Inside the CWHL: Sophie Shirley's big decision

Sophie Shirley is one of the most promising Canadian-born forwards in women’s hockey. A few months ago, she was a highly-touted freshman recruit bound for NCAA Division I powerhouse Wisconsin. But the 18-year-old Saskatchewan native isn’t playing hockey in Madison; she’s playing professional hockey in the CWHL with the Calgary Inferno.

Last season, Shirley was named the best forward of the 2017 IIHF World Women’s U18 Championship. She brought home a silver medal and led her country in scoring. It seemed like a big freshman year at Wisconsin was all but inevitable. But that isn’t what happened. Shirley chose to delay her NCAA career so that she could seize a unique opportunity to develop her game in the CWHL, where she could play with and against some of the best players in the world. 

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“I made the decision sometime in the summer, in June or July,” Shirley told Sporting News in a recent interview. “I was kind of debating over what I wanted to do. I was talking with (Jackie Krum, assistant coach at Wisconsin) and she explained that this would be a great opportunity for me to develop more. The CWHL is a great league, somewhere where I can get better and then come back next year and play for Wisconsin.”

Shirley couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play pro hockey, even if it came at the cost of delaying her collegiate career. But she’s chosen to retain her NCAA eligibility by accepting only “actual and necessary expenses” from the Inferno, despite the fact that this is the first season in CWHL history where players are receiving a salary.

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The CWHL’s expansion into China has resulted in more teenagers playing professional women’s hockey than ever before, but Shirley’s road to the Inferno is still exceptional. Before her, the last two teenagers to play in the CWHL were Marie-Philip Poulin and Ann-Renée Desbiens. Both players are projected to play for Canada at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang. You have to be exceptional to register for the CWHL Draft as a teenager. The word exceptional fits Shirley like a glove.

The 5-9 rookie doesn’t have as much muscle on her frame as Inferno and Team Canada star Brianne Jenner, but what she does have is speed. And lots of it. Shirley is a natural skater with great vision and a big wingspan. One needs only look at the rosters of the Canadian and U.S. national teams to appreciate just how valuable big forwards who can skate like the wind are in the women’s game.

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Last December, Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson explained what made a then-17-year-old Shirley so special: “She’s extremely talented and skilled, very fast, smooth, and I think there’s an opportunity for her to become an elite player over the next three or four years as she grows and develops and plays at a higher level.”

Shirley admits she was surprised by the strength of pro players and the speed of the CWHL game in her first game this season. But that didn’t stop her from scoring a goal in her CWHL debut.

“I knew it was going to be tough,” Shirley said. “All of the older girls are a little bit bigger. I was a little bit worried about the strength aspect. But after my first couple of games I started to feel a little more comfortable. My linemates are really experienced players and that has helped me out. My focus was on getting comfortable first and then letting everything else fall into place. It’s been going good so far and I hope we can continue that as the season goes on.”

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It’s been going a little bit better than good. Through her first six CWHL games, the teenager leads Calgary in scoring. Shirley has seven points — six of which are primary — and has been a force for Calgary at even strength. She already has three multi-point games for the 5-0-1 Inferno. 

Shirley is quick to credit linemate Iya Gavrilova for taking her under wing. Shirley was 6 years old when Gavrilova scored her first goal in the Olympics for Russia. The youngster has dedicated herself to being a good student so she can absorb whatever knowledge she can from Gavrilova and her other teammates. The duo’s even-strength offense has been crucial for Calgary early this season. No CWHL team lost more players to Olympic centralization than the Inferno. Six of Calgary’s forwards are currently centralized with Canada, including Jenner.

“Losing all of those players to the Olympics was what we were all thinking about at the start of the season,” Shirley revealed. “Our coaching staff has been great at giving us the knowledge that they have. I think our whole team is really buying into what they’re saying. There’s the pressure of wanting to do good and needing to do good, I guess. But I think we’re sticking to what our process is as a team.”

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Shirley’s big decision last summer may have disappointed a lot of Badgers fans, but it’s also kept the Inferno on top of the CWHL standings.

Even more importantly, the young woman from Saskatoon is happy with the choice she made.

“I’m really glad that I did choose to come here for a year to develop,” she said. “There’s an amazing coach staff here in Calgary and so far it’s been really good.”

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