Meet the Toronto Furies: The women of winter carving their mark on the hockey rink | Toronto Star

Howling Greek sister-goddesses who seek justice are painted across Sami Jo Small's goalie mask; their dark manes streaming, eyes alight. Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, is depicted with the Furies — her shield raised, sword drawn for battle. “I...

Meet the Toronto Furies: The women of winter carving their mark on the hockey rink  | Toronto Star

Howling Greek sister-goddesses who seek justice are painted across Sami Jo Small's goalie mask; their dark manes streaming, eyes alight. Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, is depicted with the Furies — her shield raised, sword drawn for battle.

“I wanted images of strong women capable of laying down the law,” said Small, a three-time Olympian and an original member of women’s professional hockey team Toronto Furies – named so by fans in a contest.

The Toronto team’s ability to lay down the hockey law will be tested in a Canadian Women’s Hockey League semifinal this weekend.

The Furies, based at Etobicoke’s MasterCard Centre, are in Calgary for a playoff series with the top-seeded Inferno (Montreal and Brampton are in the other semi) to determine who advances to the CWHL’s championship, the Clarkson Cup, on March 5.

“Calgary is an amazing team,” said Furies forward Jess Vella of the best-of-three series played in the Alberta city.

“We’re really going to have to play a perfect game and work as a team . . . and who doesn’t like going into the playoffs with the underdog label?”

The label could apply to female hockey players in general.

The Furies lead busy lives away from the rink before heading off to two weeknight practices in preparation for a pair of weekend games. Players are either post-grad students with part-time jobs or they log 40-hour weeks to pursue careers like teaching, sales, health and wellness, public speaking and entrepreneurship.

In a nation obsessed with the game and besotted by those who embody male excellence — NHLers and to a lesser extent, the Team Canada juniors every Christmas — the world’s best female players, contained in this decade-old league, continue to push their way into the public consciousness one game, one playoff round, one Sportsnet broadcast at a time.

Two recent measurables in February:

The CWHL’s all-star game at the Air Canada Centre drew 8,122 paying fans at $10 a ticket. And a Sportsnet game between the Furies and Montreal’s Les Canadiennes averaged 136,400 viewers. Sportsnet reports viewership for the women’s game is roughly comparable to an average Saturday afternoon Major League Baseball game not involving the Toronto Blue Jays.

“Women’s hockey is a very quickly growing segment of the hockey industry and it is important that Sportsnet support that growth,” said Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL Properties.

The March 5 Clarkson Cup will also be shown nationally on Sportsnet.

The players, despite these strides, are not paid. Much is made of that by skeptical sports fans.

The women consider themselves professionals in part because they get other “paid” things: practice and game ice, general managers, top coaching, equipment managers, travel, accommodation, meals on the road, officiating and playoff bonus cash, to name a few perks.

But they still need to support themselves. Even national team players who receive government funding have to scramble to make ends meet.

Furies forward Natalie Spooner, 26, is also a national team player who relies on personal sponsors and appearance fees to supplement her Hockey Canada stipends.

“The hope would be that women could be paid in the future to have hockey as a full-time career,” said the Toronto native, sponsored by the Dairy Farmers of Canada, Lady Speed Stick and auditors PwC.

Brenda Andress is the salaried commissioner of the five-team CWHL, which is governed by a volunteer board. Under her reign, the league’s overall budget has grown from $360,000 to about $2.2 million.

There’s enough in the league pot to award bonus money to players for winning the league championship, the Clarkson Cup, and for finishing atop the regular season standings. But Andress said wages will come only when there’s enough money to sustain full-time salaries for all players over the long term.

“Paying the players doesn’t build the league,” she said of the centrally funded, not-for-profit organization.

“Building the league pays the players.”

Andress talks about “putting bums in seats,” meaning $15 single-game ticket sales ($150 for 12-game package) are crucial to building a loyal fan base.

