Digit Murphy’s star only keeps shining brighter in the NWHL

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Courtesy of Brendan Poe

The single-elimination Isobel Cup Semifinals will be shown live on Thursday, Feb. 4 at 5:30 p.m. ET and 8:30 p.m. ET. The winners of the semifinals will advance to the Isobel Cup Final on Friday, Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. ET. In addition to coverage on NBCSN, live coverage will stream exclusively on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

It’s not like Digit Murphy has much more to prove in hockey.

The Toronto Six head coach has succeeded at every level of hockey and then some. She molded the CWHL into the first option for pro women’s hockey players, she was the first person to found a pro women’s lacrosse league and now she’s the first coach for the first Canadian NWHL team.

It’s no wonder everybody wants to play for her.

“I would hope it’s the impact I’m making on them, not just about hockey,” she told NBC Sports this week. “It’s about life and how we kind of approach everything, it’s being kind and respectful to everyone you know and not thinking you’re all that and a bag of chips just because you’re a coach.”

Ask anyone in hockey and they’ll tell you Murphy is more than a coach, she’s a force. Her polarizing nature in women’s hockey has been an obvious bridge between some of the divisions in recent years.

Last season, the formation of the PWHPA had several former NWHL and CWHL players sit out the NWHL season. Many of them signed with Toronto, and there was a shift.

Murphy’s presence is arguably the biggest reason why.

[2021 Isobel Cup schedule]

“Digit being president, trying to build the team, that kind of persuaded me,” said defender Kristen Barbara. “It gave me an opportunity…. I think she’s a really big advocate for women’s professionalism. just being around the game, she was in a male atmosphere, stuck to the world of hockey. In women’s hockey there’s been a huge shift because she is so vocal.”

Any Six observer is going to come away with the impression the squad has a ton of energy, and a ton of it is on the positive side. Following their first ever franchise win against Boston on Tuesday night, the team had a dance party outside the locker room to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.”

Murphy enthusiastically praised her team in the presser following the game, shouting at times, “Last time I thought we WON and we LOST. Tonight, it was AWESOME.”

She sets a ton and a vibe unlike any presence in the league before her, which is considerable given she held out on being in the NWHL at all for so long.

“Ownership hasn’t been like this in a lot of leagues, in women’s hockey usually the league owns it,” said Murphy. “I feel like the NWHL is onto something. They have owners who care. They’re putting a lot of time, energy and effort into the bubble and their resources, look we have a brand new locker room, that’s cool.

“It’s really cool to be a part of the NWHL.”

A pioneer for women’s sports

Digit’s path through hockey started at Cornell after growing up in Cranston, Rhode Island. At 59 years old, she’s a pioneer for women in sports in general, and is easily one of the faces on the women’s hockey Mount Rushmore.

She’s been a driving force in changes for players in women’s college hockey, an advocate for her players in China in the CWHL, and now her sights are set on making the NWHL a better place than she found it as well.

“Digit has been everywhere,” said Toronto Six owner Johanna Boynton in December. “She coached in the CWHL, she coached in China, she’ coached and she played everywhere. She’s the real deal, a pioneer and a trailblazer. She’s devoted her career to this passion…. She’s never daunted. She’s just a really passionate, enthusiastic leader. Digit is all in.”

Boynton, with NWHL commissioner Ty Tumminia — who originally was a part of Toronto ownership — are a part of a new wave of the NWHL that looks different than the past five seasons. There are more sponsors, there’s television space, there’s a media presence.

That begins with the group of women coming in this season, and Murphy is a part of that. Boynton, and Tumminia, knew how important Murphy is to the newfound identity of the league.

“She’s got relationships, she’s been around these athletes, she knows the game,” said Tumminia back in December. “She’s got deep stakeholder relationships, it was apparent we had to bring somebody in like Digit, like Digit’s talent, her intellectual property. She brings a lot to it.”

Early success behind Murphy’s leadership is another selling point for people in the league, especially any potential Canadians watching for the success of the Toronto project.

The Six are an expansion club, but as we’ve seen in the NWHL before with Minnesota, that doesn’t mean they can’t compete. Like the Whitecaps, the Six brought in plenty of players with experience at the highest levels of women’s hockey.

If Murphy hadn’t been one of the first members of the organization hired, the Six might never have gotten off the ground in the same fashion. Her magnetism to people around the sport has brought talent into the Six who otherwise may never have suited up in the NWHL.

“I think at some point everyone’s crossed paths with Digit,” said Emily Fluke, who signed with Toronto after a season in Boston. “She’s all about women’s sports and just women in general and she gets you really excited, she brings that energy.”

“She’s all over the place but great at the same time,” said Mikyla Grant-Mentis, who played in two games with Buffalo last season before signing in Toronto. “She has that energy she brings, honestly sometimes it’s more than the whole team combined.”

Women’s hockey is going to succeed behind people who care about the game succeeding, and Murphy has put her heart and soul and life into making it happen.

It seems like the opportunity to run the Six and build something within the NWHL might be the next step in her legacy for the sport, and perhaps the one that springboards professional women’s hockey into new heights.

“I think they want to play for me because they feel the love,” she said. “Right away they feel  like we’re gonna help them and we’re gonna have so much fun.”

Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

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    Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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    ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

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    The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

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    TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

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    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

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    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.