Fueling fantasies: Mike Murphy, An Nguyen on PHF Fantasy — Abby Castle talks playing club hockey, the evolution of the PHF — Must-click women’s hockey links
The IX: Hockey Friday with Anne Tokarski, December 17, 2021
There’s a very interesting relationship between women’s sports and fantasy.
I’m not talking about fairy godmothers or unicorns or that sort of fantasy. Instead, I’m talking about the world of fantasy sports — where fans can build their own teams of players from across a given league and compete with each other to see whose idealized squad reigns supreme. Almost everyone in the sports world has heard tales of fantasy football draft parties or seen the seriousness with which even the most casual fans approach fantasy sports. But for so long, women’s sports have been left out of the mix due to a lack of resources…but not necessarily a lack of interest.
That persevering interest is what inspired The Ice Garden’s Mike Murphy to create a fantasy hockey league for the PHF — his largest undertaking to date, after making abbreviated iterations of fantasy competitions for the PHF’s stint in Lake Placid, the PWHPA’s Canadian Secret Dream Gap Tour stop in Calgary, and the 2021 World Championship.
“I wanted there to be women’s fantasy hockey for the pro game, so I did what I could to make it happen,” says Murphy. “We all know that fantasy sports are huge, and I thought fantasy hockey for the PHF/NWHL, PWHPA, and Worlds was something I could do to draw more interest to the sport I love.”
“When I first started this project, I told myself that it would be worth my time if we had a dozen teams or so.” Now, at nearly the mid-way point of the season and with fantasy registration since closed, Murphy tells The IX, there are about sixty teams signed up to compete. “It’s wild to know people get excited about the project and want to talk about their teams and the performance of their favorite players.”
In fact, one of those fan favorite players has even joined the PHF Fantasy league — Buffalo Beauts goaltender Carly “CJ” Jackson, who I interviewed at the start of my tenure, has her own team in Murphy’s league, named “The Magic Mullets.”
“There is no way to say this without sounding like a dork, but I think it’s really neat,” says Murphy of Jackson’s involvement. “[It’s] hard not to be excited about someone like CJ taking an interest in this. It’s also one more example of how engaged players in the PHF (and in pro women’s hockey in general) are with fans. Some diehard Beauts fans get to compete with one of their favorite players in a fantasy hockey league. How great is that?”
“At the time of this interview,” Murphy adds, “Carly Jackson’s team is in fifth place. I just wanted to point that out.”
You might be wondering what the big deal is — after all, fantasy hockey is called “fantasy” for a reason. But what Murphy, and those who came before him, have done is created an infrastructure that extends beyond just the PHF and women’s hockey; he’s created a framework the rest of the women’s sports world can utilize. Fantasy sports are a great tool for getting fans involved with the players and teams they follow, and that level of engagement is only going to boost the overall popularity of a sport.
And aren’t we all here to make women’s sports more accessible and more engaging to current and future fans?
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This Week in Women’s Hockey
Peterborough Petes to host PWHPA Showcase (Peterborough Petes)
USA Hockey trims Olympic residency roster (The Ice Garden)
PHF, PWHPA players to compete in ECHL All-Star Classic (Pro Hockey News)
Five at the IX: Abby Castle
The IX sat down with Abby Castle, friend of the newsletter and former club hockey goalie at Merrimack College. Castle, who has since retired from playing, has also been following the PHF since its early days as the NWHL, and knows exactly how she wants to see the league grow and evolve.
Question: Give me a little bit of background on your club hockey career at Merrimack, and what it was like growing up in the college hockey hotbed of the tri-state area.
Abby Castle: I grew up 20 minutes from UConn, and my parents brought my brother and I to hockey games. I wasn’t originally interested in the game, but going to women’s games sparked an interest, and eventually led to me beginning to play. Growing up where I did, there were not just numerous local college teams, but also a lot of places to play and people I knew that played hockey, which really helped me become excited for the game and also gave me the opportunity to play.
Q: Club hockey is obviously a lot different from NCAA hockey, but that doesn’t make the athletes any less deserving of respect. Tell me a little bit about your experience as a club athlete, what your role on the team was at Merrimack, and how you were treated as an athlete.
