Part of an exclusive sorority of iconic competitors who helped propel the female game into world class status, Sami Jo Small’s legacy only grows with each passing CWHL season. While Small has composed an incredible hockey resume that includes Canada’s first-ever gold in the Winter Games, membership in the Triple Gold club for Women, and a lasting legacy as one of seven women who helped co-found the CWHL, her contributions are part of an incredible career, transforming her into a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player.
As the only member of the CWHL’s “Sensational Seven” still competing in league play, a distinguished group that included fellow co-founders Jennifer Botterill, Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, Mandy Cronin, Allyson Fox, Kim McCullough and Kathleen Kauth, Small is part of another celebrated collection of prominent players. Worth noting, she joins Noemie Marin as the only players from the league’s inaugural season still gracing the ice in 2017-18.
Undoubtedly, Small’s stature in the current lore of the league is part integral and part fascinating. Turning 42 years young on March 25, Small juggles multiple roles, including commitments to the Furies, a team that she helped co-found, motivational speaking and an empowering chapter as a hockey mom to a young daughter.
Small’s sporting legacy is comparable to several other women in sport that have excelled in later years. Dara Torres and Kristin Armstrong both experienced podium finishes in the Summer Games past the age of 40. Becoming the first British athlete to appear in five Summer Games, Jo Pavey reached this monumental milestone at the age of 42 in 2016, while gymnast Oksana Chusovitina was 41 when she also competed in 2016 at the Rio Summer Games. In addition, basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman-Cline was a compelling 50 when she appeared in a game with the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, recording two assists versus the now Houston Comets.
Sharing goaltending duties this season with Sonja van der Bliek and free agent acquisition Amanda Makela, Small’s acumen for the game not only makes her an invaluable mentor for both promising backstops, the bigger picture is one where she takes the mantle of role model for a whole roster, and possibly an entire league.
For so many of her current teammates, they would have been first or second graders when Small was on Canada’s roster that captured gold in women’s ice hockey at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games. To call someone as monumental as Small a teammate at this juncture of their young careers would be akin to a rookie ballplayer calling Babe Ruth a teammate in the twilight of his outstanding career.
During this season, Small has managed to assemble some outstanding performances, making history with each subsequent achievement. From the outset, Small’s first start involved a home contest against the expansion Vanke Rays, one of two teams hailing from China, a first in professional women’s ice hockey.
As the three-game series versus the Rays signified their league debut, Small made history twice in her October 29, 2017 start at Toronto’s MasterCard Centre. With goals from veteran CWHL All-Star Shannon Moulson, Jenna Dingeldein, who played last season in Buffalo, and Cassidy Delaney, the Furies emerged victorious in a 3-2 final, handing the expansion club their first loss in league history. Perhaps more importantly, Small became the oldest goaltender in league history to win a regular season game at 41 years, seven months and four days.
Recording 36 saves in the win, Small was recognized as the Third Star of the Game. Rays rookie sensation Cayley Mercer, who recorded a goal and an assist (the other Rays goal was scored by Hanna Bunton) was bestowed Second Star acclaim while Dingeldein garnered her first-ever recognition as the First Star of the Game.
Worth noting, Small defeated a fellow Hockey Canada alum in Rays backstop Elaine Chuli. Representing the future of elite goaltending for professional women’s ice hockey, Chuli would actually blank the Furies by a 3-0 tally the evening before, gaining the rare distinction of a shutout in her CWHL debut. Her prominence as one of the league’s rookie stars was highlighted by winning the Rays starting job between the pipes. Having played her NCAA hockey with the Connecticut Huskies, Chuli has starred with Canada’s U18 and U22/Development national women’s team.
With due deference, such an achievement for Small would actually be overshadowed by accomplishing a feat even more impressive. Hosting the visiting Boston Blades in a March 4, 2018 contest, Small would be celebrated for becoming the oldest goaltender in league history to earn a shutout. Similar to Nolan Ryan pitching a no-hitter for baseball’s Texas Rangers at 44 years young, it was another step towards hockey immortality for the venerated Small.
