The Role I Played by Sami Jo Small represents a portrait in resiliency

Revered as an accomplished athlete, articulate public speaker, and inspiring leader, Sami Jo Small has now added the title of author to an already impressive repertoire. Published by Toronto’s ECW Press, The Role I Played goes beyond chronicling a decade spent with one of the most dominant teams in both, Canadian sporting, and international hockey, history.

A compelling account that displays a highly profound human element, Small’s memoir consists of a compelling sincerity, balanced by a sometimes, visceral tone. Providing a fascinating glimpse into the sacrifices made, and the tremendous physical and emotional toll that the pursuit towards glory encompasses, elements of pathos and paradox are just as prevalent as the glorious achievements.

Adding substance to the achievements of being a three-time Olympian and proud owner of five IIHF Women’s World Championships, Small simultaneously helps to fill an important gap in sports literature. Certainly, a topic that deserves more pages dedicated to it, the number of books on women’s ice hockey is slowly expanding as Small’s memoir joins a celebrated bookshelf that includes works highlighting past teammates. Among them includes HEART by Cassie Campbell and Lorna Schultz-Nicholson, Angela James: The First Superstar of Canadian Women’s Hockey, plus Hayley Wickenheiser’s Gold Medal Diary: Inside the World’s Greatest Sports Event.

The Role I PlayedRecently, the game has enjoyed two other works. The acclaimed Offside, by Rhonda Leeman Taylor, chronicling her lifetime of service to the game, highlighted by her instrumental efforts in making the inaugural Canadian women’s national championships a reality in 1982. Coincidentally, Small would play at the Nationals numerous times in her own accomplished career, hoisting the Abby Hoffman Cup.

Released in 2019, Bob McKenzie’s Everyday Hockey Heroes, Volume II features essays by accomplished referee Katie Guay, Jessica Platt, a teammate of Small on the Toronto Furies, plus Daniele Sauvageau, the coach for Canada at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games. Such contributions are highly essential for the sport’s legacy to have the lives of its heroes chronicled.

While the concept for The Role I Played was one several years in the making, the process towards the finished product reached an understandable stoppage as Small became a mom. Also juggling responsibilities as a public speaker, while eventually returning to the roster of the Toronto Furies, emerging as a highly dependable back-up, making history as the oldest goaltender to win a regular season game in CWHL history, remaining an impact player when needed, a series of transitions would see her bring pen back to paper. With her daughter attending kindergarten, a significant milestone for any child, while the last season of CWHL hockey saw Small do an admirable job as General Manager, the focus towards finishing her memoir resulted in more than a fait accompli or another proud milestone in a tremendous career.

Upon seeing the radiant red cover, highly visible on bookstore shelves, also holding a proud place in the library of her former high school, Small found a remarkable fulfillment. Although she was apologetic in her introduction, very tactful in the realization that some individuals may be portrayed as antagonistic, she also makes a very important point that the role she did play in such a dynastic time was one that is based in appreciation, recognizing that the players positively impacted each other.

“I am not sure if it has really hit me that I am a published author. I worked for so long on the manuscript, but there was never really one day that made it all real. Especially given the current state of the world, I have been doing my “Book Tour” virtually so not being able to see the end reader has been strange.

However, I think moments that stick with me are when I submitted my final manuscript for publication, seeing my cover for the first time, having the finished product arrive at my house, seeing it in bookstores and then ultimately, hearing from people who have read the book.

All these were momentous moments, but not a crescendo like what happens in sports. There is a final game, a big moment or tournament. With a book, it feels more like a marathon, with new and exciting moments happening all the time.”

