For Ella Shelton, her first season of pro hockey has been anything short of a normal transition. Due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lefty’s rise to stardom hit a roadblock right out of college. A graduate of Clarkson University, Shelton saw her future delayed after winning two championships with the Golden Knights hockey program.
Shelton joined the PWHPA in July of last year after earning her biology degree. However, because of high infection and death rates, the 5’8 product of Ingersoll has had to wait and stay the course.
Hitting a snag right out of school, it’s not the only obstacle she’d be met with as an athlete. Following her last season of college hockey, Shelton was named by Hockey Canada to the National Women’s Team for the Women’s World Championships. While not present at camps leading up, Shelton flew into Halifax to prepare for the tournament.
Getting right to work in the bubble, little was she equipped for what would later take place. On Wednesday, April 21st, the IIHF announced that the series she’d been training for had been suddenly cancelled for a second straight season. With less than a week left before puck drop, players and support staff were blindsided when the provincial government sent a letter of confirmation.
Used to taking challenges head on, it only helped get her ready for the Secret Dream Gap Tour. “Yeah, with all the restrictions, it’s been hard to kinda get the team together, but throughout this quarantine period that we’ve been in, we’ve been doing a lot of team building stuff and finding ways to kinda bond virtually, so I think that’s kinda helped our team in dynamics.”
Unlike other regional training hubs, Team Sonnet has had a difficult go of it, only gathering once all season long before travel days. Because of Ontario’s COVID-19 guidelines, access to ice sheets in small groups wasn’t permitted. Upon landing in Calgary on Wednesday, each team only hosted one practice, which for the girls from Toronto, they used by way of a skills session.
For Shelton, that meant more time to mesh with both her coaches and teammates, while defining her own game. “Yeah, I think coming out of college, I was kinda new and I was kinda eager to learn and willing to kinda try new things and we had great Hockey Canada skates with small groups and social distancing and masks of course, and working with the skills coaches, I mean, it was easier for me to fine-tune some of those areas I kinda need to work on, whether it’s just like change the angle of a shot, or look into the middle for a pass, or even like in the defensive zone, kinda getting that first bump and stick positioning, all that little detail stuff was something I really focused on, and come in to a game, you kinda don’t have to think about all that stuff, it’s more muscle memory, so that’s how it translates.”
Squaring off against Team Bauer on Monday, Shelton took those keys with her and it quickly paid off. Opening the Canadian showcase, Toronto wasn’t down long at the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex. Outmatched from a stance of direction, it was Team Sonnet first to lose their composure.
That saw Natalie Spooner head off, meanwhile, Team Bauer took the game’s first advantage. While able to keep Montreal silent, they would limit Team Sonnet as the period progressed. Fast forward to the 10:56 mark, Renata Fast was sent off for interference, thus another chance for Montreal to open the scoring.
As play resumed on Tsuut’ina Nation, Team Bauer evened the score all of six seconds later. That saw Lauriane Rougeau head off, as she was called for tripping, while in a foot race with Jamie-Lee Rattray.
That would force a four-on-four at the 12:51 mark, as Toronto tightened their play. Still looking to draw first blood, Team Sonnet found themselves in a bind along the right-side boards, just out of reach from Ann-Renée Desbiens. Fighting to get on the scoresheet, Nicole Kosta was able to break the puck loose, sending it up to Loren Gabel, who was planted behind the net.
With plenty of room to work around, the forward, through a handful of legs, made a backhand pass, where she would find the stick of Shelton. From there, the youngster took care of business, as she roofed it by Desbiens to put her team up 1-0.
Earning her first professional point, the 23-year-old rookie wasn’t fazed by the waiting game. “Yeah, I mean, getting on the ice, there was only a four-on-four, so there’s lots of room out there to kind of move the puck around and [Nicole] Kosta and Gibby [Loren Gabel] both did a great job kinda battling down low and that puck just kind of squeaked out in the slot and then I just kinda took my chances on the shot.”
Finding the net in the early goings, it was one of two goals in a losing effort for Team Sonnet. Falling to Team Bauer 3-2, the other came from Natalie Spooner with just three seconds left. While it wasn’t enough to earn their first victory, it puts them second in the standings, just ahead of the host team.
Named the third star of the contest, Shelton knows what the keys are for Team Sonnet to build on. “I think, you know, the cliche, have a good defensive zone, I think that’s what is gonna help our team be successful, so I think if we do that, then that leads to great offence, so I think that’s our next move.”
Team Sonnet will look to follow that Wednesday, as they take on Team Scotiabank at 5:00pmET. Game three of the seven-game tournament will be broadcast on Youtube and via Sportsnet Now.
As Shelton begins her ladder to excellence, she knows that none of it happens without the backing of the Calgary Flames. “Yeah, I mean, having support from the NHL is huge, if you think about it, like so many people like tune in to watch a game and to have their support behind us is amazing and incredible for women’s hockey, so a huge shootout to them for hosting us and being able to help us out.”
With a new day and fresh set of legs, Team Sonnet has to play shutdown to compete for the Secret Cup. Told to know and play to her strengths, Shelton hopes to ignite life and bring it out in her own game. Should she be able to do this, it will help create momentum and set the tone for Toronto.
“Obviously, Ella has been a huge addition coming out from Clarkson University,” stated forward and teammate Sarah Nurse. “She’s been a steady person on the backend for us and then obviously contributing offensively, so we have a lot of depth back there and she fits right in.”