Let's Hear it for the Blades
May 19, 2013
by Amy Berry, photos by Christopher Weigl
Members of the Boston Blades, the only professional women's hockey team in the United States, listen to the national anthem prior to their game against Brampton Hockey Club. The team has 10 Olympians and is ranked first in the five-team Canadian Women's Hockey League.
Music of every genre blasted from the back of the bus. The team sang along to “I’m Alive.” Then two players line-danced in the aisle. Head coach and general manager Digit Murphy followed up by leading everyone in a “Happy Birthday” chorus. After that, defenseman Kacey Bellamy took the mic to make a few shout-outs.
“Hey, let’s hear it for the goalies,” said Bellamy. Cheers, whistles and hoots ensued. Bellamy continued with shout-outs to teammates, coaches, the trainer and even to the bus driver. Then she told a story from her childhood.
At 13, she and her brothers always played the last-one-in-the house-is-a-rotten-egg game. One day, determined not to be last, she hopped out of the car as it pulled into the driveway. “But wait,” she said. “The tire hits my foot and runs my leg over.” Her dad shut the car off with her foot underneath it. She was the rotten egg. And she had a hockey tournament the next day. Her mother laced Bellamy’s foot in her skate, and she slept in it that night so she could play in the morning.
That competitive drive describes Bellamy. It also characterizes her teammates on the Boston Blades, the lone U.S.-based club in the five-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). Together the 27 members of the three-year-old team have compiled impressive resumes over the years; there are ten Olympians, 13 U.S. National Team members, and four NCAA National Champions.
“They’re a talented bunch,” said longtime Blades fan Paul Hendrickson Murphy, a prominent figure in women’s hockey who coached for two decades at Brown University, was more pointed: “It’s just amazing to be coaching [these] great players,” she said.
Indeed, in athletics the Blades are about as good as it gets. Yet none of the women receives an income. Many work outside jobs to support themselves. On top of the financial pressures, the team plays in lower-end rinks with stands that are barely filled at games. Finding money to keep the team on the road is a challenge. In an interview with commentator Mike Rubin, Murphy said she joked to a friend: “I can’t believe I’ve come full circle and I’m back to candy bars and raffle tickets.” But it doesn’t end there. “My vision for the Boston Blades is candy bars and raffle tickets are out of the question,” said Murphy. “We need to create a higher platform, a higher level of exposure for women athletes in the professional realm.”
In spite of the challenges, common goals drive the players forward. They skate for a shot at the Clarkson Cup – the CWHL equivalent of the Stanley Cup. They skate for their passion for the sport. And even though many are former competitors who battled it out at the college level, they skate for each other.
The CWHL was created in 2007 following the dissolution of the National Women’s Hockey League – a move that left elite female players all but stranded. The solution arose in the aftermath of a charity hockey tournament in which professional goaltender Mandy Cronin played with a group from the Toronto-based Birch Hill Equity Partners, an investment firm. Cronin’s goaltending led Birch Hill to victory. Soon after, Birch Hill’s Michael J. Salamon offered to provide financial backing for a new league while simultaneously laying the groundwork for a sustainable business model.
Boston Blades Head Coach Digit Murphy directs her team while standing on the bench as they play the Brampton Hockey Club at Veterans Memorial Rink in Somerville. They went on to win the game 5-2.
Yet even with the model and the Birch Hill backing, the CWHL has yet to find the money tree. Although the league pays the bills for basic travel, ice rental, uniforms and equipment for the five teams, funds remain tight.
An hour outside of Montreal, ten minutes from the U.S./Canadian border, the Blades stopped for a pre-game meal. Pre-ordered by an assistant coach, the food was ready for pickup. Each player made her way off the bus and into the restauran Then, one-by-one, they lined up at the register to pay. Meals aren’t covered in the budget.
It’s a new reality for many of the players: At their respective Division I programs around the country, the women were treated as closely as they would come to NHL players. “We were spoiled,” said Blades member Hilary Knight about her time at the University of Wisconsin. “We chartered a plane for a ride that’s over six hours. We have tape, bubblegum, tampons – whatever it may be, it’s in the locker room.” The only requirement on game days at the collegiate level was to be on time. All of their equipment – skates, sticks, protective gear, jerseys and socks – was packed for them.
They aren’t in college anymore.
Getting ready for the trip, players lugged cases of water onto the bus after they had stowed their hockey equipment underneath. Some brought their own pillows. Others carried small coolers for the five-hour trip to Montreal.
Later, before their first game of the weekend, an echo ran through the locker room: “Hey coach, Schoullis only brought her black jersey.” For away games, the proper attire is white jersey and white socks. Schoullis wound up wearing the back-up goalie’s jersey for the weekend. Two minutes later, more voices erupted: “Hey coach, players forgot their white socks.” So the Blades wore yellow socks, their home jersey socks, instead.
It’s clear that at times the players are still adjusting to the CWHL conditions. “You can’t even leave your bag in between games in the locker room. You have to go back to your hotel and air it out,” Knight said.
Amenities at the team’s home rink in Somerville, Mass., are humble. An observer would have no clue that the modest Veterans Memorial Rink hosts a professional hockey team. A skate-sharpening shop sits to the left of the entrance, a small ticket window to the right. Flyers line the wall, but none advertises the Blades. Instead, high school championship banners hang from the ceiling.
