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Last season's major mid-season swap is paying dividends for CWHL's Toronto Furies

Toronto was able to use the CWHL’s unique draft rules to its advantage, netting highly skilled Brittany Howard as a result.
Toronto Furies/CWHL

Toronto Furies/CWHL

In the weeks leading up to the 2018 CWHL draft, Sami Jo Small knew she had Canadian Olympian Sarah Nurse and two-time NCAA championship-winning goalie Shea Tiley locked up. But as draft day approached, the Toronto Furies GM had her eye on another young talent, sharpshooting winger Brittany Howard. And were it not for one of the biggest blockbuster mid-season swaps in CWHL history, chances are Small would have missed out.

In December 2017, before Small had taken the helm as Furies GM, Toronto and Montreal linked up on an eye-popping deal that had sent one of the league’s elite talents, defender Erin Ambrose, from the Furies to Les Canadiennes for four draft picks, including first- and third-round selections in the 2018 draft, a 2019 first-round choice and a 2020 third-round pick. And while the optics of the draft – Tiley as the Furies’ second first-round selection – make it appear as though the netminder was snapped up with the pick formerly belonging to Les Canadiennes, it was the additional first-round pick last summer that gave Small the ammunition she needed to land Howard.

You see, per the CWHL draft rules, players are required to declare for at least one and as many as three regions in which they’re willing to play. This creates a system in which Calgary, Montreal, Worcester and Shenzhen are often able to draft every player that declares for their region. But that’s not the case in the CWHL’s lone two-team region, the Greater Toronto Area, where Toronto and the Markham Thunder engage in what Small refers to as the “true draft.” It’s an arms race of sorts, and it’s in the race to land Howard where the Ambrose trade made its first major impact on the Furies.

Using the ability to pre-sign one additional player as a result of owning Montreal’s first-round selection, Small pursued Howard, a luxury Toronto wouldn’t have otherwise had and one that paid dividends for a franchise on the rebuild. “She was not necessarily guaranteed to come to Toronto,” Small said. “She has a lot of friends in Markham, and if we would’ve had to hold out for the draft for her, I think she would’ve pre-signed in Markham. But the fact that we could guarantee it made a big difference.”

Howard was no small get for the Furies, particularly given the arc of her college career. Across her four years at Robert Morris University, Howard took a step forward in each season, and her tenure in the NCAA culminated with a dominant 25-goal, 49-point campaign that saw her finish eighth in the nation in goals, become Robert Morris’ all-time scoring leader and put her on the radar of the Canadian national team.

Offensively, the transition to the CWHL hasn’t been seamless for Howard, even if her nine points through late January made her Toronto’s third-highest scorer. However, it’s been the rookie winger’s play away from the puck as well as her attitude that have made the biggest impression on her GM. “She’s so tenacious, has amazing skills, as was evident that she got picked to Team Canada this time around,” Small said. “She works incredibly hard, she’s a quieter player, but a smart player and extremely coachable, and that’s one of the things the staff really likes about her. She will do exactly what you tell her and sees the game really well. She’s a threat whether you put her on a first line or a third line.”

In the coming summers, Small’s desire is to add more players in the same vein as Nurse, Tiley and Howard. The Furies will have the opportunity, too, as they continue to cash out their haul from the Ambrose trade. This coming draft, for instance, the Furies are primed to have another three pre-signings at their disposal to the Thunder’s two. Toronto will get a fourth, as well, if they finish below Markham in the standings.

With those picks will come a slight edge in recruitment, in much the same way they did when it came to pursuing Howard in the league’s so-called true draft. Small hopes she can continue to use that to her advantage as the Furies strive to get back into Clarkson Cup contention. “The Toronto teams of the past had this culture of excellence,” Small said, “and the expectation was that we would always be contending for a championship rather than just hoping to make the playoffs. In the last couple of years, that’s the position we’ve got ourselves into. With the new crop of players coming in, that’s the mentality I want to get back to.”

And with Howard joining Tiley and Nurse – a trio that is already making its mark this season – the Furies’ future looks bright.

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