25 July, 2018

Commissioner's Role Entails Brush with History in Milestone-Filled Year for Jayna Hefford



Although it may come with the “interim” tag, the appointment of Jayna Hefford as the Commissioner for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) represents an exciting milestone that serves to enrich her legacy, one that has reached revered status in 2018. Part of this year’s Hockey Hall of Fame Class (to be inducted in November alongside Willie O’Ree, Martin Brodeur, Martin St. Louis, Alexander Yakushev and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman), such honors have not only affirmed her place in sporting Canadiana, it is a cherished opportunity to enlighten a new generation of young women in hockey. Allowing them an opportunity to appreciate her importance and relevance to the game; celebrating glories past while realizing her great promise towards a promising future.

From a CWHL perspective, Hefford is definitely remembered as the greatest player in the history of the Brampton Thunder. Retiring as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer with over 700 points, which also includes time spent in the original NWHL, it stands as one of the grandest, and most secure, records in all women’s hockey. With a sterling career including elite competition over the course of three different decades, Hefford was also the first-ever Most Valuable Player in CWHL history and the first to reach 100 points in league play.

Having also retired from the CWHL as the league’s all-time leading scorer, a record since surpassed by Caroline Ouellette, Hefford’s mark in scoring lore also involved capturing the Angela James Bowl, which is named after the first Canadian woman inducted into the Hall. As a side note, James once served as the head coach of the Brampton Thunder during part of the 2011-12 CWHL season, a team that included Hefford on its roster. Even in retirement from active play, Hefford’s legacy as one of the CWHL’s all-time greats continues to gain new relevance, enabling her to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the most iconic athletes in the game’s modern resurgence.

Such a legacy reached crystallization with a unique complement to Hefford’s on-ice brilliance. Since 2016, the Jayna Hefford Trophy is awarded to the league’s Most Outstanding Player, as voted on by the players. While Marie-Philip Poulin, who once accompanied Hefford on a trip to visit Canada’s troops in Afghanistan, was the first-ever recipient of the Award, this year’s winner brings with it serendipity, once again accentuating her CWHL legacy. Jamie-Lee Rattray would become the first player in Thunder history to capture the award, setting the tone for the club’s brilliant run to the Clarkson Cup, another historic first for the Thunder.

While Hefford’s status as a four-time Winter Games gold medalist has assured her a place among the game’s immortals, it has also amassed a remarkable body of work off the ice, making her highly prepared to take on such an integral role in professional women’s hockey. Combining entrepreneurship, coaching, and fund-raising, she brings a breadth of practical experience. Among the current Board of Directors for the admirable Ladies First Hockey Foundation, she has also served on the coaching staff of the University of Toronto Lady Blues hockey team, where she starred in the mid 1990s before starting her memorable run with the Canadian national women’s hockey program. Having also spearheaded the Links 4 Life Golf Classic, raising money for the Kingston Hospital Foundation, in honor of her late father Larry, she is also one of the key figures in the Canadian Hockey Associations Initiation Program.

Coincidentally, reaching the plateau of Commissioner has placed Hefford in a highly scarce place in sporting history. Among the rarities of professional sports involves the number of awards actually named after Commissioners, a club that Hefford now claims membership.

Awarded to the NHL’s Rookie of the Year, the Calder Trophy honors Frank Calder, the first President of the NHL and a former player. As a side note, the AHL’s Calder Cup is also named in his honor. Another notable Canadian-born sporting Commissioner in said club includes Jake Gaudaur. Currently, the Canadian Football League’s Veterans' Trophy is named in his honor, a league he led for 16 years as the fourth Commissioner in league history.

Other notable awards named after Commissioners includes the Pete Rozelle Trophy, awarded to the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl. Baseball features the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award, awarded to the league MVP and the Ford Frick Award recognizes a broadcaster’s outstanding contributions to the game. The NBA awards the Larry O’Brien Trophy, to its postseason champions, while the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, honoring the first NBA president, is bestowed upon the regular season’s Most Valuable Player.

Worth noting, Hefford enjoys another intriguing brush with both hockey and sporting history. Of note, the appointment of a professional athlete to a Commissioner’s role was an extreme rarity in the 20th Century. Among the four major men’s sports, the most notable professional athlete to have enjoyed such an ascension was Jim Thorpe. A multi-sport star who played for four different major league baseball teams, captured a pair of gold medals at the 1912 Summer Games and won three football championships with the Canton Bulldogs actually served as the first President of the NFL from 1920 to 1921. Even more impressive was the fact that he was an active player during this time.

Since the dawn of the millennium, the trend of athletes becoming Commissioners is slowly taking form, with Hefford certainly making her mark. Currently, Nick Sakiewicz, who once played professional soccer with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, serves as President of the National Lacrosse League. Oliver Luck, a former NFL quarterback with the Houston Oilers and executive with the Houston Dynamos soccer club, was named the Commissioner for the resurrected XFL, set to return in 2020.

Regarding women’s sports, Donna Geils-Orender, who competed in the Women’s Pro Basketball League for all three of its seasons (1978-81) became the second President in WNBA history. Currently, National Pro Fastpitch, a softball league for women with teams in three different nations, is led by Cheri Kempf, a former pro softball player, herself.

