Ella Shelton’s name is etched forever in women’s hockey lore.

The PWHL New York defender scored the first goal in Professional Women’s Hockey League history on Jan. 1 against Toronto in front of a sold-out crowd at Mattamy Athletic Centre.

New York would cruise to a 4-0 win, but Shelton admits it took a few days for the significance of the moment to sink in.

“I think it was such a big moment for women’s hockey and the fact that I get to put my name on that is more than humbling and heartwarming,” Shelton told TSN.ca. “And it just made me think of all the women that have come before me and all the work that they have put in to get to where we are today and for them not to benefit from [it].

“I hope that they watch this league and get to support us and really live vicariously through us.”

Shelton’s goal to play professional hockey after college took a few years to materialize. Her senior season at Clarkson University was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019-20. She played four games with the Toronto chapter of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) in 2020-21 but the majority of her playing career between graduation and the PWHL has been spent with the national team.

With Team Canada, the 26-year-old has won two world championships (2021 and 2022) an Olympic gold in 2022, and helped the team earn silver last year in Brampton, Ont. This year will be her fourth worlds, which take place from April 3 – 14 in Utica, N.Y.

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Shelton was drafted fourth overall by New York at the inaugural PWHL draft in September. In December, she was announced as an alternate captain alongside Alex Carpenter as Canadian teammate Micah Zandee-Hart was awarded the captaincy.

While New York has struggled this season with just seven wins in 19 games, Shelton has been given a lot of opportunity. Averaging over 26 minutes a game, she has four goals and 13 points this season, first in scoring by a defender in the PWHL.

“She’s been handed the keys back there to drive the car,” said TSN Hockey analyst and six-time world champion Cheryl Pounder. “I’ve seen more the offence, having the confidence to go with the puck.

“Collectively, New York hasn’t been great in their own zone, so it’s been hard to see past that at times. But I just think having that responsibility of kind of like she did in college, you are a go-to player, you have the minutes, so we’ve just seen her grow into that. She leads from the backend. She commands it. I know when she’s on the ice.”

With this being Shelton’s first proper season since college on top of the demands of playing heavy minutes against the best players in the world, she says it’s been an adjustment returning to a regular hockey schedule.

“To have that regular schedule [has] been a great thing but you also kind of have to figure out what’s going to work for your body and what works for you individually,” said Shelton. “Whether it’s extra recovery things or extra time in the gym or your nutrition, your sleep, you’re kind of managing all of that, so that when you do get back to those games and when you do get to go with your national teams, you’re going to be eating at the right times and peaking when you need to be.”

Off the ice, the team lives in Connecticut where the practice rink is located, with the team splitting their home games between Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport, Conn. and UBS Arena, home of the NHL’s Islanders. They are also scheduled to play two games at Prudential Center in New Jersey in April. 

Growing up in Ingersoll, Ont., a small town of just under 13,000 outside of London, and attending Clarkson in Potsdam, N.Y. with a population of close to 15,000, Shelton has spent much of her life living in small towns, so she has taken advantage of living in a major metropolitan area.

She was able to check going to Madison Square Garden to take in a Rangers game off her list of things to do in New York and on Dec. 29, she got to be at the New York Stock Exchange to ring the opening bell alongside Carpenter, Zandee-Hart and PWHL chairperson Jayna Hefford.

Shelton has a ton of responsibility in the PWHL, but it’s been a different story with the national team. She has often played lower in the lineup and in a defensive role. At the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, she averaged just 8:28 minutes per game throughout the tournament and averaged 12:15 at the 2023 worlds.

Pounder would like to see Shelton get more opportunity on the power play. Canada ranked fifth in that category at 22.5 per cent at the 2023 worlds.

“I’ve had her sort of creeping into that top four for years now,” said Pounder. “On the international scene I would certainly say she is strong along the walls, so she shuts down the cycle well. She’s good net front. I think she joins the attack at the right time.

“She brings a good element to be able to play a role where she can play five on five and shuts down, but then she can also activate and play D and play offensively. I think she’s gotten better on the blueline finding her lanes.”

PWHL Ottawa goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer has played behind Shelton on the national team and has faced her in the PWHL.

“Ella is so solid in front,” said Maschmeyer. “I feel so confident having her in front of me. I think being on the other end whenever she’s playing against me, I recognize how offensive she is as well. She has a great shot, great vision.” 

On a talented Canadian defence, Shelton believes the combination of her shot and her physical play is what separates her.

“I think one of the biggest threats is my shot and having a shot mentality allows me to get pucks to the net and help our forwards to create a scoring chance off of it,” said Shelton. “I think that’s something that helps separates me and then my physical play, I think with this league, that’s it allowed for that to really grow into a different level.”

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When Shelton first broke in with the senior team, fellow defender Renata Fast was the go-to person for her, having the Clarkson alumni connection and training alongside her. Now she has become someone younger players look up to.

Julia and Nicole Gosling, who are playing for Canada at the worlds for the first time, both played for the same London Devilettes junior hockey program in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League as Shelton and got to know her through that connection.

Julia centralized with Team Canada during the 2022 Olympic cycle before being cut and has played with Shelton in the Rivalry Series against the United States.

“She’s super nice, a little goofy, likes to dance,” said Julia Gosling of Shelton. “Very energetic and likes to joke around with you but also super sweet. If you do anything well you’ll hear from Ella that you did something well, so it’s fun being her teammate and her friend.

“On the ice, she’s super fast, even though it doesn’t look like it sometimes. If you’ve seen her on the rush sometimes, she literally makes it to the net before anyone else, [it’s] crazy how she scores some of those goals.”

Nicole Gosling cites Shelton has one of the players who has helped her out as a newcomer to the senior team.

“As a person, she’s always been super welcoming, super nice,” said Nicole Gosling. “Even if I were out to a practice with them when she was playing in London, she’d always be super nice, always greeting me, making sure that I’m comfortable.”

Shelton says she has grown a lot in the past few years and that her mentality has changed having gained the confidence that has come with playing a big role in New York.

“I think I’ve spent [a lot of the past couple years] really honing in on who I am as a person, as an athlete, and why that makes me so successful,” said Shelton. “I want to be able to showcase that and help bring girls up to their level that they want to be at.

“I think earning the trust of the girls was my first priority. I think being able to be friends with them outside of the rink but be able for them to hold me accountable and me hold them accountable has been huge.”

Pounder says the PWHL has done a lot for Shelton’s growth and is ready to see that translated on the international stage.

“I feel like it’s her time,” said Pounder. “This league, it’s her time to shine, to come into that role and getting those elevated minutes, can give her the confidence to push just beyond [doing one thing] and it’s something I’m excited to see and hoping she gets more opportunity on the national team.”