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Digit Murphy: Life, leadership, and the pursuit of equality

Legendary coach and innovator sets sights on Aurora Games

Al Saniuk

Amid a renewal in conversations regarding equality in sports, and a climate of positive change, it is perhaps more important now than ever before that a distinct effort be made to highlight the incredible female athletes that color the global landscape.

Enter, the Aurora Games, which are set to take place from Aug. 20-25 in Albany, NY. The concept? A sports and entertainment festival dedicated to promoting female athletes, with the stated mission, “To invite the women of the world to meet every two years to celebrate their accomplishments and bold visions for the future set against a backdrop of world class sports competition and entertainment.”

Included in the festivities that pit Team Americas and Team World will be a series of events leading to a highly-anticipated night at the rink for a global all-star hockey game. The rosters for the two clubs are a list of some of the most talented women in hockey, and the event promises to be a spectacle not to be missed.

Leading Team Americas is former Cornell standout and tenured head coach Digit Murphy. She spent over 20 years behind the bench for Brown University before heading to the CWHL, leading the Boston Blades to two Clarkson Cup championships. After a brief hiatus, Murphy took her talents to China, where she coached Kunlun Red Star to a Clarkson appearance, all the while working with the Chinese national team to develop a program for the women.

The transition to coaching was an easy one for her. “I always have been someone that told other people what to do on the field - I’ve always been the captain...I’ve always been a leader. Primarily because I have a loud voice, but my style has evolved. I like people a lot - I’m very gregarious. I have a lot of fun with people. I think that the caring and the ability to lead has been something I’ve always had in my life.”

After her legendary run as the head coach with Brown, which lasted through the 2010-11 season, Murphy was unsure what would be next. “I was 50 years old and not really sure what to do. I got a call from Jim Craig, who was working with the Czech national team. He was like, ‘You should look into the Boston Blades.’ And I really didn’t know a lot about it. I knew that it would be coaching.”

Then Regan Carey called.

Carey hinted that the US National Team would be centralized in Boston. That roster would hold some of women’s hockey’s biggest names. It was Hilary Knight’s rookie season. Meghan Duggan, Gigi Marvin, Geneviève Lacasse - the list goes on. Murphy jumped at the chance.

Adding Murphy gave the team a professional feel; “A win-win for myself and the league,” she says. The team would go on to win the Clarkson Cup in her first season behind the bench. “We went back-to-back. Should have been three-for-three,” she chuckled.

Even with the accomplishment of the Blades, she felt like she had something bigger to offer. “The gender equity push - no salaries...the same thing we talk about now. I always wanted to be a part of that. My partner Aronda [Kirby] and I had put together a mini plan to put together a US league, because there was only one team at the time.”

At the same time, Dani Rylan was conceiving of the NWHL, so after speaking with a colleague, Murphy and Kirby started United Women’s Lacrosse. “The mission has always been about creating opportunities for women, and a women’s lacrosse league hadn’t been done before. Digit Murphy’s all about being the first! So we conceived of this idea of a league in a box. We could stamp out lacrosse, hockey, rugby, and field hockey - all aggregated under United Women’s Sports.”

This is where Murphy is tied in with the upcoming Aurora Games. Her dedication to providing these consistent spaces for women to grow as athletes and leaders is congruent to a showcase event like the Aurora Games. These seasonal sports leagues can provide regular training and the Aurora Games gives them a chance to promote the leagues and display their talents to a potentially larger audience.

Murphy stated she’s looking forward to working with the team. With an audible wink, she noted that all of the players representing America have played for her before. “It’s like a reunion! Every team I’ve coached has had fun. We like to be around each other. That’s the secret. I am over-the-moon excited. Even Sarah Murray - the opponent’s coach - we all know each other. We can’t wait to hang out with each other.”

Murphy applies the same mentality to everything she does, and it’s what drew her into the Aurora Games. “The Aurora Games is more about independence - owning women sports the way women should own it. It’s what my vision is, and why I align with Jerry (Solomon, creator and executive producer of the Games).

“It’s not about hockey. It’s about life. And when you start to turn the conversation on its head and make it more about a life, leadership and empowerment style that women do differently than men, and combine that with sport...being a leader...being committed to something...working cooperatively...When you put that all together into a leadership and empowerment platform for girls, you have the opportunity to elevate the conversation. That’s what we’re trying to do with the Aurora Games.”