The Toronto Six’s front office staff just got even more decorated with the addition of three-time Olympic medallist Sami Jo Small as team president.
The former Team Canada goalie joins a pair of Hall of Famers already on the Six’s staff, in GM and co-owner Angela James and head coach Geraldine Heaney, just ahead of the team’s third season in the Premier Hockey Federation, which opens on Saturday, Nov. 5.
“It was a no-brainer to want to work alongside all these gifted hockey people,” Small told Sportsnet in an exclusive interview, just before the PHF made the announcement official. “I’m excited to get started.”
The rumour of Small’s impending presidency was broken last week by Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, and Small, a four-time world champion, says she has been “deflecting questions about it ever since,” while waiting for the league to release the news.
The 46-year-old Winnipegger met with the Six’s players for the first time yesterday over Zoom, and attends her first practice Tuesday at York University.
Small brings with her a wealth of experience, as not only a former player, but the co-founder of the now defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and former GM of the Toronto Furies. Most recently, she’s been a TV analyst, appearing on a panel for TSN during the network’s women’s world championship coverage.
While Small is excited about the roster — she says rookie Brittany Howard “is going to be a superstar for a long time in this league” — her role is on the business side. As team president, she’ll oversee sponsorships, maintain and grow partnerships with various stakeholders (like Hockey Canada and USA Hockey), and ensure money is coming in and budgets are adhered to.
Small could’ve joined the PHF a lot sooner. She was approached about a role with the Six when the team started two seasons ago, but was still in what she calls “a grieving mode” after the dissolution of the CWHL in March of 2019. “I felt like what we had, I wanted back, and it wasn’t coming back and that was hard,” Small says. “I decided to sort of step back from women’s hockey for a little while, and I didn’t really know which direction to take.”
In North American women’s pro hockey, of course, there are two directions one can take: One is the PHF, the only women’s pro hockey league that pays its players and offers a 24-game regular season. The other is the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which formed after the CWHL folded, and is made up of many of the best players in the world, who are boycotting the PHF and playing in travelling showcase events while working toward what they hope will be a sustainable league.
In January, Small was an honourary coach at the PHF all-star game, and after that, conversations about her involvement started up again. She said with commissioner Reagan Carey (the former Team USA director of women’s hockey) running the PHF, and after having conversations with Team USA star Brianna Decker, who joined the league’s front office, as well as former Hockey Canada front office staffers in Mel Davidson and Danièle Sauvageau, the time seemed right to get involved.
“I was starting to get that itch to work in women’s hockey,” Small says. “And if you want a job in women’s hockey, this is where it’s at.”
Small says she has great respect for the PWHPA and its members, but there weren’t roles available there, which made her decision easy. She also sees momentum building in the PHF.
“I’ve been incredibly pleasantly surprised by the amenities the team has and the staff that are already in place,” Small says, noting those working in sponsorship, game operations and public relations. “There’s already an established product, there’s an established group and team. I know a lot of the people there and I think they’re doing a lot of work to ensure that it’s done in the right way.
“I have more hope for women’s hockey now,” she adds, in part because she can see the monetary investment in the PHF, and the respect garnered by Carey as the league’s commissioner.
“I think the momentum towards wanting to build and wanting to invoke change from within, that momentum’s really growing. And that’s part of the reason that I wanted to be involved now,” Small says. “The teams have basically created a professional environment in each of those now seven cities [Montreal was added this season as an expansion team], and for players, if you want to be playing games on a consistent basis and practicing with a team and having specific team feedback, this is really the place to do it.”
Training camp is now underway for the Six, and on Wednesday, a member of the team — likely all-star goaltender, Elaine Chuli — will throw out the first pitch as the Toronto Blue Jays take on the New York Yankees. The Six host the first game of the season on Saturday, Nov. 5 at 2 p.m. ET. against Minnesota, and they’ll meet again Sunday, Nov. 6 at 11 a.m. as part of opening weekend.
“Every year the Six continues to grow and establish its presence, and this really is the only pro women’s hockey team in Toronto,” Small says. “I want to make this team the best that it can be. I want it to be the best product on the ice that it can be, and attract not only the best staff, but make it really the team that people in the GTA want to cheer for.”