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American forward Taylor Heise taken first overall at inaugural PWHL draft

TORONTO — First overall pick in the first-ever draft of a new league. It was a surreal feeling for Taylor Heise.
Minnesota's Taylor Heise, right, from the NCAA,poses for a photo with former American tennis player Billie Jean King after being selected 1st overall during the first round of the inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey League draft in Toronto, on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

TORONTO — First overall pick in the first-ever draft of a new league. It was a surreal feeling for Taylor Heise.

Minnesota selected the 23-year-old American forward with the top pick of the inaugural Professional Women's Hockey League draft on Monday. 

Tennis legend Billie Jean King, an investor in the league, made the announcement at CBC headquarters in downtown Toronto.

"It's an unreal feeling," said Heise. "I mean, to be here and see all the ladies here that I play against and play with every single day is awesome. 

"I think it's something that I'm going to look forward to and look back on my entire life. I'm just really grateful to be here."

There was a buzz in the building for the PWHL's big day, with children showing up with their parents to get autographs from their favourite athletes. 

Players walked down the purple carpet in stylish outfits, taking photos and soaking in the moment.

"It's just an iconic moment that some people didn't expect to happen and some people didn't even think would happen," said Heise, who recently closed a decorated NCAA career with the University of Minnesota. 

"For us, we always had faith, we always knew we would get what we deserved one day and I'm glad that today's that day."

For Canadian defender Jocelyne Larocque - a second overall pick by Toronto - it was beyond what she had imagined.

"I knew it was going to be run insanely professionally but it surpassed any of my expectations," she said. "When I walked in, to see the young girls there waiting to get their autographs … the structure and the organization.

"It really made it feel real, that it's like, 'Wow, this is happening.'"

The formulation of the PWHL began after it was announced on June 30 that the new league would launch in 2024 along with news that Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter's firm purchased assets of the now-defunct Premier Hockey Federation.

The Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association had been working with the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises over the prior 14 months in a bid to launch its own league.

The PWHL announced its six teams on Aug. 29 along with other building blocks, including teams having a 24-game regular-season schedule set to kick off in January.

Despite other women's leagues having been unable to stand the test of time, Larocque is confident in this one.

"I would say it's definitely the infrastructure and the people behind it," said the native of Ste-Anne, Man. "I've been playing hockey for many years and the WWHL (Western Women's Hockey League), the CWHL (Canadian Women's Hockey League) had the players, so many skilled players from all across the world.

"But this feels different and it is different because of the infrastructure behind it."

Toronto signed Canadian forwards Sarah Nurse and Blayre Turnbull and defender Renata Fast in free agency before selecting Larocque with its top choice. 

"I'm ecstatic," said Larocque, a three-time Olympic medallist with Canada. 

Toronto also added Canadian forward Natalie Spooner in the fourth round of the 15-round draft.

Swiss forward Alina Muller was selected third overall by Boston and Canadian defender Ella Shelton was taken fourth by New York. 

Ottawa took American defender Savannah Harmon fifth overall and Montreal selected Canadian defender Erin Ambrose sixth.

Harmon — who has competed for the U.S. team in three world championships, an Olympics and in multiple Rivalry Series against Canada — became the first American on the Ottawa squad. 

She joined three Canadian players — goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer and forwards Brianne Jenner and Emily Clark — who signed as free agents.

"I'm incredibly proud to be drafted by Ottawa," Harmon said. "I've heard great things about the city, I've been fortunate enough to play a game in a U.S. jersey against Team Canada but the atmosphere was incredible, the rink was incredible, the fans were incredible.

"I can only imagine playing for Ottawa, it's going to be just as incredible."

Ambrose, meanwhile, joins Canadian team captain Marie-Philip Poulin, forward Laura Stacey and goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens in Montreal.

The Keswick, Ont., native previously spent two years (2017-2019) with Les Canadiennes de Montreal of the now-defunct CWHL.

Boston also selected notable Canadians in blueliner Sophie Jaques and forward Jamie-Lee Rattray in the second and third rounds, respectively.

New York added Canadian forward Jessie Eldridge in the third round. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2023.

Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press