Making her fourth appearance this season, Small sandwiched in ice time on two separate occasions, both against Les Canadiennes de Montreal. On December 3, 2017, Small allowed three goals in a relief appearance on home ice. Returning to the ice for a January 20 tilt against Montreal, once again at MasterCard Centre, Small logged 40 minutes of ice time, as the visiting team lit the lamp thrice against her.
Coincidentally, Small’s shutout versus Boston also took place at MasterCard Centre. As the first half of the opening period versus the Blades, who gained their first win of the season against Toronto a few weeks earlier, emerged a defensive stalemate, special teams were essential towards the blue and white claiming the lead.
Meghan Grieves, one of the Blades' top scorers was sent to the penalty box on a hooking call, the only penalty of the first period. Emily Fulton took full advantage, as she slipped the puck past Lauren Dahm for her 12th goal of the season, continuing to set the tone on offense this season for the blue and white. With Moulson and Carolyne Prevost gaining the assists, there was a unique sense of coincidence, as Prevost’s assist was her 12th.
Both teams recorded nine shots on goal in the first, but it was the Blades who held the shot advantage in the second period, outshooting the Furies on their home ice. Pelting Small with 15 shots, while Dahm faced 12, it was symbolic of a second half that has seen the Blades turn the page on a difficult first half, displaying the promise that may place them back into the postseason picture in the campaign to follow. Enjoying leads in prior matches against powerhouse teams such as Calgary and Montreal, such a solid second was one where the Blades were hoping to duplicate their past successes.
In spite of two power play opportunities for Boston in the second period, it was the Furies that added to their lead, as Western Mustangs alum Sydney Kidd added her name to the scoresheet with her third of the season. Shannon Stewart, who spent a handful of seasons competing professionally in Europe, gained the assist, as the Furies enjoyed a two-goal lead.
Special teams were a factor for Toronto again in the third period. As Meaghan Spurling served a hooking penalty, the Furies managed to take advantage. With just nine seconds left in the power play, Dingeldein, who called Makela a teammate at Mercyhurst College, scored her ninth of the season, adding to the Blades’ frustration, subsequently placing the game out of reach.
With two minutes remaining in the game, the Blades opted for the open net, hoping to play the role of spoiler and break Sami Jo Small’s bid for a shutout. Employing such strategy would not provide the Blades with desired results, as Brittany Zuback slipped the puck into the empty net, as four different Furies scored goals in the 4-0 triumph, supplying Small with her league-record 66th win, and 16th shutout, another benchmark in league lore.
Adding to the sense of triumph was the fact that Small, who amassed a sparkling 32 saves, also nullifying three power play opportunities, shined frequently in this landmark game, displaying the goaltending brilliance that has transcended generations.
Fittingly, Small was recognized as the First Star of the Game, showered with applause by the Furies faithful, while Dingeldein’s assiduous effort throughout all three periods garnered her Second Star honors. Dahm, who posted a very respectable .914 save percentage, facing 35 shots, including 15 in the final frame was deservedly recognized as the Third Star, continuing to gain respect league-wide as a character player and the hardest working goaltender in professional hockey.
The praise bestowed upon Small was evident throughout league circles, as players recognized her amazing accomplishment on social media. Among them was another goaltender whose legend is destined to grow. Akin to Small, Delayne Brian of the Calgary Inferno has also donned the Hockey Canada jersey and garnered a Clarkson Cup, even calling each other teammates with Team White at the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game. Astonished by her scintillating shutout performance, Brian commendably lobbied for Small in a tremendous display of homage,
“Sorry to all the others, but vote for Sami Jo Small! Hasn't played as much as she should have this year and came in and got a 32-save shutout! Don't want to throw you under the bus, Sami, but she also did this at over 40 years old. Girl’s still got it.”
Deservedly, Small was recognized as the league’s ADT Goaltender of the Week (ending March 4, 2018). Although it was her first honor this season, it may have been the most heartwarming award this season, bringing Small’s eleventh (and seventh with the Furies) to a euphoric end.
Having always respected the game, simultaneously appreciating the fans that have helped contribute to its growth, while sustaining its heritage, Small remains a gem for women’s hockey. Possessing the kind of allure that is defined by the notion that every time she steps onto the ice, it is an opportunity to keep making history, it is testament to her legendary prominence, one that is destined to be admired by future generations of women.
Photo credits: Chris Tanouye