Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Stratford sets the stage for Sami Jo Small’s triumphant return

On a day that saw Les Canadiennes de Montreal make history by participating in the CWHL’s first-ever game at the Bell Centre, there was a shared sense of history among the fans on-hand in Stratford, Ontario. The hometown of Furies second year star Emily Fulton, the franchise hosted a women’s hockey game in the community, exposing their brand of elite hockey to another market of jubilant fans.

Hosting their expansion cousins, the Boston Blades (who both came to existence in 2010), the game would see one of the CWHL’s living legends (and co-founders) stand between the pipes. With a significant part of her hockey legacy synonymous with the blue and white, iconic Sami Jo Small returned to league play, after an absence of more than one season. This was attributed to the fact that Small experienced the milestone of becoming a mom, giving birth to her daughter.

Part of the CWHL’s “Sensational Seven”, a collective gathering of players whose initiative represented the next step in the evolution of professional women’s ice hockey, Small was joined by fellow Hockey Canada alum Jennifer Botterill, Allyson Fox, Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, Mandy Cronin, Kathleen Kauth and Kim McCullough. With vision and alacrity, their contribution to the hockey tapestry spawned into the CWHL. Among those founding sisters, Small is an ageless wonder, whose cheerful smile represents a confident optimism, while adding to her legacy as the only founder still playing. As a side note, Breton-Lebreux hung up her skates in the aftermath of the 2015 Clarkson Cup finals.


For the fans in Stratford, Christmas certainly came early as they gained the chance to witness a triumphant comeback. Of note, it was Small’s first regular season match since January 2015, providing an unforgettable season highlight while mining the game’s growing mythology.

Considering that the 2016-17 campaign also signifies the CWHL’s tenth anniversary, it was most fitting that Small’s first game back took place during this season, helping to bring her career full circle. This unforgettable contest saw Small opposing Blades first-year goaltender (and US U-22 national team alum) Lauren Dahm, who has established herself as one of the league’s rookie sensations, while pacing all goaltenders in games played, minutes logged and shots faced.

The first period at William Allman Arena would see the Furies provide Small with a significant lead. Goals by Emily Fulton at the 3:49 mark and CWHL All-Star selection Michela Cava at 15:11 signified a period of assiduous effort, all players in Furies blue working in a collaborative effort to ensure that Small’s comeback would not be spoiled.

Offensive floodgates would burst early on in the second period. The fans in Stratford were treated to three goals scored in a mere timespan of just 1:21. Meghan Grieves would capitalize on a power play opportunity as hometown hero Fulton was called for roughing, logging her third goal of the season at the 5:13 mark with assists credit to Dru Burns and Kate Leary, her first of the season.

Multi-sport star Carolyne Prevost (who has also competed in multiple Cross Fit events) replied just 24 seconds later, restoring the Furies two goal lead. Jenna Dingeldein would add to the Furies lead 57 seconds later, scoring the first goal of her CWHL career. Gaining the assists on this milestone goal were Renata Fast, the second pick overall in the 2016 CWHL Draft and former Buffalo Beauts skater Erin Zach.

With Toronto’s Tanis Lamoureux called for high sticking at 12:03, it would result in another power play opportunity that the Blades would take full advantage of. Obtaining her second point of the game, Leary would slip the puck past Small as the scoreboard now read 4-2 in Toronto’s favor. Kristina Brown and Dakota Woodworth would be credited with the assists, as the Blades assembled one of their finest performances of the season on the power play.
Despite another high sticking call against Toronto with less than two minutes remaining in the second, Small showed tremendous poise, as the Blades attempted to score for the third time on the power play. Despite the Blades best efforts, the score remained 4-2 after two periods of play.

A scoreless third period for Toronto would only add to the dramatic elements of the game. Near the midway mark of the third, Leary potted her second goal of the game, trimming the lead to just one goal, simultaneously setting the tone on offensive for an ambitious Blades squad looking for their first win of the season. Small maintained her composure while protecting the lead.

Jubilant in victory, raising her stick in the air while she was mobbed by proud teammates, it came as a surprise that she was not named one of the game’s Three Stars, even if it was in the interest of nostalgia. Instead, Emily Fulton would gain First Star honors to a roar of approval from her hometown fans. The surprises would continue as Boston’s Dru Burns was named the Second Star of the Game, resulting in Leary not getting the nod, while Carlee Campbell Eusepi was recognized as the Third Star due to her tireless work on the blueline.

Emerging victorious for the first time since January 11, 2015, Sami Jo Small would register the 63rd win of her distinguished CWHL career, while reaching the magical number of 25 career wins with the Toronto Furies, a team that she co-founded.

Balancing the roles of athlete, ambassador, entrepreneur and mom, Small’s greatest contribution may be as a role model. Small has taken on various leadership roles in her distinguished career. From a players association representative, she has also taken on the reins of fund-raising chairwoman while also occupying a position on the league’s board member, testament to her multi-tasking devotion to the league she helped bring to fruition. Her path helped to pave the way for other players to emulate her accomplishments, learning about the off the field aspects that are sometimes overlooked in professional sports.

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