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Toronto Six players (left to right) Carly Jackson, Emma Woods, Lindsay Eastwood and Saroya Tinker prepare for their home game against the Connecticut Whale, at Canlan Sports at York University in Toronto, on Jan. 21.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Sami Jo Small, the president of the Toronto Six, has been working 70-hour weeks this season as she tries to elevate the women’s professional hockey franchise.

The three-time Canadian Olympic goalie helms the front office of the Six, which is now in its third season in the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF). After the Connecticut Whale’s 5-3 win on Friday, the Six trails 1-0 in its best-of-three semi-final playoff series. But the club is vying not only for its first championship: the Six strives to win over more fans, sponsors and players in a fast-evolving women’s hockey environment, in which a rival league could pop up as early as next season.

“We feel this enormous responsibility to make sure that the PHF is solidified here in Toronto,” Small said. “And that we’re making it the best it can possibly be to attract players from all around the world.”

Most women on the Canadian and U.S. national teams don’t play in the PHF. Many formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) folded in 2019 and have since been playing in a showcase tour in various NHL and junior hockey cities. The PWHPA said its own league may start next season, but has not shared details on timing, salaries or cities.

So separately, the seven-team PHF – now in its eighth season – keeps working to be an attractive landing spot for top hockey talent.

Sami Jo Small, right, then-Toronto Furies' general manager, holds a meeting at a team practice at the Mastercard Centre, in Toronto, on Jan. 2, 2019.IAN WILLMS/The New York Times News Service

“All we can do is our best, given what we have and who we have, to make it as attractive as possible for staff and players,” said Small, who knows the landscape well, having been a co-founder and player with the CWHL who has close relationships across the PHF and PWHPA.

“We’re open for business and more than willing to work with any player wanting to come to the PHF, but also with the PWHPA as a whole.”

The PHF salary cap for this season was US$750,000 a team and will be US$1.5-million next year. Most players on the Six had salaries between $30,000 and $80,000 this season. Small says having larger cap next season has prompted more players to reach out. More are hiring agents, too.

What you need to know to jump on the women’s hockey bandwagon

The Six will hold its own prospects camp for the first time next month. The club will still scout and sign players as it has in the past, but with the pool of interest widening, the Six also wants to hold an open tryout for players who don’t have representation.

“You want to make sure that you’re doing your due diligence,” Small said. “So you get the best players and not just the ones with the best agents.”

The Six signed former University of Wisconsin star forward Daryl Watts this winter to a record contract that will pay her US$150,000 next season – a deal that resounded across women’s hockey circles.

Watts is already in the Six lineup, starring as the team plays its first home playoff series, this weekend inside Mattamy Athletic Centre, with a berth on the line to the Isobel Cup final March 26 in Tempe, Ariz. Led by Hockey Hall of Famers Angela James as GM and Geraldine Heaney as coach, the Six wants to be the first Canadian team to win the Cup.

This season has been the first real chance for the Six to build a fan base in Toronto. Its first PHF season was condensed and played entirely in Lake Placid, N.Y.; the second one was hampered some by COVID restrictions in Canada.

Saroya Tinker of the Toronto Six is greeted by her brother Malachi, 12, after an on-ice warm-up.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Capturing fans – and their money – is hard work in today’s packed sports marketplace. The Six filled its 1,100-seat home rink inside York University’s Canlan Arena for its opener when sponsor Athleta bought all the tickets so fans could attend for free. Crowds were smaller for other home games, but grew steadily, reaching 1,000 when the reigning Isobel champion Boston Pride visited to end the regular season. Filling 2,600-seat Mattamy for the playoffs is a taller challenge.

Small says the team is consulting with TSN on changes to the Canlan rink. The ice surface is currently the wider Olympic size but will change to the smaller NHL dimensions over the summer, providing more platform space for television cameras.

The other PHF clubs already have NHL-sized home ice. The renovation is also expected to increase fan capacity at Six home games to approximately 1,500.

“This invigorates me,” Small said. “I still love waking up in the morning and thinking about the challenges and what we can do better today.”