Still, the league is not filling the joints during the regular season. Paid attendance is uneven. The CWHL reports that Montreal is tops, at about 1,100 a game; Calgary draws about 400; Toronto and Boston are around 300 and the Brampton Thunder — playing in a great old barn, the Brampton Memorial Arena — sits at 200. Each team is responsible for raising $45,000 on its own this season, some of that income based on ticketing.

To help bolster the CWHL’s outreach, the league has forged partnerships with four NHL franchises: Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens; Calgary Flames and Ottawa Senators. The NHL clubs lend business supports, like marketing, and host events like the Clarkson Cup in their home arenas.

An example of that NHL assistance: Maple Leafs Sport & Entertainment, the Leafs’ parent company, created a new Furies logo two years ago.

Rebecca Michael, a former player and now Toronto GM, said MLSE’s creative team surveyed the players and league staff and researched the history of the team before producing the distinctive Furies branding.

On Leaf game days, Michael said the NHL club also stocks Furies swag in its marquee retail store, Real Sports, alongside Leaf items.

“That is huge for us,” said Michael. “It triggers brand awareness and recognition,” she said. “Getting into media and not getting lost in everything else is a challenge.”

The girl who quit hockey

Natalie Spooner quit hockey.

Didn’t like the game. Didn’t like the gear. No more West Hill Golden Hawks house league for her.

Plan B was that little Natalie — who had three older hockey-playing brothers — would instead attend power skating lessons at Pickering’s Art Thompson Arena. In hockey skates.

“I’d go to power skating in my snowsuit when all the other kids were in their hockey equipment,” said Spooner, laughing, recalling she was about 5.

“Then, this is a crazy story. Jessica Vella, who is now on the Furies, showed up at power skating and she was in her hockey equipment. I said ‘Do you play hockey?’ and she said, ‘Yes, do you?’ ”

The next power skating session, Spooner — inspired by another girl playing hockey amid a class of boys — was back in her hockey gear, practising out-turns and crossovers with 4-year-old Vella.

“My dad let Spooner’s parents know that I was on a (girls) team and she should come out to a practice,” said Vella, who was learning the game at the all-female Durham West organization.

“One thing led to another, she stayed in hockey (and) now look where she is,” Vella said of Spooner.

Since that day at power skating, the two have remained friends and are, again, teammates after slightly different paths led them to the Furies.

Vella, 25, soon left girls hockey and played most of her minor years with Pickering Panthers boys teams. She returned to Durham West in Grade 9 when her size (she’s five-foot-one) “started to make a big difference when it came to contact.”

Vella, a “grinder” forward with exceptional school grades, earned a hockey scholarship to Providence College in Rhode Island..

“The fact that I could go to school and not have any debt put on my parents or myself is a load of difference compared to people my age who I know had to pay out of pocket,” said Vella. Now, she gets up at dawn to hit the gym before beginning her workday at Centennial College’s Strategic Initiatives and External Relations department.

“And to get to play hockey every single day? That was a bonus.”

Unlike Vella, Spooner played girls hockey exclusively with Durham West. In high school (Cedarbrae Collegiate, where she was in French immersion), she attracted Team Canada attention. At 16, she made the Under-18 team and was subsequently invited to her first national senior team training camp. After that camp, she incurred a major injury.

Spooner broke her jaw while playing for Durham West at a Stoney Creek tournament.

“I blocked a shot with my face,” Spooner said, noting she was wearing a full cage, didn’t lose any teeth but bled all over the ice.

“The girl pulled it for a shot and I went like this” — she pulls her head back, exposing her throat and lower jaw on the left side —“ to get out of the way but it hit me underneath.”

Spooner’s jaw was wired shut for five-and-a-half weeks. She drank meals —her mom, Anne-Marie, blended macaroni and cheese and Thanksgiving dinner courses into sippable form. Ten pounds lighter, she was on her skates again with partial wiring in her jaw for about two more weeks to play for a Team Ontario squad at a national championship.

Spooner, who earned a hockey scholarship to the Ohio State University where she studied pre-med and nutrition, is now a national team player in her prime. She has an Olympic gold medal, a world championship and a handful of other championship silvers.The five-foot-10 right-handed shot hopes to represent Canada in two more Olympic Games, the next being 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

If Spooner is named to the Olympic roster, she will not play in the CWHL next season. The female Olympians will move to Calgary in August to train full time for the Winter Games.