In contrast to the team members’ well-equipped college locker rooms, the one here is a five-by-ten-foot space with benches lining the walls. There are no lockers for storing equipment. When they have to use the facilities, the women travel – sometimes decked out in full equipment – to the bathroom in the lobby. When it’s time to hit the shower, they travel again, this time draped in towels, to a communal shower room.
Even people who frequent the rink seem unaware that the Blades play there. Photographer Christopher Weigl, who worked the last home game for the team, recounted an incident: “When I was taking pictures, someone came up to me and asked what age the girls were, U17 or U18? I laughed and said, ‘Uh, they’re professionals.’ ”
But many of the professionals hold jobs or take classes off the ice. Cherie Hendrickson works as an emergency medical technician in Lawrence five days a week. Team captain Caitlin Cahow is studying law. Numerous players coach or give private lessons on the side. The U.S. National Team members find it more difficult to work. “USA Hockey pays 1,000 to 2,000 dollars [annually] – it depends,” said Erika Lawler, who plays on both teams. “A typical day, you wake up at 7:30 to weight-lift. You stay at the gym ’til about 10, then you have six hours ’til practice at night. National team practices are on Wednesday mornings, so it’s nearly impossible to hold a job. If you do, it has to be very flexible hours.”
The former general manager of the Blades, who did not want her name used, summed it up: “Money is the biggest issue in the league,” she said. “Whenever I paid for the hotel, I would be nervous the team’s credit card would bounce.”
Although they are teammates now, the Blades players weren’t always in black and gold together. Many faced off throughout their collegiate careers. Some lost to one another in NCAA National Championships or on the world stage. But an adversarial past does not seem to have affected the chemistry of the Boston team. In part, that may be because the players have experience in letting go of partisanship.
“You go onto the National Team with someone from the University of Minnesota,” said Cahow. “I’ve lost to them more times in a National Championship than I’d like to think about. I see those games in my nightmares.” Yet today, said Cahow, some of her longest-standing competitors are her best friends. That sense of camaraderie is evident during practices and on the long bus rides that carry the players to their various Canadian destinations.
For one Blade in particular, the other players are at the heart of why being a member of the team is so important. “My passion for the sport is eternal. I cannot get enough of watching, playing, talking about it,” said Holly Lorms. “My passion for my teammates is beyond that.”
Last April, Lorms’ world turned upside down after her father was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. Word spread, and Lorms’ teammates became a source of comfort, distraction and, most importantly, support. When her father died in July, the Blades were there for her. “To thank them is something I don’t even know where to begin,” Lorms said. “So I do what I do best. I play for them.”
The topic remains an emotional one for her. “In my darkest time, hockey became my light, and my teammates became my strength,” Lorms said. “I play because every time I touch the ice, I can make my teammates better. If by playing my heart out for them, I can give them even an ounce of the support and friendship they’ve shown me these past several months [and help] us win games, then that’s one hell of a season.”
No matter why they play, where they played before they joined the Blades or what takes up their off-ice time, one goal remains constant: To win the Clarkson Cup.
And this season, the Blades have something they didn’t in the first two: Digit Murphy, who is something of a legend in the game. “If they were building a Mt. Rushmore of women’s college hockey coaches, I would like to think Digit Murphy’s face would be on it,” commentator Rubin said.
After playing on the women’s team at Cornell University, Murphy spent most of her career coaching the Bears at Brown University. Many call her the Pat Summit of women’s ice hockey for the milestones she’s achieved: first NCAA women’s coach to reach the 200 and 300 victory plateaus; national championship appearances; four national semifinals; six ECAC championships; and the Ivy League title on five occasions.
The Blades roster contains a plethora of talented skaters, but it’s possible that Murphy may have been the missing link from the past two seasons’ defeats.
She brings a blend of structure and excitement to a team that may finally be ready not only to compete for the CWHL championship but to win it. “She’s really passionate about her sport,” said Knight. “I think we need that. Especially someone who is willing to say, ‘Hey, come look at my players. They’re awesome. They’re just as great as the men.’ ”
Murphy, for her part, hands credit to the members of the team: “These players don’t really need practice on the ice. They’re good. They’re really good. Heck, they’re Olympians, and people don’t know who they are. These players need this,” she said, pointing to her head. “That’s why I’m here. To teach them how to use their heads better. To make them better mental players.”
There’s been progress. The Blades may face adversities, but instead of dwelling on them, the skaters maintain that those difficulties now bring them closer to the game. “It’s the bare bones of the hockey we were used to before college,” said Knight. “It’s good for us. It reminds us of why we play.” And while obstacles such as funding and league logistics may be out of the Blades’ hands, difficulties on the ice come up too – and somehow, perhaps predictably, those are more easily managed. The games in Montreal demonstrated that. The usual hockey bench for a game day has four offensive lines of three players, three defensive lines of two players, a goalie and a back-up – for a total of 20 women on the ice. For a variety of reasons, the Blades rolled into Montreal that day with only 14 skaters, including two goalies.
Yet Boston swept the two-game series with only two offensive lines, three true defenders and a forward filling in at the blue line.
It made for a raucous ride home.