by Mark Staffieri
One of the emotional favourites heading into the 2014 Clarkson Cup, Sami Jo Small earned the long overdue opportunity to hoist the coveted trophy this past March.
Only the second co-founder of the league to claim a Cup victory (Stars co-founder Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux was the first), she gracefully acknowledged the impact of her teammates.
"I always think winning is special, but to do it with such a close-knit group of girls is extra special," Small said.
Of note, the Cup victory also provided Small with another unique brush with history. Along with Furies teammates Tessa Bonhomme and Natalie Spooner, Small becomes one of only 12 women that have earned the requirements of the women’s hockey version of the Triple Gold Club, as they have all won IIHF women’s world gold, Olympic gold and, of course, the Clarkson Cup, awarded annually to the CWHL championship-winning team.
Although Small is the oldest player to have earned the privilege of Triple Gold Club status, it is a well-deserved moment in a remarkable career. Considering that Small first captured IIHF gold in 1999 and Olympic gold in 2002, a significant wait to hoist the Clarkson is testament to Small’s patience, perseverance and passion. She joins Kim St-Pierre and Genevieve Lacasse as the only goaltenders to have accomplished the feat.
Four years ago, Small had competed in the 2010 Clarkson Cup semifinals with Sommer West, as members of the Mississauga Chiefs. Little could anyone have known that it would be the final game for the Chiefs franchise. With the introduction of the CWHL Draft later that year, it served as the launching point for the new Toronto Furies.
"When we first started the CWHL we had to make a lot of difficult decisions. The one decision that affected me the most personally was going to a draft," Small explained.
"It really only affected the teams in the GTA and it meant that teammates and friends I had had for a lifetime were now scattered to other teams. We had won the national championship the previous year and now it meant that the team got ripped apart."
Picking up the pieces and building the foundation for a new team presented its own unique set of challenges. Through it all, Small’s dedication to the league and the game never wavered. Complemented by the support of some notable friends, the result was a first-year team that ended its inaugural season by qualifying for the 2011 Clarkson Cup finals in Barrie, Ont.
"It was difficult to build an entirely new team and build new friendships, but the protected players in the draft for the Toronto Furies (were) Jennifer Botterill, Martine Garland and myself, (so we) tried to bring the core values of championship teams over to our new team," Small said. "I missed playing alongside my Aeros (and) Chiefs teammates, including Sommer West, but tried to instill in our management the necessity to draft people, with work ethic first and hockey skills second."
For a team in any sport, a key ingredient in building a championship team is finding those key pieces to bring it all together. In reflecting on the moments that led to the franchise’s turning point, Small defines it as new leadership signifying a new era.
"Slowly, we built a tradition of commitment and excellence that was previously so integral to our success," she said. "The last piece of the pie was having Rebecca Davies and Sommer West retire from play and become a part of our management. They both have travelled the road I’ve travelled and know what we were once capable of."
Having served as a co-founder of the Furies in 2010, the last four years have signified an emotional yet fulfilling journey for Small. While it may be ironic that she is now playing alongside a generation of girls that she inspired to play hockey a decade ago, it is a reciprocal relationship based on mutual respect and admiration. The opportunity to enhance such an association with a CWHL championship is a strong point of pride for Small.
"Now I can truly say that we are a team of people that care about each other and push each other to be our best," she said. "I am proud of each of my teammates and am so thankful to every person that has helped build this team and this league."
The chapter of Small’s career as a builder and player in the CWHL is one that combines adversity, triumph and a genuine example of graciousness and sportsmanship. Still providing memorable moments in the twilight of her career, the Clarkson Cup represents a pivotal moment in a profound and meaningful career worthy of top hockey honours.