Q&A: Furies GM Sami Jo Small on weed, co-founding CWHL, more

Sami Jo Small. (Chris Tanouye/CWHL)

TORONTO — Sami Jo Small makes no bones about it: She wasn’t getting much playing time last season as the third-string goalie for the Toronto Furies, so she decided to become the team’s GM.

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League got underway last weekend, and ahead of Toronto’s first win — a 3-1 victory on Wednesday night against the visiting Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays (all the way from China!) — Sportsnet caught up with the Furies’ recently installed GM.

A two-time Olympic gold medallist who co-founded the CWHL back in 2007, Small talks about her new job (she likes it), the possibility of one women’s pro league in North America (the American-based National Women’s Hockey League is the other), her desire to play (it’s high) and the legalization of cannabis (obviously).

SPORTSNET: How’s the GM role going?

SMALL: It’s different, but I love it. When I first helped start the CWHL, we did a lot on the administrative side of things, and I really enjoyed it. I did my coaching levels through Hockey Canada and I realized that wasn’t my future. I don’t really care if we win or lose.

Seriously?

Yes, when it comes to passion behind the bench, I just don’t have it. But I do love Excel spreadsheets. Having been with the organization for 20 years, I’ve seen so many best practices and so many things I felt like I could bring to the organization. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, because I wanted to keep playing, but they were never playing me, so it wasn’t really an option. [Laughs] Rather than retire, I just moved into this position.

Do you care about winning and losing as a GM?

I don’t really care if we win or lose. I want us to be competitive, I want it to be a great fan experience. I want more bums in the seats, I want more sponsorship dollars. Those are my echelons I’m looking to achieve. I hired a coaching staff and I expect them to want to win, and I expect them to do everything they can to allow the girls to be successful.

Weed became legal today. Did you bring it up in the dressing room?

That’s funny. My 75-year-old father was talking to me about it today — he and his golf buddies all want to try it. But I don’t know that that’s something we’d bring into the dressing room. Most of the athletes have either been with the national team or they’re pursuing national team aspirations, so they have a different mindset than probably most. They’re adults at this point. Even when it comes to alcohol on the road, it’s up to them — we don’t mandate that. But if you’re not prepared to play, then you won’t play. If you want to have a couple beers with dinner, that’s OK. We usually play pretty late into the night and then our next game is early the next morning. And then you have to go back to work Monday morning, so if you are partying you might not also have a job. [Laughs]

The other big recent news is there was talk about the CWHL and NWHL merging, that commissioners of both leagues are working to this end.

It didn’t surprise me. I feel like that’s what the two commissioners have been trying to work towards, even with Brenda [Andress, the CWHL’s former commissioner] recently. The difficulty will be with them hashing out business models. Dani [Rylan, the NWHL commissioner] is an entrepreneur and she has a business. We have a board of directors and are governed by that in a not-for-profit. It’s like combining a charity like Right To Play with a for-profit entity and telling them they have to come together. There probably is a solution. I’m not necessarily the business guru to know how to accomplish that, satisfying [Rylan’s] investors as well as our board of directors. I’m sure that they can figure it out at some point.

It seems like a no-brainer, to have all the best players in the world in one league. But these two leagues are so different.

They are. From our standpoint, the CWHL was always about an all-for-one mentality. When they started the NWHL, it was as a business. I always felt they had different end goals in mind. As they make it into one league, Dani as an entrepreneur will have to start a new business, and same with our board. It would be a new entity altogether.

That’s what Gary Bettman has been talking about, isn’t it? A brand-new pro women’s league.

When we met with Gary, back in 2009 or 2010, he had a lot of really positive things to say to us. That’s why we put a team in Boston. He wanted us to align with those individual NHL club teams that were there, which is what we started to do. And then the NWHL came along, and I think they brought some incredible things with them, like social media, marketing, they have a big push behind them and were able to pay the players. And while we weren’t really ready for that I think it really pushed us in that direction as well. [The CWHL started paying its players last season.] While the NWHL may from the outside be perceived as a thorn in the side of the CWHL, really I think it pushed both leagues to be better and really pushed the envelope. And now we are where we are, and have to figure out how to make it work. We want the best for the top players in the world, whatever it looks like — the CWHL is prepared to do that.

