They are some of the best female hockey players Canada has ever produced.
They have won Olympic gold medals, captured world championships and inspired a generation of younger girls of all skill levels to pursue the game.
But when they’re not on the international stage before sellout crowds, many stay on top of their game playing in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
It can be a humbling experience. Though the hockey is as good as they played at Canadian and American colleges, crowds are little more than 100 on average, media coverage is rare and team fundraisers are a requirement.
But that appears set to change as the Toronto Maple Leafs are throwing their support behind the Toronto Furies, one of five teams in the CWHL.
“It’s definitely great to see that the Leafs want to sponsor us and help make girls’ hockey prosper and get better,” said Rebecca Johnston, a 23-year-old forward on the Furies and Canadian national team who won gold at the 2010 Olympics. “It shows that our league is being taken more seriously.”
Under the five-year agreement, which is to be announced Tuesday, the Leafs will invest $30,000 annually toward the Furies’ coaching costs, equipment, uniforms and travel expenses. The NHL team will also offer support via its website, at Leafs home games and on Leafs TV, to help grow girls’ hockey.
“The Maple Leafs consider it a core value to be a leader in the local community and we have an obligation to help influence the game at all levels,” former NHLer Dave Poulin, the Leafs’ vice-president of hockey operations, said in a news release to be sent out Tuesday.
It’s also hoped that with the Leafs backing the Furies, other NHL teams will throw their support behind the league’s four other teams. The Calgary Flames and Team Alberta are expected to announce a similar deal Tuesday.
There’s hope that the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins will soon reach deals with the CWHL teams in their cities. The fifth team, the Brampton Hockey Club, is also hoping to strike an arrangement with an NHL team.
To mark the Furies-Leafs deal, Toronto will host Team Alberta at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday in a game free to the public. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. with an autograph session featuring Leafs alumni Wendel Clark, Gary Leeman and Johnny Bower as well as a number of former women’s national team stars, including Geraldine Heaney and Hall of Famer Angela James.
Eight players on Alberta and the Furies played for Canada at the Four Nations Cup in Finland, where they lost 3-0 to the U.S. in Saturday’s final.
“Fans will be impressed with the quality of the hockey,” said Furies goalie Sami Jo Small, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and five-time world champion. “There’s more than a dozen Olympians on the ice each week.
“Having MLSE and the Leafs involved sends a message we’re here to stay.”
The CWHL, formed in the spring of 2007 following the dissolution of the National Women’s Hockey League, operates on a budget of about $700,000 per season. Players have often come directly from the collegiate ranks.
The women in the league, who are not paid, have their travel and accommodation costs covered but must pay for their meals on road trips.
Last season, the Furies held a poker tournament and silent auction at a downtown Toronto bar to help cover the $15,000 cost of their coaches.
This deal alleviates the need for such events to raise money for hockey operations, giving the women more time to focus on their game and “giving back to the sport’s grassroots” through such things as skills clinics for young girls, said Furies general manager Rebecca Davies, a former player.
“It allows them to focus on what the league is all about and that’s the on-ice product,” said Davies, who played the last two seasons with the Furies following a four-year college career at St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia.
Hopefully, with the support of NHL teams and increased public awareness, female players can finally get the attention and appreciation they deserve. And the Hockey Hall of Fame can stop pretending that allowing 2 women (out of dozens of deserving female players) to be inducted three years ago was enough recognition for these talented players who play not for money (as they don't even get paid!) but for pure love of the game.