With the announcement that she has been hired as the President of the Toronto Six, Sami-Jo Small returns to the world of professional women’s hockey. It’s a lot different than the one she took a step back from in 2019.
The CWHL was founded in 2007 and was originally led by a group of players, including Small herself. Small played 10 seasons as a goaltender in the CWHL for various teams. When it was suddenly and abruptly announced that the league would be folding due to financial hardship, she was the General Manager of the Toronto Furies.
Like many of the people who had been involved in the CWHL, Small was unsure of the path forward. When she was offered a job by the expansion team that would later become the PHF’s Toronto Six, she turned it down, it wasn’t the right time, the loss of the league that she had given so many years to was still too fresh.
“There was some grief. It was difficult, we wanted what we had and it was never coming back,” she said.
Small decided to take some time away from the game, on a professional level at least. She remained a staunch supporter of the players at every level.
In some ways, Small’s return to professional women’s hockey in Toronto is a bit of a homecoming, in other ways, it’s a completely new experience.
“When I became the GM of the Toronto Furies, I was walking into a situation where I basically had to do everything outside of coach the team. Here I’m walking into a position where there’s already an incredibly strong team, not only on the ice but also off the ice,” said Small.
When the Six approached Small again with the offer of a front office position last week, she had to take a few days to think about it, but eventually came to the conclusion that if she wanted to return to women’s hockey, this was going to be her best shot.
“I think like a lot of alumnus that were part of the CWHL, we were left on the sidelines. We were there supporting as fans, but there really was no way to get involved. I saw this as an opportunity to get involved.”
If you want to have a job in women’s hockey, there are two ways to do it. You can work for an association, like the provincial and national governing bodies, or you can work for the PHF. Small chose the latter, and in doing so, she joins a leadership and coaching group that already includes the likes of Angela James and Geraldine Heaney.
“Currently there wasn’t really a choice, and I knew that if I wanted to get back into the game, specifically into women’s hockey, which has always been my passion and where I wanted to continue my career, that this was kind of the only option unless I wanted to work with one of the national or provincial associations,” said Small.
It’s no secret that the relationship between the CWHL and the NWHL was strained, and that those tensions have in part bled over into the present-day relationship between the PWHPA and PHF. The PWHPA was formed in the rubble of the CWHL, and for a while, there was reluctance on Small’s part to “change sides.”
“What I’ve realized in three years, and specifically this year, is that there are no sides in women’s hockey, that we’re all pushing forward and trying to do the best to provide the players with an incredibly professional experience and the best experience they can have within the game of hockey. I felt like that was going to be here and that was going to be with this team,” she said.
Small was among the first group of players to receive a paycheck from the CWHL. While the pay was just a fraction of what PHF players are now able to receive, it was an important step for women’s hockey and something that Small takes great pride in knowing she was a part of.
“Now I’m really excited to be a part of the PHF that is attempting to take it to that next level.”
In the past, it was difficult for any player who wasn’t affiliated with a national team to play hockey on any kind of full-time basis. Players who had financial support from Hockey Canada or USA Hockey were able to train and focus on their sport, but those who didn’t strike up a delicate balancing act.
“There are players now that are making the choice to be full-time hockey players because the paycheck is enough,” said Small, “But not all of them,” she added, “So I think we still have a ways to go and I think that we need to get it to the next level where they are all able to make that choice. So that will be my job and my responsibility, to go out and promote the team, promote the league, and ensure that there are financial resources within both the league and team for many years to come,” said Small.
It’s not just the paychecks that have changed, it’s the resources as well. The Toronto Six have their own locker room at Canlan Sports in North York. There’s a player’s lounge, coaches' rooms, and access to strength and conditioning facilities.
Small plans to spend her first weeks on the job listening to, and learning from the people who are already in the organization. Once she understands what they have, she can begin to figure out what they need, and how she can help them to get it.
“It means a lot to me to feel a part of something again. I think we all want to feel like we can contribute and I feel honoured to have been selected to be the person who can contribute in this way,” said Small.
At the core of her mission is a desire to improve the game, not just for the next generation of players, but for everyone. Small wants to see better for the people on the ice right now, for the fans in the stands and streaming the games. In Toronto, she wants to see the Six grow into a team that everyone across the GTA can cheer for.
The Toronto Six will begin their third season with a game on November 5 at 2:00 p.m. against the Minnesota Whitecaps and if Small has her way, the stands will be packed with people who have come to “scream their heads off and just have an amazing experience at a Toronto Six game.”