PWHL draft signals new future
by Andrew Podnieks|19 SEP 2023
Taylor Heise (second from right) was selected first overall at the PWHL's inaugural draft in Toronto on Monday afternoon. 
photo: PWHL
It was a day of history and memories, a day of optimism and hope, and perhaps most significant a day which saw the greatest number of the world’s best hockey players congregate in one place at one time.

The PWHL’s first ever draft was held in downtown Toronto on Monday and broadcast to the world. The day started with an inspiring opening from none other than Billie Jean King, and moments later American forward Taylor Heise was selected first overall by Minnesota.

Jocelyne Larocque (CAN) then went to Toronto, followed by Alina Muller (3rd, SUI, Boston), Ella Shelton (4th, CAN, New York), Savannah Harmon (5th, USA, Ottawa), and Erin Ambrose (6th, CAN, Montreal). That ended round one of 15 rounds and 90 player selections over the next several exhilarating and tense hours for the women's "original six."

Over the course of the afternoon and early evening, the teams went very different ways. Boston was the most international, choosing players from five countries—Canada (seven), United States (five), and one each from Austria, Sweden, Switzerland.

Toronto kept things very simple, selecting 13 Canadians and two Americans, while New York had the second-most Canadians with 11 to go with only three Americans and one Frenchwoman. Canada also dominated the Montreal selections as nine were homegrown. They also selected three Americans, two Czechs, and a Swede. Minnesota went strong on the local talent, taking 10 Americans, two Canadians and as many Finns, and one Czech. Ottawa had a balance of six players each from Canada and the U.S. as well as two Czechs and a German.

Overall, the draft saw 48 Canadians selected (53.3 per cent), 29 Americans (32.2 per cent), and 13 Europeans (14.4 per cent). 

An emotional Muller was the highest European selected, a lofty 3rd overall, and the importance of the moment was not lost on her. “Knowing that I’m representing Switzerland and am among all the unbelievable players here is amazing,” she said. “I hope in the coming years more players from Europe come here to play. In the end, we want to have the best players here in this league no matter where they come from. The gap is closing. Finland has been doing an amazing job. Czech Republic has been doing an amazing job. Our team has done a great job. This will help close the gap even more, make it more competitive for everybody. The European style and skill is going to get closer. In the end, it’s going to be great for all the countries.”

Of the other dozen Europeans, five came from Czechia, where coach Carla MacLeod has taken them to back-to-back bronze medals at the 2022 and ‘23 Women’s Worlds. She is now also coaching the Ottawa team in the PW and was influential in the team taking two of that number—Aneta Tejralova (41st overall) and Katerina Mrazova (44th). 

The second-highest European chosen was another Czech, Dominika Laskova, selected 19th overall by Montreal. Tereza Vanisova went 42nd to Montreal as well, while Denisa Krizova went 48th to Minnesota. 

It was no surprise that Muller’s longtime linemate at Northeastern, Chloe Aurard of France, was selected, but perhaps going a lofty 21st to New York wasn’t necessarily anticipated. Finland’s Susanna Tapani went 25th to Minnesota, prompting veteran women’s coach Peter Elander to jump on social media and declare this “the biggest steal in the draft!!!!”

Another surprise was Boston using the 39th selection to claim Austrian Theresa Schafzahl. The 23-year-old has played the last four years with the University of Vermont. Boston also got one of the world’s best goalies, taking Sweden’s Emma Soderberg with selection number 58. The other Swede selected was Lina Ljungblom, who has the distinction of going 90th overall, last in the order. 

Germany, meanwhile, was represented by Sandra Abstreiter out of Providence College, who was taken by Ottawa with the 68th pick. And lastly among the Europeans, Finn Minttu Tuominen was taken 84th by Minnesota.

Heise enjoyed the moment as the number-one selection but managed to put her personal history in a larger context. “All these things are stepping stones, building foundational things for younger girls and having community aspects involved,” she explained. “I think we’re making our way. This is a proud step forward. I think this league is one to be reckoned with. I think we’re all excited for when January starts and gets going, but on the international stage we’re going to see so many more teams and players have more opportunities and get better. In the past there wasn’t this opportunity. It’s an awesome moment now.”

Ambrose noted the importance of developing a fan base not just for players on the national team but also on club teams, regardless of nationality. “I think it will be exciting for fans to see players in team jerseys,” she enthused. “I look back when I played in Montreal and Hilary Knight played with us, and fans loved her. Whoever we bring in from Canada, America, or Europe, these players are going to be loved. That’s the best part. The city of Montreal, the fans, just want competitors, winners. It doesn’t matter where you’re from as long as you give it your all.”

Shelton pointed to the league’s success resting on the shoulders of its players. “I think the league needs first to create a good culture and environment so players can be 100 per cent themselves so they can play their best hockey. That should be our priority, to strive for excellence as people, and the part on ice will take care of itself.”

And Larocque, an early selection as well, predicted the makeup of the teams cutting across and through the national borders of the North American nations. “I’m sure you’re going to see more players playing in different countries,” she offered. “Something like Marie-Philip Poulin playing in Montreal makes sense. Some things are meant to be, but I’m sure I’ll have some Americans on my team and international players on my team. I don’t think you’re going to see Canadians and Americans only in their countries.”

Although it was a dream day for the 90 players selected, they came out of a pool of 268 who had declared their intention to enter the draft process. That meant a lot of players didn’t get selected, and among this large cohort were some very prominent names. Consider Finnish goalie Noora Raty. The 34-year-old had been the mainstay for Suomi for many years, but she was overlooked. Perhaps more stunning was the passing over of Canadian defender Claire Thompson, who was sensational for Canada at the 2022 Olympics. Hungarian Fanni Gasparics also gave it a go, only to be passed over, but so, too, were Leah Lum, a star on the Chinese team the last couple of years, Czech Alena Mills, Finn Emma Nuutinen, American goalie Maddie Rooney, and the Shiga sisters from Japan, Akane and Aoi. 

Nevertheless, the teams still can invite any and all to training camps, which are slated to begin in mid-November, so all is not necessarily lost. Prior to making the 90th and final selection of the day, Montreal GM Danielle Sauvageau told the remaining players in the room to “keep on playing.” 

Indeed, that is the mantra for everyone. To grow the women’s game, players have to keep on playing. Today was a good start for the top 90 of that number.