By Ryan Dixon | Photography by Ebti Nabag
By Ryan Dixon | Photography by Ebti Nabag
It takes a lot of energy to launch a new franchise in the middle of a pandemic. Fortunately, energy is something Toronto Six head coach and president Digit Murphy has in near-unlimited supply.

Digit Murphy needs a Toronto Six forward to fill in on defence for one drill. When Breanne Wilson-Bennett silently volunteers by gliding from the blue line, where a pack of players are lingering, toward the net, Murphy’s foghorn-level reaction reverberates around the rink: “YES!”

As they practice just north of the city on a mid-January Tuesday, the women are on the precipice of finally seeing game action during this season hijacked by COVID-19. Their eagerness shows. The Six whip around the ice in black, yellow, grey and blue streaks, their different sweaters rippling underneath chugging arms like flags in strong wind. Playing an attacking role in front of the goalie means your lower back is subject to the same sort of cross-check tenderizing you’d expect during a real contest. When two players inadvertently collide, sending one spilling to the ice, Murphy can’t resist: “Bodies are flyin’!” she yells.

Even if the National Women’s Hockey League’s two-week bubble tournament wasn’t just around the corner, Murphy would be running the show with the same ardour. It’s as if the most juiced-up spin class instructor imaginable has put on an all-black track suit, grabbed a right-handed stick that looks half-a-foot too long for her and hit the ice. Four months into these practices, everyone’s used to her energy and knows the beats. The players stand in place while Murphy describes how she wants them to defend. Her voice sounds strained from constant elevation, but it never breaks. Her head moves side-to-side in slow, exaggerated fashion as she cues her charges to finish her sentence: “Head. On. A…” “Swivel,” they answer, before she punctuates the point: “Swivel! Swivel! SWIVEL!”

Practice is serious and joyful all at once. Praise is shouted, but critiques from Murphy come in close-up, quieter talks. Playful headlocks dot downtime between drills and after one huddle breaks, Murphy pushes away with her captain Shiann Darkangelo. The coach is holding her stick upside down and appears to be treating the blade as a microphone. Whatever Murphy is doing, Darkangelo is visibly delighted. Then the whistle blows and the whirring starts again.

Murphy’s off-ice pace is just as frenetic. In her role as Six president and coach, she has a hand in everything from marketing to making sure every pertinent point is in the team newsletter. She’s also a capable and willing carnival barker, promoting the women’s game and spreading her message of female empowerment through the press she does. Additionally, there’s game film to devour and episodes of her “Anyone Can Lead” Instagram series to record. And all that has to happen outside the time Murphy carves out for her partner, Aronda, and the six grown children in their family. “I was talking to one of my friends and she’s like, ‘Dig, you just have an intense career,’” Murphy says. “I’m like, ‘Right?’ She’s like, ‘Good on you, because not many people could deal with the stuff you’ve dealt with in your life.’ I’ve been wired for it.”

A 59-year-old who’s been blazing a trail in the women’s game for most of her life, Murphy has an unshakable core that propels her forward at one speed. “I call her ‘The Tornado’ for a reason,” says longtime friend and former coaching foe Katey Stone. “I love her to death, but she’s got so much energy. It’s awesome, but it’s crazy. It’s crazy.” Being a force of nature is a good thing — maybe even a necessity — when you’re launching an expansion team in a re-modeled league against the backdrop of both a pandemic and the continuing rift in North American women’s professional hockey. And true to form, Murphy is thriving in the chaos of an upside down world, meeting challenges the only way she ever has: “I deal with things head on and people either love me or hate me,” she says. “Of course I care if people hate me, because no one wants to be hated, but I can’t be any other way.”

