Toronto Six aiming to bring 1st Isobel Cup title to Canada
Sunday's game vs. Minnesota also 1st all-woman coaching matchup in Premier Hockey Federation final history
Although Sunday's championship final will be the last game of the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) season, it may be more notable as a game of firsts.
For the first time, a Canadian team — the Toronto Six — will contend for the PHF championship.
For the first time, two women — the Six's Geraldine Heaney and the Minnesota Whitecaps' Ronda Engelhardt — will be behind the bench for the one-game final.
The victor will lift the Isobel Cup — named after Lord Stanley's daughter — on Sunday in Tempe, Ariz., at the NHL Coyotes' Mullett Arena.
"It's making history and with this group of girls it'll be something they'll never forget," Heaney said. "We've talked about it from the beginning of the year: enjoy the journey, and it's been one hell of a journey and we're just one game away from achieving our goals."
The Six finished second overall in the regular season (51 points in 24 games) and enter the championship after a narrow three-game semifinal win over the third-place Connecticut Whale. That series included a season-saving comeback overtime victory in Game 2.
WATCH | Six defeat Whale in Game 3:
The Whitecaps, meanwhile, were thought to be fodder for the first-place Boston Pride. Minnesota ended the season on a seven-game losing streak before turning around and sweeping a Boston team featuring the league's top scorer and top goalie.
Whitecaps goalie Amanda Leveille said her team isn't changing anything ahead of the championship game.
Leveille made 77 saves over the two games against Boston, allowing just three goals in those victories.
Toronto swept the season series against Minnesota 4-0, though the first three of those games were decided by one goal before a 7-1 blowout in their final meeting in February.
Heaney said the key for Toronto will be to limit special teams time in the final. Minnesota sported the second-best power play in the league during the regular season, while the Six allowed three power-play markers in the semifinal.
"Taking down Boston in two games straight was quite an accomplishment for them," she said. "They're fast and they don't give up and they're the type of team that will do the little things."
Heaney, a Hockey Hall of Fame defender who won 2002 Olympic gold with Canada along with seven world championships, is a rookie coach in the PHF.
The 55-year-old said she was impressed by the calibre of play in the league.
While the players are paid, some still hold other part- or full-time jobs. Six goalie Elaine Chuli also works as an accountant, and said she needed to make sure that work was done so she wouldn't have to think about in Arizona.
Leveille, the Brossard, Que., native who is the league's all-time wins leader, said the league is constantly improving. The salary cap for next season is set to double to $1.5 million US per team.
"Every year it's gotten better from a player standpoint, but also support system behind the scenes," Leveille said. "This year, Minnesota had more access to ice than we have in the past few seasons combined. And I think that little effort behind the scenes really adds to the quality on the ice."
WATCH | Emma Woods' OT goal send Six over Whale in Game 2:
Part of that behind-the-scenes improvement includes the women behind the bench. While Heaney is in her first year, Engelhardt is an established PHF coach, having led the Whitecaps to the 2019 championship and the 2020 final that was cancelled due to the pandemic.
However, that title came as co-head coach along with Jack Brodt. Now, she's running the show alone — and a woman is guaranteed to win the PHF championship as solo head coach for the first time in league history.
"It definitely shows growth and also shows what females can do. I mean, you just see what the athletes do on the ice and it just shows that female leaders can do the same thing. So [it's] pretty neat," Engelhardt said.
"I was shocked to hear that this is the first time, but hopefully we just continue to see that more and more."
In a one-game final, especially in hockey, anything can happen. But Six forward Shiann Darkangelo is confident in her team's chances.
"There's a different sort of pressure and feeling that you maybe put on yourself and your teammates. But we have a lot of girls in this group that have played at high levels that are very similar," she said.