‘It’s been so fun’: The joy and challenges of the PWHL’s increased physicality

TORONTO — Mike Ellis is the assistant and skills coach for PWHL Toronto, and his No. 1 focus with the team currently sitting at the bottom of standings and ranked dead last in goals for is obvious: Yes, they’ve got to score more.

Item No. 2 on the list should come as no surprise, either: Like every other team in the league, they’re working to adjust to the PWHL’s physical play. “One of the things we talk a lot about is learning how to play inside of the contact,” Ellis explains, after a recent Toronto practice. “You’re just about to get hit. How do you take advantage of this situation? Because they’re not used to it. It’s new to them.”  

NCAA rules forbid body checking in the women’s game, and it isn’t introduced in girls’ hockey at the grassroots. The PWHL’s rules on body checking match the ones you’ll see in the IIHF rule book, but ask those who’ve experienced play on the international stage, and they’ll tell you PWHL games are called more loosely. “I think at times the international game has dialled it back a little bit,” Toronto and Team Canada coach Troy Ryan says of the physicality in the game. “So I think the [PWHL] officials now are just calling it how it’s always meant to be.” 

And it’s taking some getting used to. Montreal assistant captain Laura Stacey already missed a game this season with what she calls “a tweak” during game two of a three-game-long road trip to open the season.

“Obviously that had something to do with the intensity, the amount of travel, and just the way our season has gone — and hopefully a little bit of misfortune as well,” says Stacey, a veteran of Team Canada who’s been a part of more than a few knock-down, drag-out battles with Team USA. “We’ve had some injuries, and it’s been a lot. I think all of us are not quite used to what this new league entails. The travelling, the high level of competition, the physicality.” 

Stacey was among the group of players who sat out league play the last four years, joining the PWHPA and playing only a handful of weekend-long showcases, in addition to national team commitments.

“We’ve played [in the last four years] but the amount of games and maybe even the level of competition wasn’t the same as what we’re enjoying right now,” Stacey says. “So there’s definitely going to be a bit of that period of time where we need to learn, we need to figure out how to travel, we need to figure out how to properly take care of our bodies. Because the next game is coming up in two or three days. And that’s all new to us. So I think with time, a lot of us are going to know what to do a little bit better. We’re going to have better routines.”

Ellis in Toronto has a resume that includes time as a skills coach with the Toronto Marlies, a consultant with the Maple Leafs, and director of player development for the Tampa Bay Lightning, so he’s used to working with teams on rigorous schedules. He says his players have all been taking care of themselves when it comes to hydration, fuel, work and rest, to best prepare for that pace.

“It is hard, though, I think,” Ellis says. “Anything that’s new, we’ve got to allow time for the players to evolve and get used to it. This is a challenge for us — we have three games in a week. For these players, that’s not normal.”

Not that you’ll hear anybody complaining. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while, to be able to play this many games,” says Rebecca Leslie, who leads Toronto with five points in seven games. “You’re always eager to play the next game, and the next game is never too far away, which is really fun for us as athletes and competitors. We don’t have to wait a week or two weeks or a month to play the next game. It’s been so fun.” 

It was over the summer, Ellis says, that it became clear part of the league’s fun would include body-checking, as rules were circulated. In the pre-season, teams paid close attention to how referees were calling games to gauge the level of physicality allowed. “Now we’re at a point where everyone’s got a much better understanding about what’s going to happen every game,” he says, as far as whistles go.

Ellis points out the calls have been consistent, too, at least in his opinion. “So we’re building tactics and ideas on how to take advantage of the contact,” he adds. “One thing is, it really improves the way the players think, because now they have to pre-think before they get the puck to be able to make that next play before getting hit, right? That’s a really good part of the acceleration of processing plays.” 

Younger players fresh out of college are asking Ellis to teach them more puck protection skills. “And then the older players are going, ‘I’ve gone from a Canadian national team or a U.S. national team level, and now we’re finding that this level is just as intense, just as physical as a Rivalry Series game.’ So that’s where the eye-opener is for a lot of them,” he says. “The older players are asking for tips on angling, stick position — things that will help them gain an advantage in a small space.” 

He’s been going through drills that key in on how to initiate contact, and also how to receive it safely. “You want to learn how to use your body effectively to absorb contact, to use that energy to your advantage,” Ellis says. “Inside of that transfer of weight as you’re absorbing that contact, you’re going to find a way to keep the puck, or make a play, or shoot. Whatever’s needed.”  

These are all concepts Minnesota forward Susanna Tapani grew up with. She started playing hockey at age 14 in a boys’ league in her hometown of Laitila, Finland, the same year body checking was introduced. Tapani played in a men’s league in Finland as recently as 2021, and plays with NHLers like Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen over the summer.

She’s used to physicality and still, Tapani calls the PWHL “very, very physical.”

“But because I played with boys and the NHL guys, that helps. I had to be ready all the time, and keep my head up,” she says. “And that helps a lot here. Otherwise, it would have been very, very hard to adapt to this season. The game is super-fast and you have to be ready for the next play with your head up. You can’t stop, you’ve got to keep moving your legs all the time, and always keep your head up.”

Tapani took “about two games” to adjust, she says, in part because she took last season off hockey and played ringette only. The 30-year-old has five points in six games, and she’s enjoying the physical aspect. “I think it’s just part of hockey,” Tapani says. “I’ve always liked it.”

She isn’t alone there.

“I mean, I love it,” says Ottawa’s Emily Clark, who has a team-leading six penalty minutes through five games. “I think it’s been fun to see the response from the fans. But at least for myself, it’s been a lot of fun. I think our game has always been physical, but now to push it a bit, I think it adds to the games, it adds to the excitement.

“I’m a physical and gritty player, so of course I’m enjoying it.”

Ryan, Toronto’s head coach, points out the league “wants us to be physical,” and it’s been celebrated so far by PWHL brass, as well as coaches, players and fans.

“Obviously, you want a league that is difficult to play in,” Ryan says. “You don’t want just anybody being able to play in this league. You want people that are high-performance athletes, that are trained, that take care of their body, and they can deal with the physicality of it. Even the offensive side of it, you want people that can play in tough situations.”

Upcoming PWHL games:

Friday, Jan 26: New York at Toronto, 7 p.m. ET
Saturday, Jan 27: Ottawa at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET, and Minnesota at Boston, 4 p.m. ET (on Sportsnet)
Sunday, Jan 28: Minnesota at New York, 1 p.m. ET (on Sportsnet).

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