Sami Jo Small had a decision to make this summer. At 42 and having pushed herself as hard as she could in preparation for the 2017-18 campaign, the longtime Toronto Furies netminder and three-time Olympic gold medalist was coming off of a season in which she hadn’t played as much as she would have liked, hadn’t been given the opportunity to prove she could still be a top goaltender in the CWHL. She felt stuck.
So, facing a fork in the road as it pertained to her career — one path leading her to rigorous off-season training that’s necessary to keep up with players nearly 20 years her junior, the other to seeing what life is like on the other side of the ice — Small chose the latter. And in early June, despite posting a stellar .932 save percentage and 2.55 goals-against average in four games last season, Small stepped away from the crease and settled into the Furies' GM chair.
“I guess it just seemed like it was the right time, right now,” Small said. “I haven’t totally given up on being able to play in the future, I just knew that I wasn’t going to get to play in Toronto, so this was another option for staying involved with the league and staying involved with this team that I still really strongly believe in.”
While it may seem a sizeable leap for a veteran player to go directly from on-ice to the office over the course of a few short months, Small was the perfect candidate for the job in a lot of ways. Not only was she at the forefront of the CWHL’s creation, one of the league’s vice-chairs during its infancy, she knew the inner workings of the league and appeared tailormade for a management position. Matter of fact, if the CWHL had their druthers, Small may have been in the GM's chair much sooner.
“Every time we went through a new iteration of a general manager, every time the league was looking to hire, my name was thrown out there, but I never wanted to stop playing,” Small said. “I had been asked numerous times over the years simply because they knew my background within the league and administration and my passion for the game. But I never wanted to give up playing. I really loved it.”
But with her puckstopping days on hiatus, Small is staring down a new set of challenges. And right at the top of the list is getting Toronto back into Clarkson Cup contention.
To say last season was a difficult one for the Furies would be an understatement. For the first time since the franchise’s inception in 2011, Toronto missed the post-season and did so in rather spectacular fashion. Despite boasting a team that did not lack in heart, according to Small, the results simply weren’t there. The Furies lost all but nine of their 28 outings, finished with the second-highest goals-against total and an ugly minus-43 goal differential. Even a late-season push that saw Toronto win five of its final 10 games wasn’t enough to push the Furies into competition for a playoff spot, as they finished sixth of seven teams and behind Chinese expansion teams Kunlun Red Star and Vanke Rays. (The former has since changed its name to Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays, while the latter has been contracted.)
With that in mind, Small is looking to give the Furies a new look next season. “We’ll get Natalie Spooner and Renata Fast back. Despite the fact they were on our roster last year, we never saw them, so most of the girls don’t really know them and they’ll be new to a lot of the girls. That’s huge for us…and we added (goaltender) Elaine (Chuli) and (forward) Shiann (Darkangelo). Right there is four players.”
That’s without mentioning the draft, either, at which the Furies will have two first-round selections thanks to last season’s trade that sent Erin Ambrose to Les Canadiennes de Montreal. The Furies could very well use their first pick to add another Canadian Olympic talent such as winger Sarah Nurse, who projects to be an impact player at the pro level when she makes the transition next season. It wouldn’t be all too surprising to see Toronto also add another netminder — perhaps NCAA standout Shea Tiley — with both Small and Sonja van der Bliek departing the Furies.
Knowing the challenges that face young players who suddenly enter the pro game, though, Small wants to insulate her youth with some of the experienced talent that highlight the Furies roster last season. “I’m really hoping that I’ll have strong leadership from players like Caroline Prevost, Emily Fulton, Shannon Moulson, those guys that have been around for a little while,” Small said.
More than simply on-ice, however, Small is looking to make her impact with the team away from the rink. That has been her mantra since taking the post, she said, and something she discussed with coaching hire Courtney Kessel (nee Birchard), and veteran bench boss Ken Dufton. And Small hopes she and her staff can strike the type of work-life balance that leads to success both on- and off-ice for her team.
And if everything goes according to plan, Small hopes the entire season can culminate in much the same way it did in 2013-14 for the erstwhile Furies netminder: with the Clarkson Cup raised high above her head.