Having first graced the ice at the tender age of five in her hometown of Winnipeg, quickly identified as “the girl who played hockey”, having to occasionally tolerate abhorrent and insensitive remarks, Small persevered, excelling in multiple sports. Becoming a two-sport star, Small gained a track and field scholarship to prestigious Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Participating in events such as discus and javelin, Small enjoyed a place between the pipes on the men’s club team. As many of Small’s athletic experiences from her youth constitute an integral facet of the memoir, it would have been interesting for the reader had there been more detail about Stanford. Equally impressive, Small displayed a highly cerebral side, earning an impressive degree in Mechanical Engineering, it served as the exclamation point for a fascinating time in her personal and athletic journey.

From an athletic standpoint, Small’s personal best in the Discus involved a distance of 166-11 (50.88 metres), while her proficiency in the javelin remains one of the finest in Stanford history. In pre-1999 records, Small owns the fourth longest distance among female javelin throwers for Stanford, recording a solid 175-11 (53.62 metres), trailing only teammate Jen McCormick, Mary Osborne and Erica Wheeler, who holds the mark with a distance of 192-2 (58.58). In the post-millennium era, the only Stanford athlete to come close to these four fantastic record holders involved Brianna Bain, enjoying a mark of 183-10 (56.03 metres)

Other notable athletes during Small’s time at Stanford included Val Whiting and Kate Starbird, both All-America selections in women’s basketball, Casey Martin and Tiger Woods, both graduating to the PGA Tour. In addition, future Major League Baseball player AJ Hinch wore Cardinal colours, while quarterback Steve Stenstrom and wide receiver Justin Armour were both members of the 1995 NFL Draft Class; Stenstrom claimed by the Kansas City Chiefs while the Buffalo Bills selected Armour.

Running parallel to this unique experience in Stanford was the fact that her older brother, Luke, was pursuing his own studies across the Bay. Enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley, Luke, a former NCAA swimmer, participated with the Golden Bears club hockey team, calling Sami Jo an on-ice rival, simultaneously adding a unique element to Pacific-10 conference play. While he would prove to be one of her biggest supporters, attending national team games dressed up as “Captain Canada”, of which there are photos published in the memoir, neither could anticipate the roller coaster ride en route to Nagano.

Joining the Canadian national team near the end of 1997, it brought with it a tremendous aspect of serendipity, as she would meet her new teammates in San Jose, located roughly 18 miles south of Palo Alto. Crediting Wally Kozak with discovering her potential as a National Team goaltender, Small was actually among four goaltenders at a Team Canada camp earlier in the year. Including Danielle Dubé and Lesley Reddon, members of Canada’s roster in a gold medal effort at the 1997 IIHF Worlds, and legendary Manon Rheaume (coincidentally, she was also featured in a book released in 2020), six years removed from her NHL experience, embarking on a comeback, Small was the one released from the camp.

Recognized for pushing the other goaltenders, Small was encouraged by head coach Shannon Miller not to give up on her dream. With the objective of returning to Palo Alto, prepared to begin her senior season at Stanford, Small’s life took an unexpected turn, as her worlds of Stanford and hockey collided. Informed that was eligible for an opportunity to be the third goaltender on the National Team, this exciting time was quickly defined by a car ride with her Canadian teammates in San Jose.

Embarking on a car ride with a handful of new teammates, including Vicky Sunohara and fellow Manitoban Jennifer Botterill, it proved to be a unique team bonding experience. Along with numerous other experiences described by Small, emphasizing the theme of appreciation and the positive impact that teammates made on each other, enjoyed the utilization of a unique narrative device. From the chronicles of heartbreak to the description of triumphs, it also involves Small sharing stories about her youth and how it built character. Transporting the reader throughout numerous stages in her athletic odyssey, the reality of what sport meant to her as a youth, and its structure, served as an ideal template in teaching life’s lessons, instilling the values that served her well.

“It certainly brought back a lot of memories for me, both good and bad. I loved relived all the great moments and important people in my life, but it was also difficult to have to re-live intimately difficult moments in my life. However, the process was cathartic, helped with the grieving process, and allowed me to see moments from different perspectives, from a new lens of a 44-year old coach, administrator and mother.”

