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The IX: Hockey Friday with The Ice Garden, May 19, 2023

It’s Friday, Friday… gotta get your roundup on Friday! Welcome back to another edition of Hockey Friday, where we at The Ice Garden take turns bringing you all the hottest news, served on ice. This week is chock-full of signings, rumors, notables and intrigue, so let’s get into it.

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A wild week of PHF signings

We are finally getting some headway on free agency in the PHF and the names, teams and numbers are flying with near-abandon — for most of the league. 

Just over a month in, every team but Buffalo has announced at least one player signing, whether a returner or a new face. Montreal has made the most progress on its roster as of this week, most recently announcing the returns of defenders Taylor Baker and Christine Deaudelin, as well as the arrival of recent McGill University grad Marika Labrecque to the forward corps. Clearly, Kevin Raphael and company haven’t come to play around… off the ice, anyway.

That rounds the number of players on contract for La Force up to 16, far ahead of the second-highest Minnesota Whitecaps (who have just six). The Riveters and Pride are behind them with four apiece (unless you count the Rivs re-signing Madison Packer again, in which case they have five), while Connecticut has announced just two new signings (the most recent of which was a two-year contract for Kendall Cornine Thursday morning) and three re-structured contracts. Toronto has announced three signings, including the returns of captain Shiann Darkangelo and goaltender Elaine Chuli (both of whom signed two-year deals) and a $65,000 first-year pro deal for Yale captain Claire Dalton. 

As far as names go, however, Noora Räty was not one I was necessarily expecting to come back stateside. Still, the 34-year-old future Hall of Fame goalie has come out of retirement and accepted an offer with the Rivs for next season, as first reported by Ian Kennedy. 

That’s a massive pickup for the Riveters, who also announced signing Kaleigh Fratkin, Olivia Zafuto, and McKenna Brand this week and are looking just as dangerous as Montreal is currently. Lock up your prospects, other teams, because the two clubs closest to the brink of playoffs last season might just be heading over it come next year. Poor Boston just got over losing one of their top forwards and their record-breaking goalie before being poached yet again by another org, but fear not — the talent pool is so deep over in New England I doubt it’ll make much difference in the long run. 

But what about Buffalo, you ask. Yes, what about them? Well, GM Nate Oliver stated the interest in the head coach position has far exceeded expectations, to the point where it’s taking the front office longer than expected to do their due diligence for the role. Whether it’s that or something else, we’ve got it on good word that we can expect the majority of any negotiations thus far to be between the team and potential returning players. Oliver is definitely a general manager who likes to work by committee with his coaching staff when it comes to bringing in new blood. Generally speaking, however, you can expect any signings or re-signings to be quiet in western New York until a coach has been found. Just keep an eye out for the General Mills plant off the 190 — if the Cheerio-scented fumes from their smokestacks come out Beauts blue, you’ll know they’ve made their choice. 

For a league-wide roundup, you can check out J Gray’s recap of the PHF’s first month of FA signings at our home base, The Ice Garden. Meanwhile, I took on a bit more incisive a tone regarding the Beauts’ woes last season up to this point in the off-season at Black Rosie Media.

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Movement on the western and eastern fronts

On the international stage, USA Hockey is set to hold its 2023 National Goaltending Camp this weekend (May 19-21) in Plymouth, Michigan. Twenty-four invitees aged 16-23 will be participating, including notable names from the recent NCAA tournament such as Cami Kronish (the recent National Championship winning netminder from Wisconsin) and Minnesota standout Skylar Vetter. A full list of invitees, staff, and more info can be found on USA Hockey’s website. 

The IIHF has also been busy, having recently announced its nominees for the 2023 Female Player of the Year. Usual suspects Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight have been named for their excellent performances in this year’s Worlds, as well as tournament MVP Sarah Fillier. Young Slovakian phenom Nela Lopušanová also gets a nod for her unbelievable U18s performance, where she also earned tournament MVP on the back of a 12-point effort. (Did we mention she’s only 14? Yeah, she’s only 14.) USA’s Caroline Harvey, Swedish netminder Emma Söderberg and Finland captain Jenni Hiirikoski round out this year’s nominees, making it a very tough decision; but if I had to give it to someone, it’s hard not to give it to Lopušanová. She’s just been electric every time she touches the ice, and that dominance mixed with her age is so, so impressive. Stay tuned for the winner to be announced June 1.

Lastly, there have been some discussions in Europe with regard to how best compete with the hockey powers that be across the pond. The SDHL looks to be taking the league on forming a “Champions’ League” of sorts, much like the men’s side of the sport has in Europe. This tournament would feature SDHL teams, plus others from the EWHL and presumably leagues such as the Naisten Liiga in Finland and the DEBL in Austria. Ian Kennedy has a write-up at The Hockey News about the preliminary meetings regarding this idea.

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Written by The Ice Garden