Castle: It was a fun experience to be able to play hockey and not have the pressure of D1 on your back, it was more relaxed all around. There were definitely cons to the program, especially financial ones. We had to pay for our ice time, our team gear, and other fees relating to the league and our games. My coach was really great about making it clear that if anyone had financial issues, he would help them, but it really is a major dissuasion for people who may want to play hockey.
Additionally, we didn’t have access to the same athletic training services. This is one of the big things that popped out, as we had to get our own trainers and we only had them for a set amount of time, meaning that we would always be in a rush to get everyone taped pre game or iced post game. We also had low priority for ice time, and more than once had to wait way after our scheduled time if something ran over or if things got double booked, which did happen.
Aside from that, the experience was fun to be able to travel to different schools and continue to play hockey. I was the backup goalie, so I didn’t get to play in most games but I still got ice time and got to be part of a team again, something that I knew I would really miss after high school. I also got to play at really nice rinks, such as Conte at BC and also got to return to Mark Freitas at UConn as a player which really made my whole hockey experience come full circle. As far as how I was treated as an athlete, most other students really never made much of it. Sometimes they’d ask if they saw my jacket or backpack, but for the most part, I felt like any typical college student who happened to play hockey.
Q: Tell me a little bit about how you started following professional and collegiate hockey — obviously, growing up around the game is a lot different than being introduced to it later, but tell me about your path to discovering the PHF, etc.
Castle: My dad grew up playing pond hockey and as a Whalers fan, so he quickly introduced my brother and I to hockey as kids. As I mentioned, we went to many UConn games, and we also learned how to skate by the time we were each 4. I remember my first UConn games, the men’s team vs. Army and women’s vs. Providence, but other than that I barely know how I began following collegiate hockey. My parents simply decided to take us to games, and it just became part of my life and who I was.
As for the PHF, I came across an intro post on Tumblr for the league the summer before the first season. I was only sort of on hockey Tumblr, and was initially disappointed in myself for not knowing that there was a Connecticut professional women’s hockey team. Upon further reading, I realized that the league was just starting, and I texted my father to tell him that we were following the league and team, and basically the rest is history. It also helped that the Whale had two players that went to my high school and were coached by my coach, which made me feel connected to the team.
Q: The PHF has come under a lot of scrutiny lately. What improvements or changes are you hoping to see made in the future to improve the infrastructure of the league, etc.?
Castle: For me, it is really important to see the players being treated right and being compensated properly. I don’t have the experience with the behind the scenes of running a league that some others do, but I do have firsthand experience of being a women’s hockey player, and with what comes with it. Changing in bathrooms instead of locker rooms, having lower priority for ice time, and being looked down upon by men isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. Seeing players begin to get paid more is a great start, but I’d love to see a future where they don’t have to work two or more jobs, where they don’t have to miss work to travel or can’t afford to get another stick or skate blade.
I also think they really need to work on a lot of their policies, the one I’m specifically thinking about right now is the trans [inclusion] policy. The new one is better than what they had previously, but it really doesn’t feel solid. The league has said a lot of words and I’d like to see more action when it comes to equality within the game, as I said before.
Q: You’ve been around the PHF for a long time — what’s your favorite interaction you’ve had with a player or at a game?
Castle: I’ve had a lot of positive experiences with the players, particularly [Metropolitan Riveters general manager] Anya Packer. After meeting her at a Hockey East playoff game, she would recognize me from then on, and even wrote a quote for me for my senior quote, which meant a lot to me. The players being active with fans on Twitter is also really fun and an exciting way to get into the league and get to know the players.
I also brought my younger cousin to a game once, and she took an immediate liking to Emily Fluke because they both wore #11. It took some convincing to get her to go through the autograph line, but seeing how her face lit up after talking to Fluke and telling her that she also wears 11, it really showed me how important this is for young girls in hockey. I was 15 when the league started so I really missed out on these experiences, but I had similar ones with UConn players as a kid, and it really is special and inspiring.
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