Audrey-Anne Veillette waited and waited, unsure whether she would hear her name ringing through the Canadian Broadcast Centre speakers during the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) inaugural draft this past September.
Being the only injured player in the mix, the 22-year-old went into this draft with a sense of uncertainty. But as the 90-round draft crept into its second last pick, Veillette finally heard her name: “For our final pick of the 2023 draft, Ottawa selects Audrey-Anne Veillette,” the team announced on its X account.
She says she “couldn’t have been happier.”
Although half of the athletes drafted are Canadian, most players that are coming off post-secondary seasons came from the U.S., where more than 1,000 schools belong to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
What Leagues are PWHL players coming from?
"People will say that NCAA is better, and we can see in the stats that I am the only player coming off a U Sports season, but I would say keep working hard and don't think about all the things you cannot control because you can control your performance, your attitude and how hard you're working," Veillette told Capital Current. "And if you do that well, they won't ignore you."
Veillette was one of the only players drafted from a team that's part of Canada's U Sports system, the highest level of Canadian university sport.
Veillette, who played centre for Les Carabins at the University of Montreal, had her best season in 2022-23 with a league-leading 26 goals, including five hat tricks. She also scored the opening goal against Japan as the Canadian women won gold at the FISU World University Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. in January.
For current U Sports hockey player Orianna MacNeil, seeing someone who was in her shoes as recently as last year make the jump to the professional ranks is "inspiring."
"For the longest time, I never thought there was anywhere I could play after university hockey," said MacNeil, a second-year student who plays defence at the University of Prince Edward Island and is former Atlantic Division rookie of the year.
"Knowing that there are players in this league getting drafted opened my eyes to the chance of a professional career," said the 19-year-old.
"I have a new goal I can work towards, which I didn't really have before."
The PWHL was established in the summer of 2023 and has declared its first six franchise teams— three in the U.S. (Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul and New York City) and three in Canada (Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa).
In the four years preceding this announcement, female professional hockey players had been vigorously campaigning for the creation of a single unified league.
At least 150 players have officially signed, with former Professional Women's Hockey Players Association and Premier Hockey Federation players making up the majority of the new league. Some of the biggest names in women's hockey have joined, including Marie-Philip Poulin, Brianna Decker, and Hilary Knight.
Veillette describes the PWHL as an opportunity for all women's hockey players.
"I went to see my old team (Les Carabins) play, and now they can dream of playing in not only Team Canada but also professional hockey team in the coming years."
This sentiment is echoed by the league's dedication to its athletes.
"The precaution that the PWHL is taking to ensure that they're giving these women the ultimate experience makes me so proud," said Olivia Giardetti, the PWHL Ottawa's Manager of Team Services.
"I know there are a lot of female hockey players that have ended their careers because there isn't an opportunity for them. Hopefully the growth of this league and the expansion into different markets, whenever that may be, will allow more opportunities for players in U Sports but also women's hockey players everywhere," said Giardetti, a retired player who played for Toronto Metropolitan University's women's team and has an undergraduate degree in Sport Media and an MBA in sports business.
"U Sports players can see athletes from their league that either got drafted or got invited to training camp, and that's a huge motivational factor. They might be like, oh, wow, maybe I can do this," said Giardetti.
In an interview earlier this fall, Laural Walzak, former chair of the now-folded Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL), told CBC Sports: "For the short-term pain, there's going to be long-term gain, and there's going to be sustainability in this league that that will be in perpetuity similar to what's going on with the WNBA, how finally after so many years it's taken off."
The PWHL teams are all in reasonably close proximity to one another, which should help to save on travel costs. Although the league is yet to start, its business model looks promising, according to a Hockey News analysis, and its growth will simultaneously help grow the broader sport at large.
Veillette did not hit the ice for Ottawa's training camp Nov. 19, because of her injury but she was featured in an image posted on PWHL Ottawa's Instagram working out.
Although Veillette does not know for sure when she will return to play, she does feel that "getting drafted is a big motivation to come back. So right now I'm just focusing on what I can do to get better and come back to as fast as possible."
The Ottawa PWHL team will share TD Place with the OHL's 67's as their home base during the inaugural 24-game season beginning in January. Details on team names, logos, and season tickets are forthcoming.