Channeling the essence of two other celebrated sports books, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, plus Jackie Robinson’s I Never Had it Made, although unintentional, the parallels are somewhat evident in Small’s memoir. Although considered provocative for its time, Ball Four, now celebrated as a classic in sporting literature, was the first to chronicle the lives of athletes in baseball beyond the confines of the diamond. Based on Bouton’s diary of his experiences during the 1969 Major League Baseball season, split between the Houston Astros and the expansion Seattle Pilots, tremendous candor was employed. Discussing the anxieties that can affect a player’s confidence, conflicts with coaches, romantic interests, among other subjets, demonstrating how the lives of the heroes of the diamond went beyond the myth making of the game, resulting in a refreshing perspective on sport.

Undoubtedly, The Role I Played stands as the first book about women’s ice hockey to take a deep dive into the sacrifices needed to garb Canada’s paraphernalia and the experiences of so many that Small called teammates, undergoing their own life changing moments and difficult decisions in the pursuit of golden glories.

Among the unique social facets that encompass part of Small’s narrative involved Centralization tales. Including a gruelling triathlon that pushed players to exhaustion, a mountain bike excursion with a squirrel emerging as a central character, to the harsh reality of players being cut, from the anxiety such moments bring, to the combination of empathy and tears when a friend sees their dreams shattered. Along with new friendships made, many strengthened in club play, brings with it a very strong emotional component.

In terms of a hockey context, the symmetry to I Never Had it Made, applies to the struggles in both, Small’s career, and the game’s bigger picture. The fact that women’s ice hockey has constantly struggled for equality in the sporting landscape, best defined by the fact that a living wage remains elusive, Small recounts the financial strain in the aftermath of Nagano. Subsisting rather than existing, dependent on a stipend from the federal government allocated to athletes, it remains a difficult reality of life. Although some of the game’s modern stars have benefited from celebrity endorsements, the breakthrough towards the financial winfall stands as a struggle.

Citing some of the personal examples in Small’s book, not having it made explores the jubilation of many great milestones matched by heartbreaking desolation. In the same year that Small captured her first gold medal at the Winter Games, she was part of a distinguished group of athletes privileged to enjoy an audience with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. That monumental moment was accompanied by a devastating event, tarnishing what should have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Receiving a phone call from the coach of her club team, the Brampton Thunder, the focus of this conversation took on undercurrents based on hearsay. With the supposed rumour that Small had an interest to compete in Vancouver, she was informed of her release, the club having already recruited her replacement. The fact that it took place via telephone possibly perceived as a highly unprofessional move. Not only could such a move have waited upon her return, the release taking place in person, but one can argue that this was among one of the worst decisions in club history, the method especially reflecting poorly on the organization overall.

The Role I Played Alternate Cover

Statistically, Small was masterful in two seasons with the Thunder. With cumulative statistics of 32 wins, compared to merely five losses and five ties, complemented by a superb nine shutouts, and a sparkling 1.72 Goals Against Average (GAA), Small should have been one of the Thunder’s franchise players, a cornerstone akin to Jayna Hefford and Vicky Sunohara. Surely, Small’s replacement could have been traded.

Landing with the North York Aeros, it proved to be the better move. Playing for iconic head coach Ken Dufton, whose playing background was also between the pipes, his perspective was not only methodical, but empathic, recognizing the value of a strong goaltender. In her first season with the Aeros, sharing goaltending duties with Kendra Fisher, a future teammate in the CWHL ranks, Small went 14-1-0, highlighted by four shutouts and a phenomenal 0.93 GAA, the statistical brilliance serving as a direct rebuttal to the Thunder’s decision.

Sadly, the release from the Thunder was prologue for an ever more heartbreaking moment during the decade for the sensational Small. Amassing 55 wins and 16 shutouts over the course of three NWHL seasons (2002-05), she should have been favored to be the number one goalie for Canada heading into the 2006 Torino Winter Games.

