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'It was shock': CWHL co-founder Sami Jo Small blindsided by women's league folding

Sami Jo Small, one of the original co-founders of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, says news of its shutdown jolted her like a blind-side hit.

Former Olympic hockey goalie remains optimistic something will rise from the ashes

Sami Jo Small is a three-time Olympian as netminder for the Canadian women's team, and a five-time world champion. She has twice been named world championship MVP.

Sami Jo Small, one of the co-founders of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, says news of its shutdown jolted her like a blind-side hit.

"It was shock. We were not expecting it at all; we were preparing for the next season," she said about the news, which was delivered Sunday at 9:30 a.m. during a meeting of the league's team general managers.

Small, who grew up on the outdoor hockey rinks of Winnipeg and went on to become a three-time Olympian (two-time gold medallist) as goaltender for Canada, was general manager of the Toronto Furies.

"We had just finished a big, day-long GMs meeting the previous week with the league that we thought was very positive. So yeah, needless to say we were in shock, and then it quickly turned into action of 'What can we do now? What are the next steps?'

"And that's the unknown."

The Calgary Inferno won the championship and hoisted the Clarkson Cup trophy on March 24. A week later, the CWHL announced the league's business model is economically unsustainable and it would cease operations May 1.

"The league has told us there is no plan. This is a final decision, even if a huge donor comes in. They've told us it is just not a financially sustainable model," said Small, who co-founded the CWHL and served as vice-chair from its inception until she moved out of the boardroom and into team management last year.

Sami Jo Small co-founded the CWHL and served as vice-chair from its inception until she moved out of the boardroom and into team management last year. (Canadian Press)

"As a GM, during this entire season I was never asked once to bring in more money or spend less money. That's why the confusion — it was just such a blow and a shock when we could have been doing a lot of different things along the way."

The CWHL, founded in 2007, had six teams in the 2018-19 season — four from Canada, one from the United States and one from China. The league owns and operates all the teams.

It wasn't until the 2017-18 season that players started to be paid salaries, ranging from $2,000 to $10,000, out of a total budget of $3.7 million.

But the CWHL lost a financial backer in November when Graeme Roustan of the venture capital firm Roustan Capital withdrew his financial support, citing a lack of transparency regarding board expenses.

Small was on her way Monday morning to a meeting with some CWHL stakeholders, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, to see if anything can be done for elite women's hockey by September.

There is another professional league, the five-team National Women's Hockey League based in the United States, but the CWHL is the premier league for women in North America, Small said.

It is home to the majority of Olympians from the Canadian and American teams, she said.

"As well, we housed the next generation of players. It is a stepping stone to get to the national team and to play with the best in the world."

Simone Turner-Cummer, 23, who plays defence with the Assiniboine Community College Cougars women's hockey team in Brandon, said news of the CWHL shutdown is a big disappointment.

"It hurts for the female athlete. I may never have gotten there, but for any girls that could have, it's kind of a heartbreak," she said. "We don't get as much recognition as we should."

Turner-Cummer's Cougars defeated Minot State University to win the American Collegiate Hockey Association Women's Division 2 championship on Sunday in Texas. She was named tournament MVP after picking up the Cougars' last three goals — including the championship winner.

Small said there are rumours circulating about a possible merger between the CWHL and the NWHL, or about the NHL taking over the CWHL, but she did not know how much of that is simply hearsay.

Regardless, she is keeping the faith that something will be in place by the start of the next season.

"This might be the end of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, but this is not the end of professional women's hockey," she said.

"In 2007 we went through this and we figured out a new league, so the next steps could be quite exciting. I remain optimistic. This might mean bigger and better things."

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