Asked what she’s most jealous of in modern women’s professional hockey, longtime goalie and current Toronto Six president Sami Jo Small chuckles.
“Handing out the salaries, it is an incredible thing that we get to do. We get to empower these women with a paycheque to be full-time hockey players. … We dreamed that this moment would happen, and we knew that eventually it would,” Small said.
“Just if it were 10 years earlier, it really would have helped our careers. But it was really special when we got to do that.”
A three-time Canadian Olympian and four-time world champion, Small stepped away from the sport in the wake of the CWHL’s collapse before taking the Six job over the summer of 2022.
The Premier Hockey Federation, isn’t exactly where she thought she’d end up. Small admits now that the 2019 version of her might have viewed this as a sort of betrayal.
WATCH | CBC Sports examines the growth of the PHF’s Toronto Six:
The PHF, previously known as the National Women’s Hockey League, was a direct competitor of the CWHL.
“For me in this role here, I don’t see it as simply me. It’s me standing on the shoulders of giants that have come before me, that have created all of this, and now I get to be the one that really gets to reap the rewards and gets to lead this incredible organization,” Small said.
Meanwhile, nearly all of the sport’s top players are biding time as part of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association in search of a “sustainable” league.
To PWHPA players, sustainability boils down to being paid and treated like full-time professional athletes. A key part of that is a team’s facilities, and whether there are suitable training and recovery resources.
“[Sustainability] is a little bit of a misnomer to me,” Small said. “Women’s hockey needs to be a solid business and is a solid business sustainable? It is if you attract fans, it is if you attract the players and the product you put on engages the fans on a nightly basis.”
‘Got Your Six’
Small proudly dons a Toronto Six scarf as she leads CBC Sports on a tour of her team’s facilities at the Canlan Sports Centre at York University, where recreational hockey of all ages is also played. On Thursday, the league announced that the Six would co-host the league semifinals at Toronto’s Mattamy Athletic Centre. The league-leading Boston Pride will share hosting duties.
Practice begins at 4:15 p.m. on Rink 5, where Hockey Hall of Famer and Six head coach Geraldine Heaney leads a series of drills as a youth women’s team watches from the stands.
There’s a clear camaraderie among Franzoi, Seda and Fernandes, who laugh with each other as well as with the players who are lined up next to the bench in preparation for their next drill.
That family environment is driven home by a player-produced slogan that appears in the dressing room and players’ lounge: “Got Your Six.”
The motto is a military term — if your body was a clock, then six o’clock would be your back. Hence, got your six translates to “got your back.”
Dressing room ins and outs
Players have their own stalls inside the dressing room, and plenty of extra equipment is strewn throughout. Off to the right, next to the showers, is a roughshod ice bath.
To compare the digs to the NHL would be unfair. Daryl Watts, who recently signed a record $150,000 US contract with the team after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, said her new facilities don’t rise to the level of her alma mater.
“One day I hope we’ll be in a rink where the facilities are just for us and we don’t have to move through the lobby and run into like 4-year-old kids,” Watts said. “[But] the facilities, really, they have everything that we need right now. But there’s obviously room for improvement.”
Small, on the other hand, marvels at what today’s players have. She described getting changed in a “barn” outside of the arena in her CWHL days and having to cross the street to get into the rink for games.
As she stands in the dressing room, Small mentions that it will soon become a full-time office for her players. She says only four or five work other full-time jobs this season, but with the salary cap doubling to $1.5 million US next season, expectations will rise.
“They’ll have to make that tough choice next year … whether they’re able to [take a] leave [from] their job or whether they even want to. But the majority of players will be full-time hockey players next year. We’ll start to train at noon, it will be sort of an 8-5 requirement to be at the hockey rink all day.”
In the hallway on the way to the rink on which the Six play their games, Small squeezes by a York player, with whom she shares a smile.
The game arena seats about 1,200 people, though Small says typical games draw about half of that, unless a corporate partner buys up more tickets at the discounted $5 group rate.
Small laments that seating is limited to one side of the rink — the same side as most cameras, meaning TV coverage of games is devoid of fans, save for some replay shots from the other side.
In the top row, at about centre ice, a seat is reserved for Bernice Carnegie, a team co-owner and the daughter of Herb Carnegie, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year and is widely considered the best Black player never to play in the NHL.
Above the stands is a restaurant which looks over the ice. Tables and barstools are set up by the windows for those who want a different viewing experience.
Down the hallway is the players’ lounge, which doubles as general manager and Hall of Famer Angela James’ office during games. Watts is especially impressed by the Snickers protein bars available, among other snacks and beverages.
After practice, players file into the room for a quick video session with Heaney ahead of that weekend’s game against the Montreal Force, which the Six would go on to win 2-1.
Toronto is currently second overall in the PHF, one point behind the Boston Pride. Star forward Brittany Howard is second in the league with both 15 goals and 24 points, trailing only Pride forward Loren Gabel in both categories.
“[Howard] came over from the PWHPA to be able to have a place to play on a nightly basis, to be able to have practices every single day and to be able to be in a coaching situation where you’re getting that feedback constantly,” Small said.
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