PWHL_ New York has a strong Canadian flavour to it

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PWHL Toronto gets another crack at that New York squad that dominated the season opener in a 4-0 win on New Year’s Day again Friday night in Bridgeport, Conn.

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New York lived up to expectations — something Toronto failed to do in the first game — using their team-wide speed to create chances in that season-opening win at the Mattamy Athletic Centre.

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Toronto hopes to turn the tables when the two teams square off the second time.

New York head coach Howie Draper, the long-time head coach — and only coach — the University of Alberta women’s team had before he made the move to New York to tackle this new challenge, had an inkling even before Monday’s game that his team might have a slight advantage given the enormity of the game well beyond what would happen on the ice.

“It’s hard to push down that emotion, that excitement about this momentous occasion that’s before us,” Draper said on the eve of the first ever PWHL game that moved women’s hockey into the professional ranks in a way no women’s league that came before could.

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“Maybe in some ways it’s good that we’re here in Toronto as the first away team,” he said before Game 1. “It takes the pressure off a little bit. It’s not our fans, it’s their fans. So I think maybe this will be a good place for us to start.”

Draper was bang on with that summation as his side came out focussed solely on the game while Toronto’s players admittedly got caught up in the occasion and the enormity of the game in terms of what it meant for women’s hockey around the world.

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There won’t be a repeat of that Friday according to more than a few players who will be wearing visitors jerseys on Friday.

The New York squad is led up front by a couple of familiar national team members from the U.S. squad but in the dressing room, the majority of the team have Canadian passports, not American.

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Jessie Eldridge, a Barrie native who was part of Canada’s World Championship gold medal in 2022 in Denmark, says nationality has never been an issue within the room, but admits being surrounded by familiar faces has made her first taste of the pros a rather easy adjustment.

“I think all of our staff except for a couple are Canadian so they’re pretty familiar with Canadians,” Eldridge said explaining the heavy Canuck presence on the roster. “(GM) Pascal (Daoust) being from Quebec got a bunch of us from the Montreal area that had trained together there so it makes it so comfortable coming in. It’s not a brand new group. You kind of have that familiarity with each other. Maybe we didn’t know each other as much away from the rink as we do now, but to be able to grow off those little connections is huge.”

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New York team captain Micah Zandee-Hart is Canadian as well. Credit her and a couple of other Canadians for taking those bonds and extending them beyond the arena.

When the team was announced it was Zandee-Hart and fellow Canadian defenders Ella Shelton (who will always be known as the first ever goal scorer in PWHL history) and Jaime Bourbonnais who immediately went to work securing a place for all those out-out-towners to live near their new home rink in Bridgeport, Conn.

“I think it’s nine right now, maybe 10,” Eldridge said of the building that is now home to most of her New York team in Stamford, Conn., an easy commute to Bridgeport or Manhatten.

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“Micah started a book club that we are all in so it’s just been awesome,” Eldridge said. “Brand new city but we’re all in the same situation, far from family and friends to be able to kind of have game nights here and there and just life away from the rink made easier.”

Eldridge is playing on a line with Alex Carpenter, a player who occupies a lot of the defensive planning time every time Canada and the U.S. face off in international competition. And as tough as Carpenter is to play against, playing alongside her has been a pleasure.

“Carp has been someone that every time Canada plays the U.S. she is someone you have to keep your eye on,” Eldridge said. “She is a special player and to be able to see that every day in practice and through training camp and now hopefully continue some chemistry into the regular season has been, and is going to be, special.

“She’s a player that just makes life easier for you,” Eldridge said. “Hopefully she’ll make me look good for the rest of the year too.”

Puck drop Friday night is 7 p.m. The game can be seen on Sportsnet in Canada, MSG Network in the U.S. and will be streamed on the PWHL YouTube channel.

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