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Toronto Furies GM Sami Jo Small wants to take the next step

The Toronto Furies reeled off five straight wins to edge out the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays for the final CWHL playoff berth in 2018-19. While Toronto general manager Sami Jo Small is excited about her team’s bid to capture its first Clarkson Cup title since 2014, the 42-year-old former Furies goalie never loses sight of the bottom line: getting women’s hockey fans out to the rink.

“I always tell people, ‘If you want to support women’s hockey, buy a couple of tickets, because that’s really the biggest thing that helps us as an organization,’” Small said.

The Furies kick off their best-of-three semi-finals against the league-leading Calgary Inferno on March 8. If the Furies prevail, they will play in the Clarkson Cup championship final at Toronto’s Coca-Cola Coliseum on March 24.

It’s been an up-and-down year for the Furies, who cracked the post-season despite enduring a five-game losing streak between October 27 and November 24 and a four-game losing streak between December 16 and January 12.

This season, Small hired a new, first-time head coach after the Furies posted the CWHL’s second-worst record in 2017-18. Ex-Team Canada player Courtney Kessel (nee Birchard) replaced Jeff Flanagan. P.J. Michael, an assistant coach, doubles as the Furies’ chief scout.

Operating under the CWHL’s $100,000 salary cap, Small incorporated three 2018 Olympians into her lineup this season after they spent last year centralized with the Canadian national team. Veteran forward Natalie Spooner and first-year CWHLer Sarah Nurse tied for the Furies’ scoring lead with 26 points apiece, and Renata Fast was a rock on the blueline.

“I still paid my Olympians more than I pay the rest of the players,” Small said. “But I wanted to make sure there was a buy-in from the 25th player just as much as from the first player, doing it in a fair and equitable way, while also acknowledging that we have players at the top of our talent pool.”

Inclusiveness defines Small, who won two Olympic gold medals with Canada in 2002 and 2006. She is married to Billy Bridges, a 34-year-old star for the Canadian national sledge hockey team who was born with spina bifida. Small, a five-time world champion, is an ambassador for both Right to Play, a charitable organization that aims to improve children’s lives through sports, and SheIS, an alliance of women’s sports leagues.

“When she’s passionate about something, she puts everything she has into it,” Nurse said of Small. “She’s passionate about the CWHL and women’s hockey.”

As hype builds around the Toronto Maple Leafs’ quest for their first Stanley Cup since 1967, Small and the Furies hope to expand their partnership with the Leafs, which dates back to 2012. Several weeks ago, Small had half-hour informational meetings with nine different senior executives at Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment. She said Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has encouraged Courtney Kessel and Sheldon Keefe, the coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, to build a working relationship.

Small was named the best goalie at the 1999 and 2000 IIHF Women’s World Championships with the gold medal-winning Canadian teams. Winning means a lot in a market like Toronto. Yet whether the Furies triumph or fall short in this year’s playoffs, she’s taking a long-range view.

“We’re pushing ourselves to become one of the best female sports organizations in North America,” she said. “I want us to be competitive – not just for one year, but for the long term. It’s about putting bums in seats and creating a great fan experience, but we also want to have players who are getting better every day, and we’re supporting them to achieve their goals.”

Small also shared her thoughts on other women’s hockey topics.

On wearing multiple hats as the Furies GM

There are a lot of various different aspects to being a GM that maybe aren’t my forte, but that I can certainly do. Media relations, the technological side of it, the web site, ticket sales, none of this are within what I’d call my strengths. But I still have some knowledge within those areas, whether it’s from the CWHL or various different things I’ve done in the past. So I feel comfortable with all of them for sure, and I feel like each one of them is an opportunity to learn and to really take a deep dive in that particular segment. But they’re also areas where I’d like to eventually have other people at the helm.

On how she balances her professional speaking career with her CWHL duties

My daughter Kensi goes to daycare Monday, Wednesday and Friday from nine to four. So I try to fit in all my admin work on those days for the speaking world. That’s also when I try to fit in most of my phone calls for the CWHL, because she hates when I’m on the phone! She’s three, and she just wants to grab at the phone or scream in the background. Any client calls or sponsorship calls, anything like that having to do with the CWHL, I try to get done during those time frames.

I still try to work out. That’s the hardest part about not being a player, not having that end goal and that reason to work out. I’m trying to keep to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at noon as my general workout. If I don’t have a speaking engagement, I work out from noon to two on those days as well. I try to keep that in there, but now that I don’t have as much of a reason to be an elite athlete, if I have to miss one, that’s not a big deal. So that’s Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Some stuff that might get done on Tuesday, Thursday or the weekend are things like clients who couldn’t possibly meet on Monday, Wednesday or Friday. Or maybe some errands where I can take my daughter with me. But it also depends on the week. So Billy, when he’s here, not away with the national team, he can also be a full-time dad and we can really share those duties. But if he’s away with the national team, then I try not to book anything on the Tuesday, Thursday or weekends, because then I’m really a full-time mom and there’s not much that really happens until 7:30 pm when she goes to bed. So I usually try to get about three or four hours of work done after she goes to bed every night so I can stay on top of everything.