Spooner ’s Furies teammates Erin Ambrose, Renata Fast and Jenelle Kohanchuk are among about 30 CWHL players who are part of the national team program. National team prospects are based at regional training centres across the country. (Toronto is one, with skills sessions twice weekly at the MasterCard Centre.)

To be considered for Canada’s national team program, players “must be actively playing or training with a high-level team,” according to Hockey Canada.

“So, the CWHL certainly provides an avenue for players who have completed their post-secondary education to continue to train and play, and gives Hockey Canada an opportunity to continue to observe them as part of our selection process for national team camps and team rosters,” Hockey Canada spokesperson Lisa Dornan said in an email.

Spooner was asked where she would play to stay sharp for Team Canada duties if the CWHL didn’t exist.

“I don’t know,” she said, mulling it over.

“There wouldn’t be anywhere.”

A goalie and a mom

Three-time Olympian Sami Jo Small was wheeling her sleeping toddler, Kensi, around the MasterCard Centre, waiting for her babysitter to arrive.

Her husband, Billy Bridges, a Paralympic sledge hockey gold medalist, was at a national team training camp and unavailable for Kensi duty. Small fretted about having her daughter out so late — the Furies’ dry-land session in the gym began around 8:15 p.m. to accommodate work schedules. Then on-ice practice.

She wouldn’t be finished until 11 p.m.

When Kensi’s sitter arrived, the 40-year-old Small took off for the gym and put in a full workout with teammates, some more than a decade younger. Small is the only mother on the team.

Earlier in the day, when Kensi was at daycare, Small tended net during a skills session for national team program players — including Spooner. Small is a five-time world champion and two-time world championship MVP. It’s not easy to find someone of that skill and experience in the neighbourhood.

On the Furies, though, Small is the third goalie on the depth chart. That means she isn’t required to dress for every game. Often, she cheers from the stands with Kensi, decked out in baby Furies gear, at her side.

The CWHL, which Small co-founded with a small group in 2007 (after the National Women’s Hockey League dissolved) and nurtured for years — going over spreadsheets at night, attending business meetings by day — may no longer have a roster spot for her. If the Furies cut her, she won’t play for another team, she said.

“I love playing, I love the game, I love everything about it,” said Small.

“However, if (the Furies are) never going to play me, that’s sort of their decision at this point. I made the commitment to the team at the start of the year and to me, when you make that commitment, you be the best you can be. It’s not always easy but in my professional life, that’s what I talk about.”

Small is a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers and does about 50 to 70 keynote speaking engagements or events each year. She’s a certified speaking professional, the industry’s highest designation. That is her full-time paying job, making her the house breadwinner. (Bridges is a government-funded sledge hockey national team player.) She also runs her own hockey school.

Small’s hour-long speeches are tailored to the client but they have a central message: teamwork. She tells client groups about the Olympic final she did not get to play, due to a coaching decision, and weaves that into her message.

“The motto is you don’t always get to choose the role you play but you always get to choose how you play it,” Small said.

Small is endlessly cheerful and a problem-solver by nature and training; she earned a mechanical engineering degree at Stanford while on an athletic scholarship (discus and javelin). She juggles many duties, besides motherhood and hockey.

Small has stepped away from her voluntary work in shaping the CWHL and seeking league sponsorships. Those tasks are now those of her friend, Andress, and three other paid staffers working out a downtown office space near Queen and Parliament Sts.

Small’s future in the CWHL is, at this point, unknown. The health of a rival women’s league in the United States, called the NWHL, is also unknown as it is reportedly weighed down by litigation and financial problems.

However, Small is hopeful that other females — perhaps her own daughter, Kensi — will be able suit up as a CWHL player or compete in their chosen sport as a professional athlete.

“I’m hoping women get to play this great game,” she said. But “whether it’s hockey or something else, I hope women are part of that fabric of professional sports.”

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