Women’s professional hockey is set to make history next month and Sarah Steele of Stratford, P.E.I., will be skating right in the thick of it.
Steele is the only Islander playing in the National Women’s Hockey League, which will have its games televised live in the U.S. for the first time when NBC Sports Network airs the Isobel Cup semifinals and final Feb. 4-5.
“It’s really an historic moment,” said Steele, who plays defence with the Toronto Six, the only Canadian franchise in the six-team league.
“You can watch the Olympic games every four years but I think it’s really important that young girls who view us as role models are able to actually see us competing professionally.”
I think it’s really important that young girls who view us as role models are able to actually see us competing professionally.— Sarah Steele
As a young hockey player on P.E.I., Steele’s role models were Olympians Cassie Campbell and Hayley Wickenheiser. At 15, Steele packed her dreams and left P.E.I. to attend high school and play hockey at Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., before a successful collegiate career at Boston University.
In 2013, she won a gold medal with Team Canada at the IIHF U-18 World Championship.
After playing pro for three years in Europe, Steele, 25, signed a contract with Toronto’s expansion team in July.
Amy Curlew of Goose Bay, NL, Steele’s former teammate at Appleby College, is the only other player from Atlantic Canada on the team.
“Usually when I come to a team I don’t know the people beforehand, but I did have the pleasure of knowing one person,” Steele said.
“I’ve just been like really happy being a part of the team because everyone’s just been incredibly welcoming and I think we all feel really lucky to be able to be on the first Canadian franchise in the NWHL.”
The league would normally have started in November, but because of COVID-19, the season has been shortened to a tournament Jan. 23 to Feb. 5 in Lake Placid, N.Y., home of 1980’s Olympic Miracle on Ice.
The new schedule allowed Steele to return home for a couple weeks over Christmas, though she spent most of it in self-isolation.
She is now back in the Toronto area, practising with the team four times a week before they head for New York on Jan. 21.
Chemistry despite COVID
Despite the restrictions from COVID-19, Steele said the team has become a cohesive unit.
“Usually you would have tons of team bonding events and go hang out with your teammates outside of the rink, and just because of COVID we haven’t been able to kind of socialize together but we’ve been able to develop that team chemistry when we are on the ice.”
Along with the semifinals and finals on NBC, all the other games can be viewed on the app Twitch.
Steele said she hopes the exposure will further strengthen the six-team league. Though the players earn a salary, most, including Steele, are in school or work in other jobs to supplement their hockey income.
Receiving full salaries
Despite the shortened season, the league said the players will receive their full salaries even if they opt out of the tournament. Those who opt in will receive an additional stipend and portion of the revenues.
“It’s a really amazing opportunity given that there’s so many unfortunate things that have come out of COVID,” Steele said.
“We have a really great group of players and coaching staff, so really excited for the tournament.”