Last year was always going to be one of big change for Lindsay Eastwood. The Ottawa native wrapped up a four-year career at Syracuse University in the spring, having spent the past two seasons as Orange captain. Continuing on in hockey meant Eastwood would either play for an NWHL club or join the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. The PWHPA formed in the spring of 2019, after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded earlier that year. The organization is populated with high-profile stars from the women’s game whose goal is to gain the kind of financial backing that would allow women playing in a single North American pro league to make a living wage. The NWHL pays its players, but the money is more like an honorarium than a salary. As she gamed out her future, Eastwood talked to multiple NWHL clubs, while also jumping on PWHPA conference calls to get a feel for that organization. She was initially leaning toward the latter, but Toronto general manager Mandy Cronin — who had reached out to Eastwood earlier in 2020 when Cronin was still GM of the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts — circled back with some news. “A month or two [after first connecting] she calls me back and says, ‘I’m actually with Toronto now and I really want you to talk to Digit Murphy,’” Eastwood recalls. “I didn’t want to close any doors.”

The NWHL expanded to Toronto in April of 2020, essentially one year after the two CWHL teams in the region — the Toronto Furies and Markham Thunder — were shuttered. Cronin was the team’s GM and, to begin with, Murphy’s sole role was that of team president. The Six talked to multiple people about the coaching job, but soon learned some candidates were a little leery of planting their flag with the NWHL. With so much uncertainty swirling, Murphy agreed to put her decades’ worth of bench experience to use and take the gig herself. When Eastwood fulfilled Cronin’s request to talk to Murphy, the defenceman — who knew of the legendary coach, but had never met her — wasn’t on the phone long before her mind started moving in new directions. They talked about the importance of working in the community and setting a visible example for the next generation — the “see it, be it” factor. “She had me inspired from Day 1,” says Eastwood, now a member of Toronto’s blue line.

“I deal with things head on and people either love me or hate me.”

The motivational force Eastwood responded to was born Margaret Pearl Degidio in Cranston, R.I., her middle name owing to the fact she had arrived on Pearl Harbor Day in 1961, 20 years after the December 7 attack. She was welcomed into a blue-collar family and benefitted from the presence of a strong, non-conformist woman right away. “My mom let me have short hair, she let me wear boys clothes because that’s what I wanted to wear,” Murphy says. “I climbed trees, I played street hockey, I played with G.I. Joes — everything that was atypical for a girl, but my mom never said no. My mom was just like, ‘Who cares? She is who she is.’ Which is really important. There were so many women my age [who heard], ‘No! You’re wearing dresses!’”

It wasn’t long before the neighbourhood kids massaged Degidio into “Digit,” sometimes opting for “Digit the Midget” to tease a youngster whose slight frame coursed with vinegar. When the antagonizing escalated from verbal to physical, Murphy responded the only way she felt she could. Thumping the boys wasn’t her first choice back then, and she’s still reticent to talk about it now, not because it’s a painful memory but because she’s loathe to glorify anything that could be construed as bullying. Each after-school bout she won, though, only increased her credibility. “In order to live in that system, you have to perform in that system,” she says. “So I would go down and beat boys up because it allowed me to play on the playground, but it wasn’t my first choice.”

The Degidios’ version of knowing the right people was being friends with the man who drove the Zamboni at a local rink. Murphy’s first forays onto arena ice were with her younger brother and sister, just running around in boots while her dad and the Zamboni pilot puffed cigarettes. When her brother started playing organized hockey — the sport certainly had a community in Cranston — Murphy exploited a little side pad for figure skaters, which she often had all to herself, skating through her one-person games.

There were no girls teams in the area when Murphy first fell in love with the sport, but two women — Jackie Bogosian and Barbara Butler — saw no reason that fact couldn’t change. Jackie’s husband, Bob, was part of the local hockey association and the trio rounded up enough girls of all ages — Murphy was about 12 years old at the time in the early ’70s — to form two teams that skated on Thursdays and Saturdays. “They would have the buzz,” Murphy says, referencing the horn that would blast every two minutes to signal shift changes, “and you play the good kids against the good kids and the bad kids against the bad kids.”

Murphy was definitely good. Eventually, the better players were climbing onto a bus every Sunday and travelling about 80 minutes north to play games in a girls’ league located a little west of Boston. Bob coached the team, but Jackie played a huge role as an on-the-ground organizer. “She was on the ice, that was important for me,” Murphy says. “It wasn’t just Bob.”

