“I want them to have better than I had”
Growing up, Sarah Nurse’s hockey dreams didn’t include playing for a professional league. She dreamed of lacing up her skates for Canada at the Olympics.
She didn’t even know professional hockey was an option for women until she was already in college. And now that the possibility of making some kind of career out of playing hockey is in danger, Nurse is taking a stand for her own future and for little girls who may dream of playing the game.
Nurse, a 24-year-old former winger for the Toronto Furies of the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League, is one of a couple hundred players boycotting the next hockey season. Using the social media hashtag #ForTheGame, more than 200 current National Women’s Hockey League and former CWHL players announced they would not play until they get “the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves,” according to a shared statement.
In an interview with the Black Girl Hockey Club before the #ForTheGame movement started, Nurse talked briefly about what happened with the CWHL and what she’d like to see happen. She wasn’t available to talk to the Club after the play stoppage was announced.
Nurse, who plays on the Canadian Women’s National Team, was in Finland at the Women’s World Championships when she and her teammates learned the CWHL was folding. They found out at about the same time as the rest of the world did.
“The news of the CWHL folding was a complete shock,” Nurse said. “We weren’t expecting it and the CWHL had grown so much and showed potential.”
Nurse had only played her rookie season with the league. She said in the former CWHL the team salary cap was $100,000 for 25 players. First-year players, like Nurse, made $2,000, while third-year and up players made $3,000, with small bonuses.
While Nurse, who has a degree in business administration/marketing, did not have a job outside of hockey, she said almost all of her teammates had full-time jobs.
“Women’s hockey does not pay much at all,” she said. “It’s frustrating because we can’t always focus on being the best players we can be because hockey doesn’t pay the bills and it comes second to work.”
Nurse doesn’t know what’s next for her. She doesn’t think that the Furies can legally continue but she’d love to continue playing in Toronto, which isn’t far from where she grew up in Hamilton, Ontario.
She wants to play in a league where the players are treated as they should be, she said.
“I want to play in a professional league where the players and staff are treated and compensated like professionals,” she said. “I want there to be a professional league that little girls can look up to at a young age and aspire to play in. I want them to have better than I had.”
Hamilton is where Nurse learned to love the game.
In Nurse’s early days of playing hockey, she had trouble getting the puck in the net. Not because she had trouble shooting, she just wasn’t thinking about the puck. She loved skating.
“I always loved skating and so it was a natural thing for me to play hockey,” Nurse said. “In my early hockey days I wasn’t really interested in the puck, I really just loved to skate. My dad had to constantly remind me that the puck was important and the purpose of hockey was to put the puck in the net.”
She learned to skate when she was 3 years old. In the community where she grew up, the baseball diamonds were frozen over to give people a place to skate. That’s where Nurse learned to skate with her father, Roger, who had been a star lacrosse player. It was important to him that she learn to skate, she said.
While growing up in Hamilton, she played a lot of sports. Lacrosse. Volleyball. Soccer. Cross country. Track. Basketball. But her natural abilities brought her to the ice.
“Growing up in an athletic family, I was able to play many different sports and be exposed to many different activities,” Nurse said. “I enjoyed playing other sports and still do, but ultimately my talents were best in hockey and I saw more opportunities to be successful playing hockey.”
It wasn’t always easy, she said. She was always questioned about her skill.
“I always had to prove that I could play hockey and earn the respect of those around me,” she said. “I was constantly told that I should be playing basketball and that girls didn’t have a place in hockey. My dad told me that the hate was just noise and so I ignored the comments and kept on playing my game.”
Dreams Come True
Nurse said she didn’t know much about the CWHL until her sophomore or junior year playing hockey for the Wisconsin Badgers and the year after she finished school she went right into training for her dream — playing with Canada’s Olympic team.
“I never had that burning desire to play professional hockey because I didn’t know that was an option or possibility for me,” she said. “I dreamed of playing for Team Canada at the Olympics.”
One of the highlights of her playing career didn’t come on the ice, but instead it was when she’d been told she was going to the Olympics.
“We had short meetings with our coaching staff and I walked in and they stood up to congratulate me,” Nurse said. “That moment was so crazy to me because it was like all of my hard work, sacrifice and dedication had paid off. All of the games I had won and lost and all of the practices and workouts that I had pushed myself to be better in had all led up to that moment.”
She traveled to PyeongChang for the 2018 Olympic Games and said the games were “amazing; such a unique experience.”
“You’re surrounded by hundreds of amazing athletes and you truly see how the power of sport unites so many people,” she said. “I remember scoring my first goal against the USA. I took the shot and I didn’t see it actually go in but I saw it come out the back side and heard the building erupt, it was a surreal moment.”
Nurse’s goal against the U.S. team in the preliminary round guaranteed the win over the American team, and the Canadian women advanced to the semifinals. They’d only suffer one loss in the tournament — the gold medal game against the U.S. team.
“Obviously the medal wasn’t the color that we wanted but we were very proud to return home with an Olympic medal for Canada, it makes us want the gold even more,” Nurse said of her silver medal. “My teammates and I are training for the 2022 Olympics and I’m working hard to be a part of it.”
After the Olympics she was entered into the 2018 CWHL Draft, where she was the second overall pick — going to Toronto, close to home. She was very happy to be selected by the Furies, she said.
“I enjoyed my season with the Furies, my teammates and support staff were amazing and I wish that we were continuing with that group, it was [an] exciting time for us looking forward into the future for our organization,” she said. “My rookie season was awesome, I played with and against the best players in the world every week.”
She loves the team aspect of the game and has been able to play with some of the best women in the game.
“I love the speed in hockey and I love how it truly is a team sport,” she said. “You need to have a team with talent, work ethic and chemistry to be a successful one. I love the camaraderie and friendships that I’ve been able to develop over the years.”
She played 26 games for the Furies and put up 26 points including 14 goals. Both Nurse and teammate Natalie Spooner were among the CWHL’s top 10 scorers for the 2018-19 season.
“I was happy with my individual season and I think I grew and developed as a player and was pretty successful,” she said.
Her success has made her a role model for children who want to play hockey, especially those of color. She said she thinks there are great examples of players of color in the NHL, including her cousin Darnell Nurse, a defenseman for the Edmonton Oilers, and that exposure is a huge part of it.
Giving young children the opportunity see people that look like them excelling at the sport of hockey is huge and I think that even looking in minor hockey rinks now, there are kids from all races and ethnicities playing hockey. It’s exciting the climate of hockey is changing.
She said if she could tell children of color starting out in the game one thing it would be to stay positive.
“I would tell young kids to bet on themselves, have the confidence in all of your skills and abilities, you can excel at anything that you set your mind to,” she said.