As Hefford joins these wondrous women, helping positive shape the destiny of their respective sports, the transition towards such a position, she is definitely not alone in terms of women’s hockey legends taking on new leadership roles in CWHL circles. Sami Jo Small, the winningest goaltender in CWHL history shall take on the role of General Manager for the Toronto Furies, graduating to the role after nearly two dazzling decades as a professional player.

In addition, Hefford and Small were teammates on Canada’s gold medal entry at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, capturing the country’s first-ever gold in women’s ice hockey. Their presence as integral leaders in the CWHL’s hierarchy only adds to the growing mythology of this iconic team, one that has three other players from that championship roster also make a significant impression in 2018.

One of Canada’s leading scorers at the 2002 Winter Games, Danielle Goyette gained the prestige of being featured on a postage stamp in February 2018, the first Canadian women’s ice hockey player to receive such an honor. Serving as team captain in 2002, Cassie Campbell-Pascall is among a group of four female athletes, including OWHA President Fran Rider, who have agreed to donate brain tissue to Toronto Western Hospital’s Canadian Concussion Centre for research. As a side note, she also served on the CWHL’s Board of Directors for several seasons.

Serving as a skills coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ development camp, it rekindled golden memories for Hayley Wickenheiser. Taking into account that Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock led Canada’s men’s team to consecutive golds at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games, it represented a unique coincidence, as Hefford and Wickenheiser skated for Canada’s women in those same games, also enjoying gold. As a side note, Wickenheiser also took on the role of head coach during an intra-squad game at the Leafs development camp.

Such an exciting year for the role of women’s ice hockey in Canada’s sporting conversation encompassed an unprecedented relevance. Poised to add to the remarkable feeling of momentum, the honor of becoming CWHL Commissioner is destined to stand as one of the greatest milestones in Hefford’s post-playing career.

Assuming the mantle of leadership on August 1, one of Hefford’s first key tasks shall be organizing the CWHL Draft, the ninth in league history. Sarah Nurse, a member of Canada’s entry in women’s ice hockey at the 2018 Winter Games, is definitely the top prospect heading into the Draft.

Other strong possibilities as first-round picks include Victoria Bach and Rebecca Leslie, two of the Boston University Terriers’ all-time leading scorers, plus Melissa Channell, a highly talented blueliner from the University of Wisconsin hold franchise player potential. Other top prospects include Tatiana Rafter, an Isobel Cup champion and former Canada West Player of the Year, plus goaltender Kimberly Newell, an alum of Princeton University and a former member of Canada’s U18 national team.

While Hefford’s current status in the interim role also involves focus towards a smooth transition into the 2018-19 season, the twelfth in league history, there is also a slight tinge of sadness. Although the league’s decision to contract took place prior to Hefford’s appointment, the visceral move that resulted in the venerable Vanke Rays (from Shenzhen, China) not returning in the season to come was a difficult one.

As the league still holds a promising place in the evolution of the professional game in China, highlighted by the competitive presence of the Kunlun Red Star, there is another bright spot to consider heading into this season. The return of the league’s most marketable stars from an Olympic year, headlined by Natalie Spooner and Marie-Philip Poulin, the most popular players of their generation, along with the league’s continued presence in Boston, represents a solid foundation upon which the league could enjoy its greatest season yet.

Should the league also revisit the concept of another All-Star Game, having already hosted three successful events at the Air Canada Centre, resulting in subsequent increase in attendance for each event, a fourth would certainly stand as one of Hefford’s highlights. Should another All-Star event possibly result in a sell-out, it would surely validate the league’s collective focus towards both increased attendance and expanding awareness of its product.

Perhaps Hefford’s greatest legacy as Commissioner may be the solidification of an empowering time in the league’s growth, one that has seen former players take on roles as head coaches (most notably, Sommer West) and in front office roles as well. Taking into account the superlative level of proficiency that Lori Dupuis, a long-time teammate of Hefford with Brampton and Team Canada, displayed in her former role as General Manager of the Markham Thunder, it certainly helped establish a blueprint for other players with management aspirations to follow.

Assiduous and affable, Dupuis was also able to blend both a responsible yet empathic approach to her role as GM, definitely gaining the respect of those who played for her, resulting in a highly successful organizational culture defined by character people. As other former players, such as Chelsea Purcell and Kirsten Haag have made the jump to GM roles last season, the ability to enjoy a common understanding with players is one that may stand as one of the league’s hallmarks in its second decade.

Considering how Hefford was a role model for so many of the players that enjoyed the privilege of calling her a teammate, she did so much more than set a positive example through an incredible work. Employing a blend of commitment and acumen that enabled her to inspire others to bring out their best efforts, she represented the gold standard as both player and leader. Indubitably, such values have allowed Hefford the prospect to serve as a perfect fit in her new role, possibly establishing the groundwork for a golden era in the league’s unfolding narrative.

Photo credits: David Cooper, Toronto Star file photo

Belleville Senators photo: Jason Scourse

In action with Brampton Thunder by Krista Windsor

Five medals image obtained from: http://www.jaynahefford.ca/gallery/

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