“I never thought, ‘What are people going to think?’ I just kind of followed my heart.”

Murphy was figuring out she was a fantastic hockey player in the aftermath of Title IX changing the game for female collegiate sports in America. Suddenly schools had to offer women equitable opportunities to participate in sports. When it was time for her to make the NCAA leap in 1979, Murphy — with significant financial assistance from the institution — did so at Cornell, the same university that produced hockey’s most celebrated intellectual, Ken Dryden.

Hockey-wise, Murphy was never going to be out of her depth. Away from the rink, though, she was thrown beyond her existing horizons. Trips to Manhattan with new friends pulled back the curtain on a previously foreign, affluent universe. “I’m a poor kid from Cranston,” she says. “I [spoke] a different language from a dialect standpoint. It’s MAH-Gret Degidio from CRAHN-ston, Rhode EYE-land. And they’re like, ‘What did you just say?’

“It was this different level of [sophistication] that was added to my life, and [I learned] I could hold my own. And I was a streetfighter, right? So I really got in the back door at Cornell, but I figured out a way. [And after graduation] you were just looked at different because you were an Ivy-Leaguer. That was the springboard to do anything in life for me.

“I try to do as much for kids as I possibly can because I know what that one moment of acceptance can do for you.”

Katey Stone knew her Harvard Crimson were always in for a tough go when they played Digit Murphy’s Brown Bears. The Bears were going to bring it and if things weren’t going the way Brown’s coach thought they should, you could set your watch to the fact plumes of smoke would start pouring from Murphy’s ears. “But it’s just passion,” Stone says. “It’s all passion.”

After earning her business degree from Cornell, Murphy had landed herself well-paying but ultimately unsatisfying logistical work with the computer company Data General. She offered to take a buyout during a staff reduction and pivoted toward a new career as a physical education teacher in an effort to reconnect with her love of sports. While taking classes at the University of Rhode Island in 1987, she learned there might be an opening for an assistant coach behind the Brown bench. Murphy found women’s head coach Steve Shea’s number and rang him up. “I go, ‘I’m Digit Degidio, you remember me? I played at Cornell?’” she says. “He goes, ‘Oh yeah, I remember you.’”

A season-and-a-half later, Murphy was the lead bench boss — making half the salary of a men’s coach, she notes. By the mid-’90s, she turned Brown from an also-ran into an Ivy League and ECAC powerhouse. Recruiting players was a huge part of her job and it was through that effort Murphy met Stone and current Six owner Johanna Boynton, as the two women worked and coached together at a New England prep school. As Boynton got to know more about Murphy, one thing started to really jump off the page. “I was so impressed with how she was able to do the job and be a mom,” Boynton says. “That still is super-challenging, but is much more accepted and understood today. [Thirty years] ago, it was much more unusual.”

In the early 2000s, Murphy was living in North Smithfield, R.I. with Ken Murphy — the man she married in 1990 — and their four children. Through connections in the youth sports circle, she met a woman named Aronda Kirby. Aronda’s son, Griffin, was a kindergarten classmate of Murphy’s son, Brian. A bond formed between the two women over shared passions, then grew into something beyond friendship. Digit recalls the experience of falling in love with Aronda as one of the most thrilling and frightening of her life. “It was something you had to do because it was the right thing to do for you and you had to see it through because if you didn’t, you’d always be wondering,” she says. “I never thought, ‘What are people going to think?’ I just kind of followed my heart and I said, ‘People love me, I know my kids love me and I’m just going to get through it.’”

Following her heart meant dealing with audible whispers, both in the community and at work. Murphy knew gossip was flying in the summer of 2002, so early on that fall, she stood in the Brown locker room and let fly. “I said, ‘Guys, look: I got married at Brown, I had my children at Brown, I live my life at Brown, now I’m getting divorced at Brown,’” she remembers. “’If anyone has anything they want to discuss with me, my office is upstairs. People’s lives are personal and I want you to learn this lesson: If you don’t know anything, you shut your mouth and if you want to know anything about what I’m going through, my office is up there and my door is wide open.’”

