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This article was published 13/1/2021 (318 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
You might know Colton Orr as a longtime NHL enforcer who once cross-checked Alexander Ovechkin in the face, but Kayla Friesen sees him in a much different light.
Orr, a Winnipeg native who suited up for nearly 500 NHL games over nine seasons, is heading into his second year as the head coach of the National Women’s Hockey League’s Connecticut Whale. He isn’t the only Winnipegger involved with the team as Friesen, a forward who starred at St. Mary’s Academy, was chosen by the Whale with the second overall pick in last year’s NWHL draft.
"He was the fighter, the enforcer, the (troublemaker), but when you actually get to know him, he’s a teddy bear," said Friesen, who finished her NCAA career at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.
"He cares so much about the game and so much about the players. He cares about our well-being away from the rink and I think coaches can lose that touch so it's nice that he supports us on and off the ice."
Orr, now 38, played for the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs before calling it a career in 2016. He accepted a job with the Whale last year but wasn’t able to join the team until midway through the season as he was a contestant on CBC’s Battle of the Blades — a competition where hockey players pair up with figure skaters and perform figure skating routines. Some may be surprised to hear a guy who fought everyone from Georges Laraque to Milan Lucic during his playing days would want to coach hockey that forbids bodychecking (or participate in a figure skating reality TV show for that matter), but for Orr, giving back to the women’s game is something that means a lot to him.
"One of the factors that strives me to push this and see the women’s game grow is so possibly my daughter has a league to play in when she gets older," said Orr, who lives in New York and has three young children with his wife Sabrina. Orr met Sabrina when he played for the Rangers.
"All the other girls programs that are being started in the area here, hopefully they’ll have a league to play in where they can make a living wage and be able to call that their only job and be professional hockey players. It’s more just looking at the grassroots and seeing the women’s game and how it has grown so much already and just how much more potential it can have."
The Whale finished in last place in the five-team league last year, but made some positive strides toward the end of the season once Orr took over behind the bench. This season though, Orr will have his work cut out for him as things will look much different owing to the global pandemic.
NWHL clubs will battle for the Isobel Cup inside a bubble at the Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y., between Jan. 23 to Feb. 5. Instead of a traditional 24-game season, everyone will play each team once and the top four will advance to the semifinals. The NWHL will head into its sixth season with six teams as expansion franchise Toronto Six has joined the fold.
The league was one game shy of awarding the Isobel Cup in 2020 as the final between the Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps, which was scheduled for March 13, was cancelled owing to COVID-19 concerns.
"It’s definitely different. You’ll have to be on your game right away as there’s not much time and space for error," said Friesen, whose father Rob Friesen played professionally overseas and in North American minor leagues.
"So, just getting our systems down and having those to fall back onto in tight situations is going to be crucial for us. I kind of just look at it as a mini World Juniors-style tournament."
A shortened season isn’t ideal, but the tournament-style format will make things interesting. Orr is hopeful more eyes will be drawn to the product this year, which may very well happen as NBC Sports has agreed to broadcast the semifinals and final live.
"I think it just needs that exposure. There is very minimal exposure. I think just seeing how quick the game is, how physical it is and how hard these players play, work and prepare and the product they put out there, it’s just a great game," he said.
"I think the bubble having an NBC Sports broadcast is going to be exciting just trying to get it out there so people can see what the game is all about. Also adding the Toronto Six, I think it’s big to get more notice and see a team in Canada. To actually have a team up there is pretty exciting as well."
You won’t find Orr encouraging Whale players to drop the gloves, but he believes the way he played the game comes across in his coaching.
"I think the biggest thing I learned and kind of what got me (to the NHL) was how hard I had to compete. You know, nothing was really ever handed to me," said Orr, who was signed by the Bruins as an undrafted free agent.
"That’s the message we try to get across as a staff, that you can have as much skill as you want, but if you’re not working and competing and doing all the little things in practice and the preparation that it takes to be a professional... if you’re not doing those things, you’re not going to play for the Whale. I think that’s one of the things that we’re trying to do is change the attitude and the mindset of our team and the league and I think that’s how my (playing) style kind of blends into it."
As a rookie, Friesen hasn’t worked with her fellow Manitoban for long, but she’s confident the team will find success in the bubble if they follow Orr’s orders.
"He loves hard work... He’s not all about skill and the pretty plays. He knows it’s going to come down to disturbing other players," said the 22-year-old Friesen, a standout at Clarkson with 10 goals and 20 assists in 28 games as a senior.
"Just little things that people can miss out on, like good habits and stuff like stick placement, body posture, not being afraid to use your body even though there’s no hitting... He just keeps intensity up and he doesn’t want anyone to take a day off or ease into stuff. He just wants full force and that’s exactly what we need going into this type of season."
The Whale head to Lake Placid with a promising young roster led by Friesen. She has high expectations for herself in her first year at the pro level, but piling up points and winning games isn’t the only thing she’s set on. She hopes young girls, especially in Winnipeg, can look at her career as a positive example of what they can accomplish in the sport. With the Canadian Women’s Hockey League ceasing operations in 2019 after 12 years, Friesen said the NWHL needs to be a viable option for years to come.
"You look at all the girls in Winnipeg who grew up idolizing the Team U.S.A. and Team Canada players, but the Olympics happen every four years. They have to have something to strive to play in when they grow up that happens yearly," she said.
"If they have something after college where they don’t need to just finish their college career and find their job for the next 40 years, I think that’s an exciting type of opportunity... If they can look at the footsteps I took and the work I put in and they can strive for that... that’s huge. Everyone needs something to work for."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.