Taking into account that Small was the most experienced goaltender in the national team program at that time, she had certainly established herself as highly reliable. Having captured the IIHF Directorate Award as Best Goaltender at the 1999 and 2000 Women’s Worlds, helping Canada bounce back from the haunting, and embarrassing, loss at Nagano 1998, Small was integral towards instilling the belief that the eternal rival Americans were fallible and that golden redemption at Salt Lake 2002 was within reach.

Relegated to the role of the number three goaltender for Torino was made worse by the fact that the Canadian head coach declared that she felt worried when Small was in net. Similar to football, where quarterback controversies are grist for the rumour mill, the fact that an embarrassment of riches in Canada’s goaltending picture did not generate any goalie controversies, especially during an Olympic year, was testament to the maturity and mutual respect which existed.

With great stoicism, Small and fellow Manitoban Delaney Collins, a world-class player relegated to a reserve role on Canada’s team for the Winter Games, displayed national pride, on-hand at Torino, perched in the stands, cheering on their fellow players. As a side note, they were joined by Tyler Stewart, the drummer for the Barenaked Ladies, whose own sporting narrative involved competing with future NHL goaltender Curtis Joseph in Newmarket, Ontario. Becoming a friend to Small, playing in the same recreational league, Stewart also attended her wedding and participating in the Bride vs. Groom game that served as one of the seminal moments of the nupitals.

Before the decade expired, there would be another event, which caused considerable distress. Unceremoniously released from the National Team in 2008 by letter, with no detail whatsoever (perhaps for legal reasons), the fact that this document did not even mention appreciation for a decade of service reflected a lack of gratitude, another example of athletes treated as disposable.

Considering that Small’s release took place in the same year that the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championships were held, the nascent years of Canada’s U18 program would have benefited from Small’s expertise. It would have shown a touch of class had the release included the option of transitioning into either the role of a goaltending coach or consultant with the U18, or U22, national team. Undeniably, a new generation of goaltenders would have benefited tremendous from Small’s mentoring.

While the key pillar of Small’s work lies in its authenticity, recounting the jubilation and desolation that defined the path towards a brilliant career best identified by championships, accolades and honors, there were also heartbreaking elements of pathos and paradox. Revealing a raw emotion and compelling content that display the sometimes, difficult side to life as an athlete, the context could pull at the heartstrings of a non-sports fan. Indubitably, there were also many positive moments that allowed for an enjoyable read, supplying a lifetime of memories.

Among the most heartwarming of these moments included Small becoming an impromptu goalie for a Swedish contingent that featured a 15 year-old Kim Martin. With Canada enjoying a 5-0 lead versus the Swedes at the October 2001 3 Nations Cup in Verumaki, Finland, injuries to both goaltenders resulted in the need for an emergency replacement. Summoned by Canadian head coach Daniele Sauvageau, Small entered the game for Sweden in the latter half of the second period. Supplied with a yellow Swedish jersey during the intermission, the experience not only signified a very unique and fascinating anomaly in IIHF play, it provided Small with compelling perspective, gaining a newfound appreciation for the goaltenders that face Canada.

Chapter 9 highlights a breakthrough for both Small and women’s ice hockey in Canada. Competing at the Air Canada Centre (ACC) for the second annual TSN Challenge. As a side note, Small would be the Esquire Player of the Game for the 1999 edition of the Challenge, adding to an expanding body of work in Canadian colors.

Part of a week of festivities during NHL All-Star Weekend in Toronto, the All-Star logo highly prevalent at centre ice, the legacy of the Challenge served as affirmation of the standing of these players as world-class athletes. With over 12,000 fans in attendance, including celebrity Terri Clark, whose accoutrement included a signed Team Canada jersey, Small would register a shutout against a talented American roster, which featured five future Hall of Famers, including Danielle Goyette, Geraldine Heaney and Jayna Hefford, along with Cammi Granato and Angela Ruggiero.

