The Professional Women’s Hockey League, a Look at the Beginning.

By Karyn Fanstone, Head Athletic Therapist, PWHL Toronto

My name is Karyn Fanstone, and I work in the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) as the Head Athletic Therapist for Toronto. I graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor’s of Kinesiology with a specialization in Athletic Therapy in 2014. After graduating, I successfully attempted the Canadian Athletic Therapists’ Association’s National Certification Exam and moved to Drayton Valley, Alberta that summer to begin my 8-year career in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL). I then moved to Toronto after accepting the position of Assistant Athletic Therapist with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League (AHL), and now hold my current position with PWHL Toronto. Throughout my 10 years as a Certified Athletic Therapist, highlights include being back-to-back National Junior ‘A’ Champions with the Brooks Bandits, defending Team Canada’s gold medal at the 2023 U18 Women’s World Championships in Sweden as Team Therapist, getting to work my first professional season with the Toronto Marlies, all the players and staff who have become family, and now being able to work in the PWHL.

I started my current position as the Head Athletic Therapist with PWHL Toronto in October 2023. One huge learning curve that I experienced in the beginning was moving from a well-established and seasoned program with the Toronto Marlies, to one that was being built as it was taking off. A common turn of phrase in the league was that we were building a plane and flying it at the same time. For someone with one year of professional experience under my belt, this was a daunting task, and I was humbled that our General Manager, Gina Kingsbury, and Head Coach, Troy Ryan, felt comfortable entrusting me with the team. I had elaborate ideas of what I wanted a comprehensive medical team to look like to ensure the best care possible for our athletes and was overwhelmed with the response and number of practitioners who reached out wanting to help. There have certainly been a fair share of bumps, bruises, and lessons along the way so far, and it is something that will continue to evolve and grow as we go.

Adaptability has become a theme for us this year, but one aspect that has remained steadfast throughout this entire experience is the level of dedication of our entire staff to making sure that our athletes have all the tools they need to be successful. As all of you know, a support staff’s day is not a 9-5 job where you can punch in and punch out. I have been very fortunate in getting to work every day with Jeremy Steinbach, our Strength and Conditioning Coach, Kate Germain, our Physiotherapist, and Andrea Purdy, our Massage Therapist. Our day-to-day support staff works cohesively and collaboratively to ensure our athletes can perform at their best and is also supported by a host of other practitioners that are utilized when required. In addition, a huge support for me personally as a first-time Head Athletic Therapist and to our medical team in general has been the PWHL’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tina Atkinson.

While being able to put my handprint on building a professional program is an experience that I never thought I would have the opportunity to do, the most rewarding aspect of this job has been watching my athletes become that close knit hockey family. Watching what they are doing, how that is affecting others and the support that they receive has been an experience that seems surreal without being able to see it firsthand.

A vivid memory I have of hosting the first ever PWHL game in Toronto on January 1, 2024, against PWHL New York was the atmosphere of it all. Looking into the stands to see the faces of family and friends, young girls cheering on their idols, older women who were cheering for something that they have waited and fought for, and everyone in between. It was an inclusive environment where fans may have been cheering for PWHL Toronto or PWHL New York, but every fan was cheering for what this beginning meant. This was echoed in our game at Scotiabank Arena on February 16, 2024, when PWHL Toronto hosted PWHL Montreal. There was no scoring until late in the game, but the crowd erupted early on when they announced the record-breaking attendance of 19,285 fans at a women’s hockey game. As cliché as it sounds, the feeling in that building is something that was indescribable and a moment I will never forget. The fans weren’t cheering for a specific goal, one team or the other, or even a gorgeous play. They were cheering for the game of women’s hockey.

Taking the leap of faith into this league with the staff and athletes I get to work with daily was one of the most nerve-wracking decisions I have ever made professionally, but I can also say that it has been the most rewarding. Mentors of mine that I have had throughout my career have always encouraged me to get comfortable being uncomfortable. This job has let me do that and then some and is making me a better Athletic Therapist for it. I am truly honoured to be a small part of this journey and get to help athletes who have earned their time to shine to continually perform at their best.

All photos courtesy of Karyn Fanstone

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