Sarah Nurse reflects on long, triumphed road to inaugural PWHL season

The PWHL Toronto forward has been an integral part of helping build a sustainable professional women’s league.

Sarah Nurse reflects on long, triumphed road to inaugural PWHL season

Feature Photo: IG / @nursey16

For Sarah Nurse and her fellow players, the upcoming inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey League season will mark the start of something special.

With PWHL puck drop set for January 1, Nurse, who will suit up with PWHL Toronto, has been looking both back and forward to the league that features six North American-based teams, including Toronto, Montreal, New York, Minnesota, Boston and Ottawa.

“Sometimes it doesn’t feel real, the fact we have gotten to this point,” said Nurse, who broke the women’s single tournament scoring record with 18 points at the 2022 Olympic Games, en route to winning a gold medal with Team Canada.

“What we have gone through, what we have been able to build and what we have overcome it’s pretty cool to take a step back and realize that last year we were just practicing in different hubs, and then further back to where we were four years ago. But I try not to look back too much because there is a lot of amazing positivity happening right now for us and I am trying to embrace that.”

The Hamilton-born forward played an integral role in negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the PWHL's ownership group as a member of the Professional Women’s Hockey League Players' Association's executive team.

Nurse is still wrapping her mind around everything that led to the formation of the PWHL, which held its inaugural draft in September 2023.

“I’m proud of everybody who has worked so hard to get this off the ground,” said the 28-year-old, who signed a three-year contract as a free agent with the Toronto franchise on September 6. “We’re literally kicking off a new professional startup. It really is quite amazing.”

“From the top down, everyone has come together to make this happen and make it something all the players are excited about. That’s pretty incredible to me.”

Support for the players and the league has been widespread. Home openers in many of the markets are either sold out or close to it.

“The fan support has been unparalleled. We have a smaller barn in Toronto, but to hear so many people weren’t able to get tickets that’s a pretty good problem to have. In the future, hopefully, we’ll be able to rectify that.”

Count NHL players among the fans who have been equally as excited for PWHL puck drop.

“I saw [Toronto Maple Leafs forward] Max Domi a couple of months ago and he couldn’t have been more excited for us,” said Nurse.

“He wanted to know when the schedule was coming out to see if the team had a little gap in there to make it out to see a game. It has been great. I know the guys are so happy that we have a professional organization like they do.”

Nurse’s cousin, Darnell Nurse, who plays for the Edmonton Oilers, has been a longtime supporter of the women’s game. Seeing the dream of a women’s league realized is a huge thrill for the blueliner.

“First and foremost, this is a league where the best talent is brought together,” said Darnell, whose sister, Kia, is a star basketball player in the WNBA .

“It’s great to see this league finally come to fruition, all because of the hard work of so many. As a cousin and as a fan of hockey, I’m looking forward to watching Sarah do her thing.”

The defenceman, who is approaching 600 NHL games, has high praise for his cousin’s contributions on and off the ice.

“Her game speaks for itself, the impact she’s had for the Canadian team at the Olympics and on the international stage. Every time you see a family member succeed at the highest level is such a proud moment.

“As a person, since we’ve been babies, Sarah, Kia and I have been so close. Whether it was competing in grandma’s backyard or at the basketball court across from my house, it was always a lot of fun. Sarah has a huge heart, and she is always looking to make other people’s lives better.”

Sarah, whose uncle Donovan McNabb was a top NFL quarterback in his time with the Philadelphia Eagles, is grateful for her cousins’ longstanding support.

“Darnell, Kia, and I were born 13 months apart, so we’ve always competed against one another in so many different sports. The support I get from my family is unparalleled. They have had my back every step of the way, and for them to be able to watch me is so special.”

What is Nurse most looking forward to with her new team?

“Honestly, having a home game, a home fan base, to create that sense of community and that buzz is something I am looking forward to. When I played at the University of Wisconsin, we had an incredible sense of community and an incredible fan base. I am so excited to build that in Toronto.”

And beyond.

A major focus for Nurse, along with her fellow PWHLPA members, has been ensuring the long-term success of their league.

“All of our sights, for now, are set on January first, but to put together an entire season, this a long-term investment and is something that is going to stand the test of time. I am very excited because we have a lot of belief in our group, a lot of backing from so many levels there is just so much excitement.”

“I believe in the people we have, from a player standpoint, the organizational standpoint and the league standpoint I just can’t wait to see where this goes.”

Wherever that is, Nurse will remain one of PWHL’s most ardent supporters and strongest voices.

“Ten, 15, 20 years from now, we are going to look back and say, ‘I can’t believe everything that happened in year one.’ But it is only going to continue to grow, and the next generation is going to have something of their own, put their stamp on it and continue to build it.”

Players from the PWHL will also be showcasing their talents at the PWHL 3-on-3 Showcase on Feb. 1 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto as part of the 2024 NHL All-Star Weekend.

The NHL All-Star stage is nothing new to Sarah, who competed at the 2023 NHL All-Star Skills Competition as well as a Elite Women's 3-on-3 game at the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.

“I just love that we’re showcasing the fact that there are the best hockey players in the world here,” Nurse told the Associated Press following the 2023 NHL All-Star Skills competition. “Regardless of if they’re male or they’re female.”