What were those first conversations like when you were starting the CWHL?

It was emails initially, when the owners of the previous teams told us there would be no teams. That was May of 2007 — the owners decided to step away from the table for one year. We as players, we’re national team members on different teams, we had to do something. We thought: Can we do this ourselves? Our first investor and chairman of the board was this guy Michael Salamon. One of our players, Mandy Cronin, just happened to be in a ball hockey tournament with him and was telling him the saga, and he’s like, “Can I help?” He worked at Birch Hill Equity, and we started to meet at his offices every week to devise a business plan. He struck the first board of directors, he got somebody from legal for us, somebody from Deloitte. He knew the right people. He came up with our first policies. It was kind of like a mini MBA for those of us involved. Cassie [Campbell] was like, “Well, I’m a Scotiabank athlete, let’s ask Scotiabank.” But how do you even go into a sponsorship meeting? It was definitely trial by fire that first summer, and we met every week. The first weekend of games was just all over the place. Teams had to drive up in vans, because we didn’t even know if we had insurance on buses.

What was your first game like?

We were in Mississauga. The very first game, I played as a goalie. I stepped off the ice between periods and I went to the front ticket sales people, who were two of my buddies that were working the gate, and I was like, “I need the cash because I need to pay the referees.” I then walked around in my half-gear to the referees and paid them. Then I walked back through the crowd and came back in [the dressing room]. It was whatever you did to make it work. And we had this policy that if the refs didn’t show up because the schedule didn’t work out, that two players had to ref. So I had to ref one of the games when I was a backup goalie.

Starting a league is tougher than it looks…

People were very hard on Dani when she first started [the NWHL, in 2015]. One of the things I said to her is that we went through all those growing pains, and even more. The biggest difference though is that we were not being paid, so the expectations were very low. We’re all just volunteers. They had a solid business plan from the get-go — we did not have that. But because of Michael Salamon and the board, we devised this plan to have one central pot of money so we all got equal share. It was the first time I think not only in our sport, but in professional sport, that teams fundraised together. Everybody had the same, two practices a week, 30-game schedule, that’s what we tried to create. It’s slowly built into what we have now. The mandate is that there be a great product on the ice, and that the league not fail. And we’ve met it. We set the bar low so that we could always exceed it. [Laughs]

The league expanded into China last season, which obviously presents a challenge when it comes to travel. But what are the positives for your team that come with that expansion?

I think it pushes all of us to be better. We came into the weekend [against Shenzhen] thinking that they’re going to play their North American players a lot, so they’re going to be tired by the third and that’s when we’ll pounce. But they did not get tired. Clearly they’ve been training together for three months up until now, and they always had a man open and knew where each other were. That’s hard to compete against, but it forces us to be better. Knowing that, coming into the season, I added another night of ice time for us. Through the CWHL we get two nights of ice paid for, and I felt that wasn’t enough for us to be able to keep up. We now practise Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, every week.

Who’s paying for that extra ice time?

To offset the cost of the extra practice, I do adult women’s rec hockey nights. Women pay $50 and they come and skate with the Furies, have a skills night with the team. We had 18 women show up to the first one last week, and it generates a lot of revenue for us to be able to pay for that extra ice. We made $900 last week.

What age and skill range did you draw?

We had women age 21 to 60, and it was pretty rec. Some were good but lots were newer to the game. They got to change in our dressing room and wear our practice jerseys and they were taking pictures of themselves in the stalls, and they wanted to sit in certain stalls. I feel like that will be huge for us going forward, is that women’s rec community. It’s getting extra money, and from the people that care the most. People think our fan base is little kids. They are certainly our fans, but they’re so busy on weekends. They can’t really come out to our games, but the adult rec female hockey player can. They can have beers with their buddies and watch these games.

If there’s a rash of injuries to your goalies, are you getting between the pipes? Do you have your gear with you?

[Laughs] I always have my equipment with me, and secretly want the goalies to get hurt. No, totally joking. I went and got three really good goalies, so I have three solid goalies, and I feel like they’re going to play in front of me all the time. I just put myself as a fourth person on the list, just in case. In my mind, I haven’t retired. I feel like I’m coming back to play, but the reality is I’m 42. Maybe I’ll come back at 55.

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