—By Dan Plouffe
Roughly 2 dozen Ottawa players are competing in NCAA women’s hockey this season – the biggest collection of which can be found at Syracuse University. Credit the magnetic pull of the Orange’s captain, Lindsay Eastwood, for that distinction. She was the lone Ottawa player on the team last season, but now she’s 1 of 5.
Backtrack a couple years farther to what was supposed to be Eastwood’s rookie year at Syracuse and that kind of scenario seemed unimaginable.
Just before she was set to start her college hockey career, the Nepean Wildcats product was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder that made her susceptible to blood clots and internal bleeding. The bottom line was that a contact sport like hockey could potentially be fatal, so her lifelong pursuit was abruptly finished.
“At the time, it felt like the worst thing that could have ever happened to me. Now it’s one of the best,” reflects Eastwood, whose condition, called antiphospholipid syndrome, reversed itself a year after her diagnosis (which happens in less than 5% of cases) and allowed her to get back on the ice.
“I learned a lot during that time,” explains the 6’ 1” defender who played for Team Canada at the under-18 level. “I learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of mentally and physically. It was a tough process and something I had to battle through, so it was great to come back and finally get on my skates again.”
Crush of Ottawa players turn Orange
Anonda Hoppner’s road in NCAA hockey hasn’t been without its challenges either. Also a 3rd-year player like Eastwood, Hoppner transferred away from 2017-18 national runner-up Colgate to join Syracuse this season.
“When I was unhappy at Colgate, Lindsay was the one to suggest Syracuse,” recounts Hoppner, who once upon a time wrote in her All Saints Catholic High School teammate’s yearbook that she hoped they’d get to play together again some day. “Now here we are.”
Eastwood was also a prime influence in drawing the other three local players to the Orange. Shelby Calof, Lauren Bellefontaine and Abby Moloughney all competed for Eastwood’s past Wildcats Provincial Women’s Hockey League club last season.
“It feels like we’ve got a little farm team there in Nepean,” smiles Eastwood, who led the Orange in assists and was 3rd in conference scoring for defenders last season.
Also a former Wildcats captain, Calof most closely matches Eastwood’s image out of the new crop.
“I look up to her so much,” Calof says of her fellow left defence. “That’s where I want to be in 2 or 3 years for sure.”
Long-standing links for Nepean products
On top of their hockey skills, the Ottawa gang have also brought their friendships and traditions from the capital to Syracuse. For Calof and Bellefontaine – teammates since age 7 with Nepean – they continue to enjoy a lengthy lucky high-five formula that they’d do before every game in the PWHL.
“Forehand, backhand, cross, down, high-five, tap on the butt,” outlines Calof, laughing. “Before an overtime or before a really important shift, we’ll always do it to get pumped up.”
Bellefontaine says having first-year friends from home is “amazing.”
“Always knowing that I can go to them because I’ve known them for so long is really great,” explains the slick-skating forward who sits second in Orange scoring at the midseason break.
Bellefontaine always has linemate Moloughney at her side with the Orange – nothing new for the duo who became teammates in their early teens.
“We’ve been on the same line ever since, which has been extremely amazing,” underlines Moloughney, Nepean’s leading scorer last season. “We know where each other are on the ice and we know what’s going on. That’s definitely been a big help.”
The trio of Orange freshmen have immediately jumped into key roles on special teams and as second-liners.
“I’ve differently been able to get into the game and play at this level,” indicates Moloughney, whose team is 4-14-1 overall after a packed early-season schedule against many top-ranked opponents. “Back home, I was pushed a lot, by my coaches, and my parents, and I think that prepared me well for this.”
Rise in recruits from Ottawa
The Orange’s Paul Flanagan has followed plenty of hockey in the Canadian capital over his 20 years as an NCAA women’s hockey head coach in New York state. He credits good coaching at younger ages and an increased commitment to off-ice training starting in players’ early teens for a marked improvement in the area’s talent pool in recent years.
“Before, the real good kids were so obvious, and they were a small group,” signals Flanagan, who previously coached at St. Lawrence. “Now that next group down is much deeper – and many of them are pretty good too – but it’s pushing the top group to be even better.”
A definite sign of Ottawa’s impact on the NCAA women’s hockey scene is that the Orange quintet see a familiar face or two in the majority of their opponents’ lineups.
Next to Syracuse, the biggest collection of Ottawa players comes from the defending NCAA-champion Clarkson Golden Knights, with former Wildcats Tia Stoddard, Kristy Pidgeon, Josiane Pozzebon and Taylor Sawka.
Another local NCAA women’s hockey star is Sam Cogan, who entered the PWHL alongside Eastwood at age 14, and is 4th in team scoring for the #1-ranked Wisconsin Badgers.
“It’s cool. We all spread out to other schools in university, but we keep in touch and keep tabs on each other and see how everyone’s doing, and when we play each other, it’s always fun and nice to see everybody,” notes Hoppner, whose former Ottawa Lady Sens PWHL team (13-7-4-1) faces 1st-place Nepean (15-6-5-0) on Dec. 15 and 16 in a sort of homecoming match for varsity players back in town during their holiday breaks. “Having played minor hockey together, whether it’s on the same team or against each other, and from growing up in the same town, a lot of our parents hanging out and becoming friends – it really just kind of becomes one big family.”