Difficult as things could be at times, there was also a foundation upon which to build. “The great thing for us was the families had been friends and our kids were already good friends,” Kirby says. “So there was already so much love in our group. That was a huge kick off the starting block. It came down [more to] blending logistics, if you will, because there’s a lot to do to manage the lives of six kids and two adults.”

That’s especially true when the two household heads don’t hesitate to fling themselves into the causes and ventures that stoke their fires. When Kirby learned a power plant was trying to set up shop in their town, the couple joined a successful 18-month fight to turn it away. (“It was like Erin Brockovich,” Murphy says.) They started an elite hockey program for girls in Rhode Island called the IXpress and established a non-profit called Play It Forward Sport, which aims to support women and girls in every sporting pursuit you can think of. And they’ve both always been only too happy to speak with the press about the issue of gay marriage.

One day Murphy had a conversation with a man who was enormously passionate about pushing women’s lacrosse forward. She came home after and told Kirby they should use the Play It Forward model to start a league for a sport to which neither of them had any serious connections — which is eventually what they wound up doing. “I was like, ‘What?’” Kirby recalls. “But, sure!”

In 2012, Murphy took the job as GM-coach of the CWHL’s Boston Blades. Not long into the gig, she realized she was ill-suited for all the administrative tasks that came with being the GM. Kirby — who had graduated in the early 1980s with a computer science degree — began taking on a lot of that work. The following season, she officially became Boston’s GM. The pair led a potent Blades team featuring Team USA stars like Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight to two Clarkson Cup titles in three years. Murphy’s next post marked her most adventurous career move yet, as — in 2017 — she re-located to China to coach the CWHL’s Kunlun Red Star in its first year of existence. It was a no-regrets experience, but it only took one season to realize it wasn’t a perfect match. “It was a different culture, a culture that wanted immediate results for a transactional outlay of cash,” Murphy says.

“I’ve never been coached by a person with the same philosophy as her.”

Though pro hockey now accounts for a big portion of her resumé, that may not have been the case had Murphy got the job she applied for in 2009: coach of the men’s hockey team at Brown. At that point, she had a 20-year history as a head coach at the institution. Brown opted to hire Brendan Whittet, who had extensive assistant coaching experience in NCAA men’s hockey, but no previous track record as a head coach. (Whittet still coaches the Bears.) Whatever went into the decision, those close to her know Murphy was dismayed. To this day, it burns Kirby. “Can you tell I’m still mad?” she rhetorically asks after listing all the reasons Murphy deserved the job and lamenting what a lost opportunity it was for the school to set a meaningful precedent.

Over the years, Stone had heard Murphy pound the table for changes in women’s college hockey — changes some just figured there was no sense in even asking for. Murphy was a driving force behind getting women’s games moved from Saturdays and Sundays to Fridays and Saturdays — like the men — so female players could get a day off before returning to class. Murphy and Stone were both part of the American Women’s College Hockey Alliance, which essentially laid the groundwork for the NCAA to eventually institute a women’s national championship tournament in 2001. Getting the men’s job at Brown would have been transcendent, but even the attempt created ripples. “Regardless of what the result was, the process was significant,” Stone says. “Someone applies for a job like that, then all of a sudden people are like, ‘Maybe I could do that.’”

