almost barely talk about the opposition with the national team because you have such a short time period together, you have to work on you. You can’t focus too much on the opposition.

“Here, we have plenty of time to work on us but plenty of time to make adjustments to the opposition as well,” he said.

Another area the women in the PWHL are experiencing for the first time is a season in which they are hopping around from city to city. In past women’s leagues, the travel was restricted mostly to weekends.

Fast said she and most of her teammates are enjoying that part of the pro life, although with everyone still flying commercial, she admits Toronto has been luckier than some of their counterparts.

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“I think it’s been fun actually,” Fast said. “The road trips have been great. We have been very lucky in Toronto. We have had very smooth travel. I don’t think all the teams have had smooth travel. But it’s been fun to travel as a team. Get to the airport, get into a routine. People are noticing us in the airport like ‘It’s Team Toronto’ which is a pretty cool feeling, so yeah, the travel has been great to hit different markets and get in and out of the city and back home.”

Fast has been busier than most in many aspects of the current season. For one, she and national team and PWHL Toronto defence partner Jocelyne Larocque are logging more minutes than any other player in the league.

On top of it, both also have stayed on the ice through the international breaks that the league built in to accommodate things such as the Rivalry Series and the upcoming world championship.

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Fast fully expects the PWHL to impact international hockey in a variety of ways.

“I think for Canada and the U.S., there are going to be players who come out a couple of years out of university, play in this league, have success and then they get their chance at the national team. So I think there are going to be players that are going to get noticed later in their careers.”

“I think there is going to be more turnover on the national team too, because there are players that are playing longer. And I think it will grow the game internationally, the more we can get from other countries, it’s only going to make all of them better and grow all the other nations.”

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Natalie Spooner leads the PWHL in goals with 10 and is second in points with 11, but she’s going to have a new linemate Friday night.

“That line I though was playing great,” Ryan said. “I thought (Emma) Maltais was a big reason that line was playing great, but as a coach … you need a line that can just play against anybody. So a goal happens, a penalty kill happens, a power play happens, boom, you have your line. A lot of times it’s going to be Blayre Turnbull. I have just learned to rely on her in so many situations but she needs someone similar and that’s where Maltais is perfect. Now you go Maltais and Turnbull and you can kind of have anybody playing with them. Maggie (Conners) will give them a little offensive flair.

That leaves Spooner with Sarah Nurse and Hannah Miller replacing Maltais on that unit.

“I told Spooner today, I can’t have our top scorer starting all her shifts taking defensive zone faceoffs against (Marie-Philip) Poulin,” Ryan said. “It’s just not good math. You need someone else to be able to play those tough minutes so your offensive people can produce.”

Toronto plays host to New York tonight at Mattamy Athletic Centre. Puck drop is 7 p.m.

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