Undrafted free agents staking their claim as PWHL Toronto settles in

Get the latest from Mike Ganter straight to your inbox

Article content

PWHL Toronto head coach Troy Ryan expects he will spend most of January adjusting his line combinations, looking for the best chemistry among his players.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Even in the midst of the opening game he was tinkering with lines, looking for that perfect mix.

Article content

For the first two periods of the opener Ryan had captain Blayre Turnbull centring a line between fellow national team member Sarah Nurse and undrafted free agent Samantha Cogan.

Cogan has played internationally for Canada as well, but not with those two players, though all three did come through the successful NCAA program at Wisconsin.

Cogan was one of the first players Ryan mentioned coming out of the pre-season camp in Utica. He liked the way she had performed, filling a role that needed filling.

It’s what got her that first look on the top line with Turnbull and Nurse, no small feat considering the options Ryan had then and has now.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

But the Canadian national team head coach has plenty of experience matching players to bring out the best in them and he is in no rush to settle on anything at the moment.

The lone pair Ryan said he will not mess with is his top defensive unit of Renata Fast and Jocelyne Larocque, arguably the top defensive pairing in women’s hockey today.

Samantha Cogan of Toronto goes to the net.
Samantha Cogan (17) of Toronto goes to the net against Corinne Schroeder (30) of New York during the second period of their PWHL hockey game at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto on Monday, Jan. 1, 2024. Photo by Mark Blinch /Getty Images

For Cogan, it’s all part of the process.

The Ottawa native, who now lives in Calgary and spent some time on the Calgary Dinos women’s hockey team coaching staff, said she was a little surprised not to be drafted given her hockey resume, but rather than pout about it has used that to fuel her.

“I just came in with something to prove,” Cogan said. “Honestly, I trained hard all summer and when I got here I knew I was ready and knew I deserved to be here. I just had to go out there and prove it.

Advertisement 4

Article content

“I could have gone one of two ways with it – really sour and bitter about it but I was fortunate that I picked the other way and just came in with a little chip on my shoulder and a fire under my butt that I needed. Then it was just: ‘Let’s get to work here and show them they made a mistake.’ ”

Kaitlin Willoughby took a similar path to her spot on the Toronto PWHL roster, but she had her own unique approach as well.

She has been around the national program, like Cogan, but never quite cracked the lineup.

Anyone who has seen Willoughby skate will attest to her blazing speed and effortless stride. It stands out the way Brittany Howard’s shot stands out.

“My speed has always been my strong suit for sure,” she said. “Now when you get to this level you realize there are other things you need to also work on. So that’s been my focus here, working on my weaknesses and figuring out how I can use my speed to create offensive chances. Handle the puck with confidence, come out of a forecheck and make a play, so just taking that to the next level.”

Advertisement 5

Article content

She honed her skating skills as a child skating countless laps at the arena in her hometown of Canwood, Sask. The last census had Canwood’s population at 314, so when Willoughby says she grew up in a small town, she really does mean small, but there are advantages to that for sure.

“Growing up in a small town you had access to the rink all the time so I would go there for hours and just skate laps,” she said. Her father Jeff and mother Diana were huge hockey advocates, so there was never any question about spending too much time at the rink.

Recommended from Editorial

Her advanced speed was a start, but a willingness to fill a necessary role helped Willoughby lock down a spot on this roster.

Advertisement 6

Article content

“You see the roster and you know how skilled players are and you also know that not every single player on the team can be a skilled goal scorer,” Willoughby said. “I came in with the mindset that I was hoping the coaches would like to have a player on their team who can shut down top lines and play on the penalty kill. I knew I fit that role so I came in with that mindset – I’m going to do what I’m good at and hope the coaches see that.

In a little less than a month that role, like Cogan’s linemates, could flip, but regardless what they end up doing, both women already have won just securing a place for themselves in the PWHL.

[email protected]

Article content