Elaine Chuli signed on to play hockey for the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2018, a team close to her home of Waterford, Ont., to pursue her professional hockey dream – six months later, the league folded.
After joining the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays of the CWHL the year prior – Chuli’s four-year tenure at the University of Connecticut kept her away from home starting in 2012, and her second season in the league was her first chance to play hockey at home.
“I guess I was naïve and just thought that I would be able to keep playing, I didn’t realize the state of women’s hockey post-college,” said Elaine Chuli, starting goaltender for the Toronto Six. “It really sucked, it was a shock – it really took away a good chunk of professional spots for us to play in.”
After the folding, players like Natalie Spooner, a Team Canada Olympian, chose to join the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, or PWHPA, with many members refusing to play in the NWHL, citing a goal of having one unified hockey league for women.
The Toronto Six, aptly named after the 416 area code of the city, were coincidentally the sixth team to join the NWHL for the 2021 season taking place in Lake Placid, N.Y., operating in an isolated bubble leading up to the Isobel Cup, the league’s championship trophy.
Head coach Digit Murphy is familiar with Chuli – in fact, the duo worked together in China while both working for the Vanke Rays. Murphy was named president of the team in October, and Chuli knew it was her calling to give Toronto hockey another shot.
“I got the call from the owners and then Digit was named president, everything started falling into place – I got the opportunity and I didn’t want to turn it down,” Chuli said.
The Six are now at the top of the NWHL standings with a 4-1-1 record, including the first shutout in franchise history thanks to Chuli in their 6-0 win over the Connecticut Whale on Jan. 31.
Chuli has also posted a .936 save percentage and a 1.61 goals against average in five games, and has only allowed five even-strength goals during the inaugural season for the team, and her first season in the NWHL.
Lake Placid’s bubble has had some ups and downs, including Connecticut and the Metropolitan Riveters both leaving the bubble for reasons unknown. Although many speculate COVID-19 in this regard, the league has left it to the individual teams to announce their departure.
With a league already small and exclusive – housing only six teams to begin with – the “whubble”, or women’s hockey bubble, is now down to four teams playing for the Isobel Cup.
“Being able to pull this off and get us here in this bubble is generating a lot of extra attention and that is just going to improve year over year and hopefully build it into something that is a full-time income,” Chuli said.
Despite criticism from those following the season, there have also been many positives to come as well, like support from NHL teams across North America, over 1.5 million viewers tuning in via Twitch, and the semi-finals and finals for the Cup being shown on television via NBC.
“We have to start somewhere, and that’s exactly what we’re doing, having the semis and the finals that are going to be on NBC is huge for visibility for the game, hearing that our highlights are in between periods at the Leafs games or on Sportsnet are things that you typically don’t see,” Chuli said.
Toronto’s success in Lake Placid has not only shown that when you give hockey talent a chance to play, they will produce, but has also proved that Canada’s game deserves to be represented by more than one Canadian team.