On the importance of signing Sarah Nurse this season

Sarah, as soon as I became the GM, obviously was somebody that I really wanted to have in our Toronto organization. Having the Olympic experience is obviously huge. But also, she’s just a really big name within the GTA. I wanted to have her on the team, because I could see that she not only is a great player, but in conversations with her and times I’ve met her through other avenues, I could see that she’s also a great person. That’s really what I want to attract to the Toronto organization – people who want to give back to the community and be great with the kids that are at our games, signing autographs and that kind of stuff.

As well, she represents the diversity that I want to promote in Toronto, which is sometimes hard to find in hockey in general. There were so many aspects to her that were really important and that we wanted in Toronto. So we started that conversation and made it about how we could help her achieve her goals and finding out what those were. She is based in Hamilton, so we had that advantage over Markham, which would have been a much further commute. So we had that extra check right off the bat.

I think she wanted to come back home and be in this area around her family. I think we sold her slightly, but I think she had probably made her mind up prior to us having that conversation.

On the mindset she wants the Furies organization to have

I think the biggest thing that I have seen within female sports organizations that are successful is that they believe they should be successful. When we first started, it was more, “Please support us because it’s the right thing to do.” Now we’re acknowledging that the product we have on the ice is an incredible product. It’s entertaining and fast-paced, something people want to see and be partnered with. We’re repositioning our mindset in women’s hockey to value what we do and value the product we have in order to sell it, not just on the ice but to potential fans as well.

I think that’s the one thing I see in women’s sports teams that are successful: they, right from the get-go, hire the best staff and the best people, and are spending money to make money. That’s hard within the construct of the CWHL. But slowly but surely, we’re moving toward that, and I’m hoping that by really putting a lot of emphasis on our superstars and getting their name brand awareness out there, that will drive that as well. We are one of the entertaining sports assets here in Toronto, but we can also piggyback on top of what other organizations are already doing – the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Marlies, the Blue Jays and the Raptors – as another avenue for entertainment. Not seeing ourselves as a “women’s sports franchise,” but just as a sports franchise.

On what the 2018 Olympics did to spur the growth of women’s hockey

I think that Sochi in [Canada] was huge. Those players coming back were superstars. Now, the exact same drama played out in PyeongChang and we weren’t victors. So I think that the media within Canada is the same and the visibility is maybe the same. I still find that people know the Cassie Campbells and the Hayley Wickenheisers more than they know the current generation. But hopefully that’s slowly changing. Hopefully they will become household names like the women of that generation were.

But I think the Olympics did solidify the women’s game in the U.S. Down there, those girls having a gold medal is huge. It’s huge for that country and women’s hockey as a whole, because there are so many more eyeballs in the States. So while I am extremely sad for our girls and I never want Canada to lose, I think for the game, having the U.S. win means some strides forward in the American market, and that can really help us as a whole.

On whether the NHL should be involved in a #OneLeague scenario

There’s been lots of conversations with Gary Bettman, and I know when our league first started, we always had interest, and I think there’s always been interest from the NHL. I think they just want to make sure it’s done the right way. People in the women’s game want to ensure it’s done the right way for us as well. Whatever iteration it turns out to be in the end, I think the NHL will be involved in some way, whether they own it, are a sponsor, or are a partner. I think it would be in our best interests to have them involved in some capacity.

On what having the Prime Minister of Canada welcome the 2018 Clarkson Cup champion Markham Thunder to Parliament Hill meant in terms of where women’s hockey is going

For sure, I think that was huge. For the first couple of years, the Clarkson Cup was kept at my house, sitting on a mantle and ready to go to the next event. Some of the steps we’ve taken, sometimes I have to pinch myself to realize where we came from. But I think even just the expectations of the players coming in have changed.

Let me give you an example. This season we had a group of new players coming out of college, and we redid our dressing room. I didn’t take those new players in first. I took in our veterans, because the expectations within women’s hockey at the elite level are very low. They were super-excited to see their new dressing room and all the paint and the time and effort we’d put into it. Whereas the majority of the girls coming in from the NCAA, their dressing rooms are probably two or three times bigger with more amenities, and they have much higher expectations.

So I think it’s up to us within women’s elite hockey to build on what the NCAA and CIS programs have, to continue to give back to the players but also to create a place they aspire to be in, not just a place to continue to play hockey. We’re not at that level yet. But it’s nice to see the expectations are incredibly high coming out of college. That’s how it should be. They expect the best and they want the best surroundings for themselves. That’s what we want to create for them as well.


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More about Lucas Aykroyd

Lucas Aykroyd has covered women's hockey at five Olympics and four IIHF Women's World Championships. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, espnW, IIHF.com, and other outlets.