Six owner Boynton had a lot to catch Murphy up on when they bumped into each other at a game between their alma maters last winter, before the pandemic. In the summer of 2019, Boynton — who wore the ‘C’ for Harvard in the late 1980s — had been approached by Boston Pride owner Miles Arnone about investing in an evolving NWHL. After she and her husband, John, did some heavy research, they decided to get involved. Today, they hold a minority interest in the Pride and are the main owners of the Six. Boynton, who runs a successful home-building business, is bullish on the long-term prospects for what could be termed the NWHL 2.0. The circuit — established in 2015 by Dani Rylan Kearney — is transitioning from a model where the league owns all the teams to one in which there are individual owners for each club. Right now, only Boston and Toronto have independent ownership, while the Minnesota Whitecaps, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and Metropolitan Riveters remain NWHL owned. Dovetailing with all of this is a change at the top, as Tyler Tumminia replaced Rylan Kearney as league commissioner in the fall. Tumminia, who brings with her a wealth of experience from minor-league baseball, was originally named chairman of the Six last spring before moving to the league office. According to Boynton, these are just the headline-grabbing moves for a league doing everything it believes is necessary to blossom. “There is now a constitution and bylaws and an affiliation agreement that mirrors all the other professional sports,” she says. “We’re not doing it as we go; we’ve spent months crafting these documents.”

This mentality is what got Murphy’s attention when she encountered Boynton at the game between Harvard and Cornell. After China, Murphy shifted her focus away from hockey toward another business venture, the particulars of which she keeps under lock and key. “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” she says. The pandemic, however, scuttled her ability get out and drum up funds. Meanwhile, she’d kept in contact with Boynton after their encounter, calling her now and then during morning walks. Murphy was skeptical of the NWHL when it started a half-decade ago, believing it was overextending in trying to pay players around $20,000 per year. As it turned out, those figures were not sustainable and salaries later shrunk. Boynton knew if she could sell Murphy on what she saw as the new NWHL it would supercharge the Six with passion and know-how. Eventually, Murphy joined the squad, further legitimizing the organization and league. “I really believe, when you have people like [Boynton, Tumminia and Murphy] at the ground floor of this whole thing, that they’ve got a serious opportunity to be successful,” Stone says.

Murphy wouldn’t have left all her family behind in New England to come to Toronto alone if she didn’t believe that was the case. She’s over the moon about being in Lake Placid, N.Y. for the tournament that kicks off on Saturday and will determine a 2021 Isobel Cup champion on Feb. 5. NBC Sports will air both semifinals and the grand finale of the event. According to a release from the league, this marks the first time women’s pro hockey will be shown live on a major network in America. Murphy is banking on slow and steady growth, which will allow the NWHL to scale up as it goes. It’s a long game in her mind, meaning you do what’s required in the interim to just keep skating. “Why can’t we be comfortable [having other careers] by day and hockey players by night?” she says. “Men’s lacrosse has done this for years. Why is it so wrong to do this in hockey as we evolve?”

It’s a stretch to suggest Murphy is mellowing in any appreciable way, but she does believe she’s gotten a tiny bit better at tempering her emotions in certain situations. Once in a while she’ll tell a friend, “The old Digit would have reacted differently.” Boynton also notes that, as strong-minded and straight-ahead as Murphy can be, she’s still malleable. “While she might have a personality and approach that some would find harder to receive, that doesn’t end up being a nonstarter,” Boynton says. “She works with [players] in ways [that work for them]. She can hear it when [something] is not resonating with a player.”

“I love what I freakin’ do.”

That said, every Toronto charge is going to hear Murphy’s overarching message again and again. The three-pillar approach she emphasizes off the ice is empowerment, education and inclusion. Once the puck drops, it’s fun, fast and furious. “I’ve never been coached by a person with the same philosophy as her,” says Eastwood. “Without giving away any secrets, she really lets us play free and she doesn’t want to limit us.”

What else would you expect from a person who’s never had much time for restrictions? Her go-for-it attitude has led her here, to a spot she both deserves and feels lucky to have. “I love it more now [than ever],” she says of coaching and running a team. “As you get older and have experience, everything becomes way more clear. To take the way I think now and have all this knowledge capital and be able to apply it and talk about it and lead the next generation is just so inspiring and empowering for me. And to have the Toronto Six people believe in me, those top-level people, it continues to push my confidence to another level to help evolve the next generation. And it’s so fun. I could talk for days; I love what I freakin’ do.”

She’s not alone.

Photo Credits

Photography by Ebti Nabag