Digit Murphy spearheads exciting movement in lacrosse with arrival of new league

Women’s hockey fans are familiar with the name Digit Murphy. Evoking a standard of coaching excellence, Murphy’s legacy is without dispute. The first woman to be inducted into Brown University’s Wall of Honor, she led the Bears to over 300 wins, a program mark that is poised to stand for generations.

In a remarkable three-year run with the CWHL’s Boston Blades, Murphy became the first female coach to lead her team to three straight Clarkson Cup appearances, and the first female coach to also win two Clarkson Cups. In addition, she was also the winning coach for the CWHL’s inaugural All-Star Game. Although her absence from the Blades this season marks a significant loss for CWHL hockey, she is still heavily involved in women’s sports.

Noted as a Title IX champion, Murphy is working with Aronda Kirby (also co-founders of the Play It Forward Sport movement), who was the Blades’ General Manager during such a magical time, and have blazed an empowering new trail in women’s lacrosse. The result is the UWLX, the first professional league of its kind for women in lacrosse, one that shall see its first chapter written in the spring of 2016.

While Murphy acquired a remarkable skill set as a head coach with Brown, molding a generation of young women into leaders and role models in society, her three seasons with the Blades also resulted in business acumen. Along with Aronda Brown, the two conceived numerous marketing ideas, including a charitable golf tournament.
Their collaborative efforts are poised to transform the UWLX into the next great venture for female sport in America. Considering that the sport has been contested for years at the NCAA level, many of these talented women in the sport had no place to go after their collegiate careers reached its twilight.

Adding to the growing awareness of women in lacrosse was the legendary Devon Wills. Of note, Wills was signed by the National Lacrosse League, a professional men’s league that has existed for over two decades, breaking the gender barrier. Currently, Wills works as an associate head coach with the University of Southern California’s lacrosse team.

Since the hiring of Michele DJ Dejuliis as the commissioner for UWLX, there has been no shortage of interest among players, eager to extend their careers. Young stars that could serve as a cornerstone for the league include Covington Stanwick and Sarah Mannelly, a remarkable duo with Boston College, Kayla Treanor from Syracuse and Michigan’s Katie Mezwa. Recognized as one of the top Division I players in the US Lacrosse Women’s Collegiate Lacrosse Associates, Mezwa led the Wolverines to a 15-1 record and a spot in the NCAA tournament.

With programs such as Duke, North Carolina and Virginia constantly among the best in the country, it would come as no surprise if they become the power plants for producing elite long term talent for the UWLX. As a side note, such regions would also be ideal spots for franchises, helping provide a strong voice for women’s professional sports.

Considering Murphy and Brown held backgrounds in hockey, their decision to venture into lacrosse may have been perceived as unforeseen. As the architects of a sustainable business model for women in sport, their inspiration came from several sources.

Through the efforts of their PR company, “The Barnyard Group”, several events in New York were the catalyst to augment discussion and encouragement in the fight for pay equity, one that has hovered over women’s hockey like a black cloud for far too long. Among said events was an invitation to the Impact Leadership 21 Summit at the United Nations, which brought much needed awareness to the struggles of pay equity, especially the unfair dismissal of fellow coaching legend Shannon Miller.

The stage where discussion and planning evolved into reality took place in the unlikeliest of places, with a coincidental link to hockey. Every spring, coaches from throughout the United States attend the AHCA convention in Naples, Florida, a focal point where individuals gather for learning, idea sharing and the opportunity to expand their set of contacts.

While there, Murphy ran into a pair of representatives from STX, a manufacturer of sporting equipment. One of the representatives, Ed Saunders, had hockey roots in New England, where he once worked for Hockey East in a media relations capacity. Having known Murphy from that role, as Brown was based in Rhode Island, the two shared stories, and intrigue grew from Murphy’s experiences in New York with the pay equity discussion.

