Toronto Furies GM relishes underdog status in CWHL

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BY CHRIS LOMON

Whether she’s speaking of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) or the Toronto Furies, where she’s the general manager, Rebecca Michael knows the key to success is always staying one stride ahead of the competition. 

It was a banner start to the 2015-16 regular season on Oct. 17 for the Furies, one of five teams that comprise the CWHL, with a 2-0 home win over reigning champion Boston at the MasterCard Centre.

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The following day, the two teams faced-off again, this time with Boston netting the two points courtesy of a 2-1 shootout victory.

The good for the Furies: grabbing three out of four points.

The bad: injuries to key players.

“I think that we have a great core of returning veterans and strong group of drafted players,” offered Michael. “That being said, with the season only one weekend in, injuries are proving to be a critical barrier we have faced with three of our top forwards on the sidelines for both short and long periods of time. As a team, we are going to have to buy into the defensive side of the game this year and support each other on the ice as a full six-player unit if we are going to be successful.”

While the Furies focus is on capturing the Clarkson Cup (Toronto hoisted it in 2014), awarded annually to the top women's hockey team in the CWHL, Michael is also keenly aware of the collective commitment to seeing the league not simply survive, but thrive, for years to come.

Competition, namely, the newly-formed National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), featuring four northeastern United States teams (Boston, New York, Buffalo and Connecticut), has already seen and could see more CWHL players making the move south.

Janine Weber was the first player to sign as a free agent with the NWHL, while two-time U.S. Olympic silver medalist Hilary Knight also joined the league after playing in the CWHL.

One of the biggest factors? The NWHL pays its players, with each franchise having a $270,000 salary cap.

Established in 2007, the CWHL features three teams – Toronto, Montreal and Calgary – who are sponsored by their city’s respective NHL club.

A former CWHL player with the Furies, Michael, who was named General Manager of the team in May 2012, believes two strong, competitive leagues are a win-win for the women’s game.

“The CWHL has an unwavering commitment to the development of professional women’s hockey and clearly share this passion with this new league,” she said. “Any time the spotlight can be placed positively on women’s hockey, it’s to the benefit of the game.”

Michael is buoyed by several developments in the CWHL over the past few years, from more fans in the stands, support from NHL clubs, to a strong on-ice product.

“The growth that the league continues to show is encouraging to players,” she said. “Each year, the league takes more steps to grow the game and provide its players with a professional platform to play on. The skill level has only continued to excel and for players coming out of NCAA, CIS and international play, why would you not want to play in a league such as the CWHL?

“The fan support that we have in Toronto is one of, if not the best,” she continued. “We have a core group of loyal season ticket holders. Several of our players are actively engaged in the minor hockey world as coaches and skills volunteers and the fans that join us at games are true representations of the role models that these ladies are. Our partnership with the Maple Leafs has helped us market our brand on a larger scale and provided new fans opportunities to get to know and engage with the players. The CWHL does an amazing job at making access to their players obtainable. It allows the players to develop personal connections with the fans.”

All while keeping their eyes on the league’s biggest prize.

“I want this team to come to the rink each day to compete and fight for one another,” noted Michael. “We are definitely not the strongest team on paper, but we never have been. In my time with Toronto, whether as a player or manager, we have always been seen as the underdog and we are okay with that. It forces us to push ourselves every day and that is all you can ask of these players.”

An award-nominated writer, Chris Lomon contributes feature stories to a number of magazines and websites, including Yahoo! Sports (Canada) and NHLPA.com. He has written numerous articles for horse racing publications over the years and has been nominated for a Sovereign Award (feature writing category) on three occasions. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisLomon.

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