The team, a spawning ground for Olympians and national-team players, gets no respect. The newspapers don’t print their results and they never turn up on “SportsCenter.” Mention the name “Blades,” and most fans think of the furry mascot of the Bruins.
But the Blades finished first in their league in the regular season, and on Wednesday they beat Toronto, 3-2, in Ontario in the opener of a round-robin tournament that will determine a champion.
Now in their third season, the Blades are in the wrong league. Literally. They are the only United States entry in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
They are professionally run, but they don’t pay their players. Ticket prices are cheaper than admission to high school hockey games.
“We’ve got a real ‘wow’ factor,” said legendary coach Digit Murphy, who was one of the winningest coaches in NCAA women’s hockey history at Brown. “It’s the best deal in town because right now we have 15 Olympians on our team. We are one of the top brands of hockey in North America. You’re going to see fast, hard, athletic hockey.’’
The Blades play their home games at Somerville’s Veterans Memorial Rink, which boasts spanking new glass and boards. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children 7 and up, and free for ages 6 and under.
“It’s an environment where kids can come in and reach out and touch the players,” said Murphy, who is also the team’s general manager.
But Murphy acknowledges that they still have a long way to go, baby.
“It’s still candy bars and raffle tickets, but we are developing women’s sports,” she said.
Besides leading the Blades, Murphy raises six children at home, and does consulting work and TV commentary. Her Blades salary is roughly equivalent to what she could make flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Her Somerville office doubles as a skate storage room, when the referees aren’t also using it. Murphy commutes from Rhode Island for twice-a-week practices in Somerville and buys her own gas.
“Its hard to make a living,” she said.
At home games, the team squeezes into dressing rooms designed for Pee Wee leagues. Ice time is precious. Sometimes when the practices run late and the Pee Wees show up on time, the Blades change in the chill of the parking lot.
The travel is tedious. The Blades recently played a weekend series in Calgary, at the home of the NHL’s Flames. They flew, but even so, they had to be on their second jobs Monday morning.
Forward Kate Buesser, who is also a medical assistant in the orthopedics department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, got back from one road trip at 3 a.m., then she caught a 7:40 a.m. bus to Harvard Medical School.
“I worked an all-day clinic with 65 patients and finished around 5:30 p.m., then came home on the shuttle bus, and quickly made dinner and then went to practice,” said Buesser. “After practice was finished, I got home around 9:30 p.m. to catch a little bit of the news and then head to bed. Whew!”
Defenseman Caitlin Cahow, who attends Harvard Law School, said the wear and tear is worth it.
“It’s a tough row to hoe, but I think that’s what makes our hockey that much more special,” said Cahow. “We do it because we love it. You can’t possibly play in this league for the wrong reasons — everyone’s doing it because they love the game.”
It is a different game than the NHL. There is no checking and no fighting. There has never been a fight in the five-year history of the league, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
“It’s a rough game,” said forward Jen Schoullis, who also plays on the US national team and is just returning from a concussion. “It’s still rough; there might as well be checking.”
Forward Hilary Knight, a 2010 Olympian, said the league needs exposure.
“We need to get on TV and get some TV rights,” she said.
Murphy knows that if these athletes were not wearing shielded helmets and padding, there would be more fan interest. But this is not beach volleyball.
“It’s a tough line to draw between being sexist and exploiting them for being female,” said Murphy. “We really care about the hockey. Because we are a Canadian league, the hockey really does sell in Canada.
“Sex sells here. It’s a different mind-set. Maybe the league needs to make a rule that in warm-ups, you go without the helmets on.”
The nonprofit league is starting to get some help from the big boys. Two NHL teams, the Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs, have partnered with the CWHL to support women’s hockey. League commissioner Brenda Andress confirms that talks with the Bruins are ongoing.
Murphy points out that the NBA started up the WNBA.
“I don’t think the NHL technically needs us,” she said, “but we’re a group that should be embraced because we’re a big part of the next generation of women’s hockey.”
The Blades have also played well against international teams. Last November, they beat the Russian national team with successive shutouts.
They are also fan-friendly. Before every game, they select young fans to be honorary captains who dress in uniforms with the team and are introduced at center ice. After every game, the players sign autographs.
What’s not to like?
“I think in general there’s a stigma against women’s sports,” said Cahow, “that it’s not as high-octane as men’s sports. You go to a men’s game and what you’re paying for is a lot of hitting and broken plays and fighting.
“If that’s your thing, I totally respect that. But in the women’s game, there’s a lot more puck movement.”
In the pregame skate before facing the Toronto Furies recently, Murphy does not like her team’s energy. Sounding more like Yoda than her fiery, swearing, take-no-prisoners self, she asks the players to summon up the Force.
“The old me would have been upset,” she tells the players in the crowded locker room. “I’ve got one condition: Promise me that when you step on the ice, you’re going to have it together.”
As Murphy fears, the Blades surrender the first goal. But they skate the last two periods as if it’s the Stanley Cup Final and score two goals.
Eavesdrop on the bench during their furious shift changes and you’ll hear things that would make Claude Julien blush.
Late in the third period, the Blades are whistled for too many players on the ice. Toronto also pulls its goalie for a two-woman advantage.
Blades goalie Molly Schaus, a US Olympian, is manic until the final buzzer.
But two minutes later, the redhead is hugging family members and signing sticks in the lobby.
Bob Varney of Melrose is the home game ticket manager. He has also become a fan.
“It’s the way it’s supposed to be played — passing and shooting and the sharing of the puck instead of all the clutching and grabbing,” he said. “It’s pure hockey.”