Toronto Six's championship can inspire others to believe in greatness of women's hockey

·5 min read
The Premier Hockey Federation's newest champion Toronto Six is winning on, and off, the ice — inspiring the growth of women's hockey through inclusion and by building community. (Lori Bolliger/Premier Hockey Federation - image credit)
The Premier Hockey Federation's newest champion Toronto Six is winning on, and off, the ice — inspiring the growth of women's hockey through inclusion and by building community. (Lori Bolliger/Premier Hockey Federation - image credit)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Dr. Maya Angelou once said, "My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style."

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There are people for whom this applies in the sports world after a stunning victory by Toronto's professional women's hockey team — the Six.

The championship game of the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) brought the quote back to me and I kept thinking about Bernice Carnegie.

The first time I met Bernice Carnegie, I was very taken. It was at a Carnegie Initiative symposium. Yes, named after her father, Hockey Hall of Famer Herb Carnegie.

She's magnetic, intelligent, has a beautiful grin and expresses the importance of anti-racism work in hockey with a vigour that inspires while carrying forward her father's legacy.

WATCH | Herb Carnegie inducted in Hockey Hall of Fame:

She became part of the ownership team of the PHF's Toronto team in March 2022, alongside former NHLer Anthony Stewart, former NHL Coach of the Year Ted Nolan, Canadian hockey legend Angela James and co-founder of the Carnegie Initiative Bryant McBride.

The ownership team fully consists of racialized people who come from successful backgrounds in the hockey ecosystem.

They also signed the highest paid player in the PHF: NCAA star Daryl Watts.

WATCH | Inside the Toronto Six:

The Toronto Six has a roster of women at the helm. They are coached by Geraldine Heaney — this was Heaney's inaugural coaching season. She was the third woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The team has a woman president — Olympian Sami Jo Small — and fellow hall of famer Angela James is the general manager. Saroya Tinker, the founder of Black Girl Hockey Club Canada, plays for the Six.

The impact the team has had on hockey culture for racialized girls in Toronto is incalculable.

On Sunday night, the Six made history as the first Canadian team in the PHF to win the league's prize — the Isobel Cup. The team beat the Minnesota Whitecaps 4-3 after Tereza Vanišová scored in overtime. The game was broadcast on television; calling it riveting is an understatement. And twitter went wild.

Women's hockey in Canada has never been more robust. There are leagues and organizations like the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA) that have fought for and created spaces in which girls are seeing their hockey heroes play and thrive. But the impact this particular team has in lifting a trophy is important to note, particularly for Black girls in Toronto.

I read some comments online and was struck by something Fatou Sadio, a Black Girl Hockey Club board member, wrote. Her tweet reads: "So beyond happy for Saroya Tinker & the Toronto Six — earned it. Black girls will pick up hockey because of her."

If more young Black girls start playing hockey that is an enormous win for the game and for those playing it. If that encourages other racialized girls to believe in themselves and the sports they love, that becomes a movement — and one that the Toronto Six is a part of.

I've seen firsthand how young racialized girls respond to seeing women in the hockey world that look like them.

I attended one of the Six's playoff games against the Connecticut Whale at the Mattamy Centre in Toronto a few weeks ago. I met two sisters, Sariah and Ariella Morgan, who started Young Bosses in Business — an organization that promotes kids and entrepreneurship. They connected with Tinker and came with a large group of kids arranged by community leaders to attend a hockey game which many had not been to before.

Through the Toronto Six, Tinker and her non-profit Saroya Strong, young racialized girls are gaining exposure to not only elite women's hockey players, but accomplished women in sports management roles, administrative roles and more.

Hockey can be a vehicle for empowerment of young folks and witnessing what the Six has done this season is truly remarkable.

As the Six continue to build its organization, it leaves a legacy. And one that works in tandem with leaders from different communities in the city. It's a powerful collaboration and one that can't help but leave hockey fans feeling joyful and hopeful.

That's important because Canadians have been let down from those in the most powerful positions in hockey in Canada. To have a place that we can celebrate women's hockey, enjoy a game and see the fanbase brimming with youth is exceptional. Coupled with the power and success of this team, it's impressive.

I texted Small after the historic championship win and asked her to describe how she's feeling in one word. She quickly replied "Proud" and added a happy face emoji. With Small leading the charge and a solid group of owners and board members supporting them, Toronto is winning on all fronts, not just with trophies.

Building a team to greatness and including community is intentional, and that leads me back to Bernice Carnegie.  Maybe other hockey teams need her to offer them pre-game hugs.

There are certainly many ways to grow women's hockey, but the Toronto Six have cracked a formula that works: incorporating youth, tapping into different communities, creating media (they have their own video podcast) and running an organization with passion, compassion, humour and style (check out Carly Jackson's famed mullet).

I hope they inspire others to invest, to cheer for and to believe in the greatness of women's hockey. It's been awhile since a professional Toronto team has won anything in a hockey league, and it is very well-deserved.