Ottawa PWHL players getting extra boost during big week at home

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Rarely if ever does an interview go by following an Ottawa PWHL home game without players and/or coach Carla MacLeod gushing about the support of the fans.

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This week they’re getting even more of it from visiting relatives and the boost comes at a time when they need all the help they can get.

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After starting the second half of their season Wednesday night at TD Place with a determined 4-2 victory over New York that lifted Ottawa out of last place and to within two points of a playoff spot, a bigger challenge presents itself with the next home game Saturday (3:30 p.m.).

Ottawa will be trying to put together its first-ever “winning streak” against a sizzling Toronto team that has strung together six victories in a row while outscoring opponents 20-8 in the process.

As of Thursday, the game was closing in on a sell-out with more than 8,000 tickets already snapped up — including seat reservations for some of the most important people in the lives of the home team.

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Among that group was Miki Hughes, a former volleyball star at Minnesota State University and the mother of Gabbie Hughes, whose fifth goal of the season was the winner against New York.

“It’s amazing (to score with mom in the crowd),” said Hughes, who had sole possession of the team scoring lead until Lexie Adzija later also notched her fifth with an empty-netter. “She’s here for a full week. It’s always exciting to have her here. She’s my biggest supporter and my best friend.”

Visiting from Calgary are Gary and Edna MacLeod, the parents of coach Carla MacLeod, as well as Carla’s former coach and mentor, Wally Kozak.

Carla had talked about wanting to win one for Wally on Wednesday.

“Obviously mom and dad witnessing anything is awesome, but to have Wally here was also really special,” MacLeod said after the game. “I played for him when I was 16 years old and he’s really the one that taught me the game. He helped me as a player achieve a lot of my goals and he’s helping me as a coach do the same, so when I’m unsure or just needing a little bit of a hockey talk, he’s my guy.

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“I’m thrilled he was here and I can’t wait to get his take on the game. He’s a lifelong teacher, and I’m really blessed person to have him in my world.”

Any kid who grew up playing hockey remembers the added incentive to perform well with dad, mom or another loved one in attendance.

Having lost seven of their previous eight, Ottawa was in dire need of a victory to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.

“You need those people around you,” MacLeod said. “We weren’t playing poorly, so it’s not like you’re at your wit’s end trying to figure things out. It’s just, how do you bolster the confidence so the confidence can match the play.

“Anyone that’s sort of around you that can help you and we’re certainly trying to take advantage.”

Meanwhile, pleased that she could reward the support given to her by adoring fans was Fanni Garat-Gasparics, whose first PWHL point was the shorthanded goal she scored to give Ottawa a 2-0 lead midway through the second period.

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Garat-Gasparics was born and raised in Budapest and, as the first player from Hungary in the league, she has become something of a cult hero for Hungarians at TD Place.

“I didn’t know most of them,” she said after the game. “But I got to know them because they message me or they came to me on the different (occasions) like when we had season-ticket holder meeting, they came to me and they they keep saying that they’re so proud of me because they have Hungarian relatives, or they’re half-Hungarian, or something related to Hungary.

“They keep saying that they’re so proud of me that I’m the first-ever Hungarian player to be in the best hockey league in the world. So that feels really good and I hope that they are smiling and I could do something for them too with this goal.”

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It was quite evident how important the goal was to her on a personal level.

“You got to prepare for the game every time mentally, the same way as you prepare for it physically,” Garat-Gasparics said. “I was mentally prepared. I wanted to score a goal so bad. I worked for it a lot.

“I felt like my monkey is now off of my back, you know how North American people say? That’s what I felt like 100%. I knew I’m going to score because I can do it. I just had to switch my mind and believe in it.”

Belief is a strong character trait of the entire Ottawa team, despite the fact it was in last place at the midway point of the season.

“Everybody knows that we are in a difficult situation, but this league is so tight that we will have ups and downs during the season, and we had a little bit more down or low momentum, but we knew that we will get out of it,” Garat-Gasparics said. “We put a lot of work to do that together and we knew that they only going to do this together, so we were just consistent on our structure and we believed that we can do it.”

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Hughes was adamant that the results are going to start landing in Ottawa’s favour.

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“I think we’ve done a lot of reflecting about the first half of the season here in the last couple of days, and switching that mindset to knowing that we’re not just building this program, to now we’re going to win games, we’re going to put teams away,” said the Minnesota native, who is clearly thrilled that Ottawa players have started celebrating home wins with the fans by performing the thunder clap that is popular at Vikings football games.

“Having that mindset going in (Wednesday) really helped us I think, no matter where the game was, at highs and lows. We knew we’re going to come away with the win and on the bench, you could just feel that energy from everyone.

“So that was that was huge.”

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