Revealing to Murphy that STX is also involved in lacrosse, even sponsoring a group of female players to compete with Team STX (although they are not in a formal league), it would serve as the motivational vehicle that helped bring about UWLX. With STX proudly on board as an equipment sponsor, providing encouragement along this remarkable journey, an outpouring of support and appreciation has been felt throughout the lacrosse community, the result has been a labor of love for Murphy and Brown, as the message of equal opportunity in sport only grows stronger.

Possibility of outdoor game between CWHL and NWHL would be a monumental milestone

First reported by Elliotte Friedman, the discussion that a women’s outdoor game shall take place the day before the NHL’s Winter Classic would signify a watershed moment in the growth of the game. Multiple reports have suggested that the NWHL’s Boston Pride and the CWHL’s signature franchise, Les Canadiennes de Montreal would be the participating teams.

Such an event would also see the first-ever game between teams from the CWHL and the NWHL. There is no question that without the arrival of the NWHL, such a game would never have even been given serious consideration. Although the NWHL has been perceived as an interloper by some north of the border, imposing some type of sacred frozen turf, the reality is that the league has contributed a tremendous growth spurt for women’s hockey.

Taking into account that games were broadcast on the highly popular New England Sports Network (NESN) and ESPN3, along with online interviews with SINow’s Maggie Gray, this league has done so much for women’s hockey in the United States, helping bring much needed awareness; this game is truly a greater triumph for them.

Said game would take place on December 31 at Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL’s New England Patriots. The stadium shall also host another outdoor game on that day, as alumnae from the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens take to the ice, renewing rivalries and stirring emotions and fond memories among its loyal fans. Considering that no official announcement has been made by either league, let alone the NHL, rumors have been rampant. Two of the most prominent have involved the availability of players.

As several Boston Pride players are also members of the US national team, including the likes of Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker (named by The Hockey News as the best women’s player for 2015), Kacey Bellamy and Zoe Hickel, speculation has persisted that commitments to USA Hockey during this time will prevent their participation at the outdoor game.

While some fans have gone to social media, begging that USA Hockey reconsider the availability of its players, it may be best to have a more firm announcement about any such game. Should this game truly be a reality, there is no question that USA Hockey would likely do the right thing and acquiesce to any request, especially if the NHL or a television network graciously requested.

Another angle to this story involves the suggestion that players from other teams in both leagues would gain the chance to don the colors of Les Canadiennes and the Pride for this game. Therefore, the match would lose an element of its integrity, becoming a glorified All-Star Game.

Perhaps the most shocking rumor is the suggestion that a CWHL board member (whose background also includes serving as a General Manager in the NHL) believes the two leagues would actually merge. Based on the bad blood that exists between both leagues, it would be like suggesting a merger between Ford and GM, or an alliance between Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

While the two leagues did have a meeting at the NHL’s head office in September, which is where the concept of the outdoor game was supposedly first suggested, any discussions from said meeting were not mentioned on either league’s website. Sadly, the secretive nature among some individuals in women’s hockey has only lingered. Although the arrival of the NWHL has helped the game grow by a quantum leap, it cannot repeat the past behavior of others in the hopes of a more prosperous future.

Instead of an open dialogue, the sense of cloak and dagger and the frustration of secret meetings and closed doors only adds to the frustrations of some fans. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to possible legal issues, making such silence understandable, the women’s game at times seems to be defined by a lack of communication, with rumor only succeeding in tarnishing its image. For all the discussions of bringing women’s ice hockey to the next level, some individuals in the game have been infamous for placing themselves (and others) in a bubble, fostering a country club culture, burning bridges in the process.

With due deference, this event, and more importantly, the handling of such speculation should have been handled differently. Instead, silence lingers and fans feel excluded, relying on rumor rather than fact. Although playing the game is ultimately the end goal, helping to advance women’s hockey, making any current speculation futile in the long term, a closer look would reveal that this is another missed opportunity by some to establish a sincere connection, something not uncommon to longtime fans.