Not only would Small grace the ACC once more, an astounding 14 years later for the CWHL All-Star Game, many competitors of the Challenge, American and Canadian, crossed paths with Small a decade later in the CWHL. US goaltender Erin Whitten would be the first General Manager for the Boston Blades, while Ruggiero would be a charter member. Of note, Hefford would retire as the CWHL’s all-time leading scorer, while Canadian captain Cassie Campbell would serve on the broadcast team for all of the CWHL All-Star Games during the 2010s.

Undoubtedly, Small’s most positive moment may be her efforts to rebuild club play after the unforeseen dissolving of the NWHL. Demonstrating a combination of perseverance and dedication, trademarks of her game, Small was integral as a co-founder of the CWHL. Crafting a brilliant legacy in the league, spanning from 2008-19, her contributions went beyond her beginnings as a co-founder.

Becoming one of the league’s most well-known, and respected, individuals, Small established herself as a record setting player, Clarkson Cup champion, and later, an assiduous general manager, marking a fascinating progression. Although Small’s memoir covers the early CWHL years with brevity, one element that validates the sweat and sacrifice occurs at the inaugural Clarkson Cup, when Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, one of the classiest and most kind-hearted individuals in hockey thanks Small, expressing that without her, none of this would have been possible.

Certainly, Small’s CWHL years could merit a second book, as her career with the Canadian contingent only represents the first half of a brilliant playing career. In theory, a sequel could feature a blue cover, with Small in her Toronto Furies gear. The league, which was a constant for elite hockey during the 2010s, resulted in many phenomenal achievements made by Small as a player whose legend grew with every game. From her All-Star status, gaining entry in the Triple Gold Club, to becoming the first (and only) goaltender in the league to win a game in her forties, this body of work runs parallel to another facet of Small’s hockey narrative.

Married to Billy Bridges, the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Canadian national ice sledge hockey team, also a highly underrated figure in modern sporting Canadiana, Small has watched him play for Canada at three Winter Paralympic Games over the last decade. Reciprocating his kind support, having encouraged Small durig her CWHL career, appearing at the Clarkson Cup, Definitely, their dual experiences wearing the Canadian jersey represents a strong point of national pride. Worth noting, Bridges career in a sport that merits much more coverage, would serve as compelling content for an outstanding autobiography of his own.

While Small’s legacy in hockey exemplifies a combination of dignity and resiliency, displaying a tremendous dignity that established her as a true treasure in the game, The Role I Played, is an uplifting piece, showing a human aspect to the life of an athlete, while supplying a message of encouragement. Having successfully allowed the reader to walk in her shoes, many of the obstacles, and triumphs, that Small experienced are just as prevalent for individuals engaged in academic pursuits, the workplace, and in personal goals.

While a distinguished number of achievements has propelled Small into a cherished place in sporting Canadiana, her character and positive attitude also making her an in-demand public speaker, the most admirable trait may be the ability to move forward. Despite setbacks and difficult decisions, Small is able to bounce back, learning valuable life lessons while remaining a tremendous role model for a new generation of competitors.

The substance of Small’s memoir is one where the reader feels a close connection. The beauty of her composition is one where, any individual, regardless whether readers are sporting enthusiasts or not, an ambiance allows one the impression of being alongside as the saga unfolds. Certainly, the peaks and valleys experienced by Small not only reveal a visceral, yet compelling, human element to the athletic experience, peeling away the layers of a persona sometimes perceived as infallible, to reveal that although one is not shatterproof in the sporting realm, the ability to persevere represents a greater victory,

“I tried to bring the reader along for the journey with me. So I hope, that ultimately, the reader, whomever they might be, can see themselves in the words. Can find moments in their lives that have similar emotions and feel as though they are on a journey of self-discovery as I was.

I think every reader is going to get a different message and life lessons based on where they are in their lives. I did not want to impose my judgement on situations, but instead have the reader imagine what they would have done.

Ultimately, I want the reader to be able to find joy in their passions as I did when I played and appreciate the gifts that come with each new day and experience.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s