Early one morning in February 2022, Ashton Bell walked into the Doc Bonar Arena in Deloraine, Man., with an Olympic gold medal in her hand.
Kids meet at the rink in the tiny community, home to fewer than 1,000 people, one morning every week. They work on drills with local coaches and eat breakfast before heading to school.
It's where Bell practised twice a week for nearly a decade, and on this day, she was back to share the medal she earned as a member of Canada's women's national hockey team. Her mom, Teresa, still sets up breakfast for the kids at the club, even though her daughter's not one of the kids on the ice anymore.
"The kids were just super, super 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 she's really good with [them]."
Seventeen years after Bell's skating caught Caldwell's eye inside that rink, the now 24-year-old Bell has made a home in Ottawa, where she's poised to be one of the leaders on the PWHL team's blue line for years to come.
It's a position she adopted only four seasons ago, after coaches with 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.
Bell became a world champion less than two years after switching from forward to defence. Not long after that, she won Olympic gold. (Ross D. Franklin/The Associated Press)
They were right. Bell had a breakout season at Minnesota Duluth and two years later, won a world championship on Canada's blue line. A few months after that, she won Olympic gold.
Next up is professional hockey in a league created just in time for her to thrive. After seven games, the eighth-overall draft pick has four points, leading all rookie defenders.
"We think by the end of the year, she's going to be one of the top defenders in this league," Ottawa GM Mike Hirshfeld said during training camp.
From rodeo to hockey
Growing up on a grain farm in rural Manitoba, hockey wasn't Bell's only sport. Her family had horses and she spent several years competing in rodeo.
Her favourite event? Roping, where competitors need solid hand-eye coordination to throw a rope and catch cattle.
Bell spent several years competing in rodeo competitions in Manitoba. (Ashtonbell26/Instagram)
She stopped competing in high school, but still rides horses when she can find the time.
"It's just fun, just something different to get away from hockey and just enjoy being outside and in the fresh air," she said during training camp.
Hockey has always been Bell's number one sport and from the beginning, her skating stood out.
Caldwell likes to say that some kids skate on top of the ice. When he's watched Bell skate over the years, her stride felt different.
"She just glides well," he said.
On top of that, she's coachable. Lots of kids Caldwell coaches could do the skills he was teaching, but he said it takes a special player to be able to integrate it into their decision-making on the ice.
Bell's distinction of being coachable proved key in college, when her coaches asked her to make a big switch.
Skating, vision helped transition to defence
It wasn't just her skating that tipped off Maura Crowell that Bell might make a good defender, though she does describe her as one of the best skating defenders you'll find.
Her coaches thought Bell might be a fit on defence because of the way she sees the ice. They thought playing from the back end, where she might have more time and space to make plays, would suit her better.
"Sometimes when you're a forward, you're always right in it, you're on top of the puck," said Crowell, who is the head coach at Minnesota Duluth. "The vision and the time [on defence], it's just a totally different experience."
Bell, right, defends against Marie-Philip Poulin during Ottawa's home opener on Jan. 2. (Arianne Bergeron/PWHL)
The switch came halfway through Bell's college career, and the payoff was instant. She led all defenders 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 Gabbie Hughes, who was a co-captain at Minnesota Duluth with Bell.
"But she absolutely skyrocketed [after] it. She's definitely meant to be a defenceman. She uses her offensive skills that she had growing up as a huge key to her game."
Bell played defence growing up, so it wasn't totally foreign to her. She also thinks being a centre helped the transition.
The result is a defender who isn't afraid to jump into the rush.
"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 it up ice and still having that offence be a big part of my game."
A high ceiling
Stepping off the ice at TD Place after Ottawa's first on-ice session during training camp, Bell told reporters her jaw was starting to hurt from smiling so much over the first couple of days of getting to know her teammates.
A few months later, Bell has become a "quiet comedian" inside Ottawa's locker room, according to Ottawa head coach Carla MacLeod, who has prioritized fun on her team.
"I just really enjoy her demeanour," MacLeod said. "I enjoy her calmness. Not a lot rattles Ashton. But you can also see that she's leaning in on the moments she needs leaning in on, and making sure that she's picking up pieces that's going to help her in our group."
Ashton Bell, centre, poses for a photo with former Canadian professional soccer player Diana Matheson and Ottawa GM Mike Hirshfeld after being selected eighth overall by Ottawa during the PWHL draft in September 2023. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)
On the ice, her coach described her as a student of the game, and a hard worker who's willing to take feedback and try new things to get better.
The next step is to keep building her confidence and skill set, according to MacLeod. She sees the sky as the limit.
"As her confidence continues to grow and her comfort continues to grow, she'll just keep being that much better and that much better," MacLeod said. "I'm really excited to see her develop over the next few years."
In the off-season, Bell has been returning to Deloraine and working with Caldwell, focusing on many of the same fundamentals they worked on back at breakfast club many years ago.
She also organizes on an annual road hockey tournament in memory of a local coach and former NHL player, Don Dietrich, who died in 2021.
The thousands of dollars raised so far has gone back to youth sports in the community.
"They're just a good family for our little town and hockey as a whole," Caldwell said.