When the players arrived at the Ottawa rink for the second day of Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) training camp on Thursday, they spent much of the day talking about how to build their team’s culture.

That included working with the team’s mental performance coach, Brenley Shapiro.

Having a sports psychologist on staff is common in a league like the NHL, but it hasn’t been common in the world of women’s hockey, where the staff roster has traditionally been very small.

It’s a way Ottawa general manager Mike Hirshfeld is trying to make his team stand out among the six, while building a team from the ground up in a world where all of his competitors share the same ownership and resources. Every team has a budget for hiring personnel, and how they choose to spend that money differs across the league.

“We really felt that mental performance was critical for us,” Hirshfeld said Thursday. “Strength and conditioning was key for us. Having the best sports therapists was key for us.”

Hirshfeld was the team’s first hire when his hiring was announced in September. Seventy-four days later, the team now has about 15 employees on the payroll, not including the 29 players who are in training camp this week.

“We want to be the best team in the league,” the general manager said.

“We want to give our players as many resources as we can to help them succeed and thrive. We are very aware of the team we build behind the team.”

A woman interviews several journalists.  You can see two microphones in front of it.
Jincy Roese was selected by Ottawa in the third round of the 2023 PWHL draft, one of three defensemen in a row taken by the team. (Pierre-Paul Couture/Radio-Canada)

On the ice, Hirshfeld has prioritized skill, grit and players who are good teammates.

When it came time for the draft, he was the only general manager to use his first three picks on defensemen, selecting Savannah Harmon, Ashton Bell and Jincy Roese, all of whom have logged time with their countries’ national teams. He recognized that the pool of defensive talent would likely be depleted faster than the pool of skilled forwards.

Collaboration, a key word for GMs

Hirshfeld’s path to becoming general manager of a professional hockey team was not just on ice rinks, but also on baseball fields and boardrooms.

His first stop in Ottawa came more than a decade ago, when he was working for the Ottawa Lynx, a minor league baseball team that left the city in 2007.

He also worked as a lawyer and in finance, and before joining PWHL Ottawa, he served as executive director of the NHL Coaches Association for seven years.

His background in law and finance trained him to think strategically and critically, which is why he’s focusing his team’s money on things that could help build culture now, with plans to eventually bolster areas like scouting.

But the most common word she uses when describing her team’s vision is collaboration, whether it’s leaning on head coach Carla MacLeod or other hockey experts she hires when needed.

The team turned to Jess Campbell, coach of the Coachella Valley Firebirds of the American Hockey League, for advice before the draft. Earlier this week, before the players arrived in Ottawa to start camp, Claude Julien met with the coaching staff to offer advice on how to run a training camp.

“This is a one-year season that will ultimately be next season and next season,” Hirshfeld said. “There’s some long-term planning, some short-term planning, some medium-term planning. So we’re trying to make sure we’re thinking about every eventuality.”

The team will take the ice on Friday

Much of Ottawa’s camp so far has focused on all the new faces getting to know each other, including a team scavenger hunt on Thursday.

That feeling process carries over to the court on Friday, when the players step onto the ice at TD Place for the first time.

“For us, right now it’s less about worrying about combos and chemistry and who do we have?” MacLeod said.

“You can watch videos of the players, you can see them maybe with your eyes, but until you’re on the ice with them, until you start seeing how they naturally play with each other, I think we’d be doing a disservice to our group.” if we didn’t let them play for a while and see what we see.

A woman smiles while doing interviews.
PWHL Ottawa head coach Carla MacLeod will lead the team’s first practice on Friday. (Pierre-Paul Couture/Radio-Canada)

Entering camp, the team has 17 players under contract, leaving six roster spots open for 11 players to try to fill. Each team can have 23 players under contract, plus two reserve players, heading into the first season.

Those 17 contracts Hirshfeld has signed include all of the team’s draft picks except Caitrin Lonergan, who is not in camp this year, and Audrey-Anne Veillette, who is injured.

Although contract news has filtered through the PWHL’s social media channels over the past two weeks, Hirshfeld said the team finished signing players about three weeks ago.

He didn’t want contract negotiations to be a distraction on training camp, but it wasn’t the only reason he locked up players quickly.

“Us [wanted] hire those players because they get the housing stipend and the relocation expenses and all the benefits that we talked about,” Hirshfeld said. “They only get that once they’re under contract. “It was important to me to make sure they had access to that.”

Ottawa’s camp guest list included the names of some of the biggest undrafted free agents, including former Premier Hockey Federation MVP Mikyla Grant-Mentis and Becca Gilmore, who just returned from the Rivalry series between Canada and the United States. Gilmore signed a one-year deal before camp, but Grant-Mentis will compete for one of the available roster spots.

The team must remove at least two players from the camp roster by Nov. 29. The team will then head to Utica, New York, for several days of practice against the other five teams.

Hirshfeld plans to have his final 23-player roster ready by Dec. 9.

“I think we’re going to try to keep the best players we can,” Hirshfeld said. “The combination itself, whether it’s 12 forwards or 11 forwards or seven or eight [defenders]”We’ll just let it play out and see how people perform.”

When the players hit the ice on Friday, they will be under evaluation. But MacLeod also wants to make sure they have fun.

“If you can start cultivating that, it’s as critical a skill as defending a two-on-one,” he said. “We are going to try to develop the different facets of our game and one of them is enjoyment. We will make sure that is a priority.”

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