How the switch to the blue line became a game-changer for PWHL Ottawa’s Ashton Bell

Early one morning in February 2022, Ashton Bell walked into Doc Bonar Stadium in Deloraine, Man., holding an Olympic gold medal in her hand.

Children gather at the skating rink in this small community, population less than 1,000 people, on a weekday morning. They work on workouts with local coaches and eat breakfast before heading to school.

It’s where Bell has trained twice a week for nearly a decade, and on this day, she returns to share the medal she earned as a member of the Canadian women’s national hockey team. Her mother, Teresa, still makes breakfast for the kids at the club, even though her daughter isn’t one of the kids on the ice anymore.

“The kids were so excited to see her medal,” said Bob Caldwell, Bell’s longtime skills coach and founder of the Breakfast Club. “She comes on the ice and is very good with them.”

Seventeen years after catching Bell’s attention while skating inside that rink, 24-year-old Bell has made her home in Ottawa, where she’s poised to be one of the PWHL’s blue-line leaders for years to come.

It’s a position she adopted just four seasons ago, after coaches at Hockey Canada and the University of Minnesota Duluth had a hunch that her smooth skating and good vision would make her a good fit as a defender.

A hockey player wearing a Team Canada jersey skates with the puck.
Bale became a world champion less than two years after switching from attack to defence. It wasn’t long after that that she won the Olympic gold medal. (Ross D. Franklin/The Associated Press)

They were right. Bell had a breakout season in Minnesota-Duluth and two years later, won a world championship on the blue line in Canada. A few months later, she won the Olympic gold medal.

Next is professional hockey in a league that was created just in time to flourish. After seven games, the eighth overall pick has four points, leading all rookie defensemen.

“We believe that by the end of the year, she will be one of the best defenders in this league,” Ottawa general manager Mike Hirschfeld said during training camp.

From rodeo to hockey

Growing up on a grain farm in rural Manitoba, hockey wasn’t the only sport Bill played. Her family had horses and she spent several years competing in rodeos.

Her favorite event? Pulling, where competitors need strong hand-eye coordination to throw the rope and catch the livestock.

Girl on a horse swinging with a rope.
Bill spent several years competing in rodeos in Manitoba. (ashtonbill26/Instagram)

She stopped competing in high school, but still rides horses when she finds the time.

“It’s fun, just something different to get away from hockey and enjoy being outside and in the fresh air,” she said during training camp.

Hockey was Bell’s number one sport, and from the beginning, her skating skills stood out.

Caldwell likes to say that some kids are skating on the ice. As Bell watched her skate over the years, her stride felt different.

“It glides well,” he said.

Moreover, they are trainable. Many of the kids Caldwell coaches can do the skills he taught, but he said it takes a special player to be able to incorporate them into his on-ice decision-making.

Bell’s coachability distinction proved invaluable in college, when her coaches asked her to make a big change.

Skating, vision helped with the transition to defense

It wasn’t just her skating that alerted Maura Crowell that Bell might be a good defender, though she describes her as one of the best skating defenders you’ll find.

Her coaches thought Bell might be a good fit for defense because of the way she sees the ice. They thought playing from the back, where she might have more time and space to play, would suit her better.

“Sometimes when you’re a forward, you’re always right, you’re on top of the ball,” said Crowell, who is head coach at Minnesota Duluth. “The vision and time (on defense), it’s just a completely different experience.”

A hockey player in a red jersey defends a player in a cream Montreal jersey.
Bale, right, defends against Marie-Philippe Poulin during Ottawa’s home opener on Jan. 2. (Ariane Bergeron/PWHL)

The shift came midway through Bill’s college career, and the payoff was immediate. She led all defensemen in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with 32 points in 36 games in the 2019-20 season.

“When she made that transition, it was a little bit of a shock,” said Ottawa forward Gabby Hughes, who captained Minnesota Duluth with Bell.

“But she skyrocketed (after that). She’s definitely meant to be a defenseman. She uses her offensive skills that she’s acquired as a big key to her game.”

Bell played defense growing up, so it wasn’t completely foreign to her. She also believes that being a center helped with the transition.

The result is a defender who is not afraid to jump in a hurry.

“I like to see the ice and keep the ice in front of me, keep the play in front of me,” Bell said. “I like to use my speed as well, so just getting back to pucks quickly and then skating and staying aggressive is a big part of my game.”

High ceiling

Stepping off the ice at TD Place following Ottawa’s first on-ice session during training camp, Bell told reporters her jaw was starting to hurt from smiling so much during the first two days getting to know her teammates.

A few months later, Bell had become a “quiet comedian” inside the Ottawa locker room, according to Ottawa coach Carla McLeod, who prioritized fun on her team.

“I really enjoy her demeanor,” McLeod said. “I enjoy her calmness. She doesn’t shake Ashton too much. But you can also see that she relies on the moments she needs to lean on, and makes sure she picks up the pieces that will help her in our group.”

Three people pose for a photo with a hockey stick.
Ashton Bell, center, poses for a photo with former Canadian professional soccer player Diana Matheson and Ottawa general manager Mike Hirschfield after she was selected eighth overall by Ottawa during the September 2023 PWHL draft. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

On the ice, her coach described her as a student of the game, hardworking and willing to receive feedback and try new things to get better.

The next step is to continue building her confidence and skill set, according to McLeod. You see the sky as far as possible.

“As her confidence continues to grow and her comfort continues, she will continue to be much better and much better,” McLeod said. “I’m really excited to see it develop over the next few years.”

In the off-season, Bell would return to DeLorean and work with Caldwell, focusing on many of the same fundamentals they worked on at the Breakfast Club so many years ago.

It also holds an annual road hockey tournament in memory of local coach and former NHL player, Don Dietrich, who died in 2021.

Thousands of dollars raised so far have gone back to youth sports in the community.

“They are just a good family for our small town and hockey as a whole,” Caldwell said.

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