Clarkson Cup champions excited for new chance with NWHL’s Toronto Six

The newest team in the NWHL, the Toronto Six, joins an illustrious history of pro women’s hockey in Canada, following the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which ceased operations in 2019.

With a notable gap in the game, the NWHL planned to expand into Canada, with Toronto becoming its, well, sixth club.

For players who were a part of the CWHL, it’s their next chapter, too.

“I would like to win another Cup,” said Kristen Barbara, a Six defender who won the Clarkson Cup with Markham in 2018. “Having half our team with experience playing pro hockey, most of us coming from the CW, I think this is a good stepping stone for the NW, for all of us, having a goal bringing this Cup home and showcase the Toronto expansion.”

Two Six players last played pro hockey with Markham in that season, winning the final Clarkson Cup in history; Barbara and Taylor Woods. Julie Allen is the last Toronto Furies champion standing with the Six.

All three have legacies in the CWHL that won’t ever be erased. Without pro hockey options in Canada for the past year, all three spent time in the startup Professional Women’s Hockey Association, but cited a consistent schedule as a reason for joining the NWHL.

That, and the team’s coach had a lot to do with it.

“When Digit Murphy reached out to me, all her energy and enthusiasm definitely caught me as, this is a chance to play and do something different,” said Woods, a defender. “To bring professional women’s hockey to Toronto. So I was excited the organization was looking for someone like me to join.”

Murphy’s legacy also has roots in the CWHL, the former coach of the Boston Blades and SHS Vanke Rays in China. She resonates deeply with the players who worked to build pro women’s hockey in Canada from the ground up.

All of them are looking to carry that legacy into the NWHL.

“One of the highlights of my career was winning the (Clarkson) Cup,” said Allen, who hoisted it with the Furies in 2014. “It was a really, really fun experience and I know my family is hoping for that too, in Toronto, getting back to the top.”

When the CWHL ceased operations it left a gap for Canadian women’s hockey players. Their options have been the NWHL — with no Canadian club until this season — or to join up with the PWHPA, which many did, but players cited inconsistent scheduling as a reason they are giving the NWHL a shot.

“It came down to playing a competitive season,” said Barbara. “A regular, competitive season. Not saying the PWHPA doesn’t have that, but I think with Digit being president and building this team, that persuaded me. It gives me an opportunity to keep playing in a more competitive environment.”

This season, hampered by a pandemic, spans just two weeks as the league accommodates players headed to a Lake Placid bubble. When the Six do debut for a full campaign at home, they’ll be playing in North York.

It’s not the same Canadian presence as a league that hosted clubs in Toronto, Markham, Calgary and Montreal, but it’s a step in revitalizing the game in a country that set in motion a legacy for women’s hockey players.

“Having visibility for us coming off of sort of having something to play for, something to strive for, this is huge,” said Woods. “Games presented online, being broadcasted will be big, especially now. Seeing is believing, that’s the whole mentality.”

It’s approaching two years since the CWHL ceased operations following its final Clarkson Cup. It was a dark day in women’s hockey history to lose a lifeline for the sport, and players haven’t been confident its legacy would be remembered, and their game wouldn’t descend into chaos.

Having to lose an entire year of competitive games and dozens of roster spots was a tough blow, and a pandemic doesn’t help. The NWHL has made strides to give Canadian women their game back again, and Toronto’s expansion is just the first step.

The Clarkson Cup legacy isn’t lost for the final champions looking to bring Canada its first Isobel.

“It’s unfortunate what happened with the CW folding, it was a big shock to a lot of us,” said Allen. “It’s a really good opportunity to play for your home city again, this is the only opportunity we have here to play for a pro team again.”