By Charlie Pinkerton
The Lady 67’s were up against a bigger challenge than most this season by returning to play in the pandemic’s receding days in a new league – and so far, they’re thriving.
The new U22 67’s, who are the best of the best within the Ottawa Girls Hockey Association, played their last three pre-COVID seasons as a U19 team in the Junior Women’s Hockey League (JWHL), which is made up of a mix of American and Canadian teams from as far away as Vancouver.
Despite them finishing as runners-up at the end of the JWHL’s previous season of play in 2019-2020, the pandemic effectively pushed them out of the league. While the JWHL had afforded players good exposure to NCAA recruitment opportunities, the 67’s participation in the league no longer made sense, given the frequent travelling that would now be much more complicated.
The 67’s are now playing in an expanded version of the Provincial Women’s Hockey League, which is the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association-sanctioned home for U22 “AA” play.
Shannon Donnelly, the Lady 67’s general manager and head coach, outlined the benefits of her team’s newfound home: Players save money not having to travel as much or as far; they don’t miss as much school; and players are able to spend more time practising or training, without having to jet across the country or south of the border most weekends.
The 67’s joined three other local teams – the Nepean Wildcats, Ottawa Lady Sens, and Gloucester-Cumberland Lady Grads – in a 7-team division within the larger league of 26 teams, all of which are based in Ontario. Their league games will mostly be concentrated within their divisions, but they do travel to play against more teams outside of their regional cohorts at weekend tournaments, like they’ve already done in Fort York and Stoney Creek.
Through six regular season games, the 67’s are 3-2-1.
And so far, Donnelly couldn’t be happier with the team’s switch.
“I think just giving the girls the opportunity to play at the U22 level – and giving them the exposure to universities – that should be the priority,” Donnelly told the Sports Pages after the 67’s 3-0 victory over the Lady Sens on Oct. 30. “Right now, with the way the league is set up, it’s giving them those opportunities.”
Emily Holmes, the 67’s captain, is thrilled just to be back on the ice.
“It was heartbreaking to take a break from the game that you love,” said Holmes, a defender who is originally from New Brunswick. “It’s always awesome to be back with the girls, and living in the dressing room and everything, so it’s good to have that back in your life.”
Holmes moved to the nation’s capital to attend the University of Ottawa this year, having previously spent a year at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York state.
Holmes went to RIT to be part of its hockey team as well. However, because of the pandemic, many of her older teammates who normally would have graduated – thus opening spots for younger players, like her – are still with the team.
While Holmes says she misses the rivalries that exist within the NCAA, she said she’s enjoying being able to frequently play in tournaments again. She’s also quickly developed a bond with her new teammates, who all began training together again in August, once many public health measures were peeled back and they were allowed to.
“We’re meshing really well,” Holmes said. “We’re growing and developing and learning each other’s skills and getting open when we don’t have the puck on the ice and being in good position for each other… Every game we get better,” she added.
The 67’s will qualify to play in the league’s playoffs if they finish in the top 3 in their division – of which they’re currently on the cusp. But also, to make up for the lost time of the pandemic, the league’s teams that don’t make the playoffs will compete in a postseason as well, just not in contention of the championship.
“We have so much to prove with this group,” Holmes said.
Donnelly’s hope is that the modified PWHL – which welcomed new entries this season in part because of the pandemic – allows the 67’s membership to be permanent.
“It does make sense with the regional play,” she said. “I’m hoping it’s going to be long-term. We haven’t heard much yet, but it’s working well right now.”
For the 67’s – which routinely sends graduates to the NCAA or to play at the U Sports level – what matters most is that their players face the highest-level of competition possible, Donnelly said.
“What we’re trying to do is get girls to our program and build the culture with the 67’s in order to get them ready for the next level,” Donnelly said.
–With files from Dan Plouffe
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