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PWHL superfan Debbie Harrison ‘living the dream’ while soaking up league’s inaugural season

It takes Debbie Harrison more than two hours to make her way from her home in Lindsay, Ont., to downtown Toronto.

It starts with an hour-long drive, followed by a 45-minute GO Train trip, and finally, Harrison’s favourite part of the journey, a 40-minute walk through Toronto.

When she arrives at the historic old Maple Leaf Gardens (now called the Mattamy Athletic Centre), she finds her seat right in front of the glass, where she’s been close enough to see the smiles on the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) Toronto players’ faces all season long.

Once she’s in the arena, Harrison is hard to miss.

A woman wears a blue Toronto jersey with 26 buttons. She holds a sign that says, "I wanted to make a photo button of my favourite player. I ended up with 26."
Harrison poses with her most recent PWHL Toronto game-day outfit: a Toronto jersey and a button for every member of the team’s roster. (Submitted by Debbie Harrison)

When her jersey didn’t arrive in time for puck drop on the first PWHL game on Jan. 1, she got creative. She’s made a different outfit for every home game this season, including a crayon the shade of PWHL purple, a homemade Toronto jersey with buttons for all 26 players on Toronto’s roster, and the one that garnered the most reaction inside the rink: a PWHL referee costume, complete with accurate logos on her stripes. 

The cameras on the PWHL broadcasts have lingered on the faces of the young girls in the stands, waving signs that say the players on the ice give them something to work toward and dream about.

But the creation of the PWHL has been just as much of a dream come true for 64-year-old Harrison, who’s loved hockey long before there were any professional female players to call a role model.

“I know they’re looking to younger people,” Harrison said in an interview with CBC Sports.

“But we have watched the progression, and we’ve lived the dream, even though it didn’t really have an end to it. So I think I’m as excited as the players.”

Sitting in a sold-out Scotiabank Arena, where more than 19,000 fans watched Toronto defeat Montreal earlier this month, was a moment Harrison couldn’t have imagined in her wildest dreams. Maybe one she thought she’d never see in her lifetime.

A woman in a white t-shirt stands in a crowd, smiling.
Harrison watched her PWHL Toronto team defeat Montreal at Scotiabank Arena earlier this month in front of a record-crowd. (Karissa Donkin/CBC)

Another one of her happiest hockey memories was close to her heart that night, illustrated on a pin on her PWHL shirt. It’s a button with a photo of 11-year-old Harrison and her younger brothers, Andy and Stephen.

They’re wearing NHL jerseys and posing on a frozen river, where they used to play hockey from the moment the sun came up until it was time to trudge home in the dark.

Love for the game

That photo was taken on Dec. 20, 1970, during a day of hockey on Beaver River outside the Harrison home in Cannington, Ont., a small community about 70 kilometres west of Peterborough.

Boys and girls from across the community came to play on that river, using makeshift sticks with plastic blades curved at home in a bucket of piping hot water. They used sawhorses as nets, and anyone who showed up in a snowsuit was likely to find themselves playing goalie.

A photo button shows three children wearing hockey jerseys.
This photo of Harrison and her brothers, Andy and Stephen, posing on the frozen river near their home in 1970, reminds her of the happiness she felt playing hockey as a child. (Submitted by Debbie Harrison)

The photo lives on not just on the button that comes with her to every game — Harrison made a hockey card with the photo a few years ago. She jokes it’s more valuable because it’s vintage.

Even though that photo depicts a moment in time more than five decades ago, the memory is fresh in Harrison’s mind. She remembers the freezing cold temperatures and the feeling of freedom that came with a whole Christmas break filled with hockey on the river.

“We would come back from those times frozen, but with a feeling of happiness that I couldn’t explain, that I knew I would never forget,” said Harrison, who was first on skates at age three.

WATCH l CBC Sports’ Hockey North looks at best moments around the PWHL:

Heise Injured, Toronto’s 5-game win streak, and best moments around the PWHL

19 hours ago

Duration 9:03

Host Rob Pizzo is joined by Saroya Tinker to break down the biggest stories from Week 8 of the PWHL season.

A dream to play in the NHL

Women have been playing hockey on outdoor ice since at least the 1890s, when Lady Isobel Stanley was photographed playing with a group of women on the Rideau Canal. 

But even 80 years later, when Harrison was playing with her brothers, the dream was to play in the NHL, which no woman had ever done.

A woman is wearing a purple shirt in two side by side photos. The first photo shows a shirt that says "Eat sleep hockey repeat" and the other says "Sorry can't hockey bye."
The inaugural PWHL season has been filled with highlights for Harrison. (Submitted by Debbie Harrison)

It would be another 20 years before the first women’s world championship was held in Ottawa, and before Harrison could see a hockey player who looked like her. Affirming is the word she uses when she thinks about what it was like to watch that tournament.

“You wanted to play hockey and you wanted to be professional, and here were women actually following through with that, on their dream,” Harrison said.

“It was harder then, too, because there wasn’t a lot of [media] attention. It was only big things like the women’s worlds and in the Olympics, and you didn’t record things then. You had to watch them and look in the newspaper if there was anything covered, and cutting things out for your scrapbook.”

It was around the same time that Harrison was first able to say she had a favourite female hockey player: Angela James, the superstar who led the Canadians to gold with 11 goals at that 1990 world championship. Harrison got to check something off her hockey bucket list earlier this month when she met James at a PWHL Toronto game.

Season of highlights

It’s been one highlight in a long list of moments the PWHL superfan will cherish from the league’s inaugural season. 

There was a trip to Utica, N.Y., where Harrison was first in line to see a pre-season New York-Ottawa game, the first PWHL game open to fans. After seeing Harrison sitting in the arena’s lobby for hours, she said a PWHL staffer let her come in to watch the last period of the game before the one open to the public.

A woman wearing a hockey referee costume poses with four hockey referees over the boards at a rink.
Harrison’s PWHL referee costume caught the eye of the officials at a recent PWHL Toronto game. (Submitted by Debbie Harrison)

There was the historic first game on New Year’s Day, where Harrison got to watch Billie Jean King and Jayna Hefford drop the puck on a new beginning for women’s hockey, a moment Harrison described as “surreal.”

There was the puck Toronto defender Renata Fast tossed to Harrison during warm-up at the record-breaking Scotiabank Arena game, and a selfie with Sportsnet’s Jennifer Botterill, who played on two of Harrison’s favourite teams: the Toronto Aeros and the golden 2006 Canadian Olympic team.

And just last weekend, Harrison met New York forward Jill Saulnier, whose game-worn pre-season jersey Harrison bought in an auction. Saulnier signed it for her after the game. 

They’re the kind of up-close moments that have been part of women’s pro hockey for years, where smaller rinks and crowds meant you could probably meet your favourite player after the game. Even now, the PWHL holds autograph sessions with players after most games.

Two women pose with a white and teal hockey jersey that has Saulnier and the number 9 written on the back.
One of the highlights for Harrison this season has been meeting New York forward Jill Saulnier, who signed the game-worn pre-season Saulnier jersey that Harrison bought through an auction. (Submitted by Debbie Harrison)

They’re moments Harrison knows might fade away as the league continues to soar in popularity.

“I know those things are going to go away probably after the first year,” she said. “So I’m really trying to absorb all of them.”

Even when PWHL Toronto is playing in a bigger rink, Harrison will be there cheering on the team, including her favourite player, veteran Toronto defender Jocelyne Larocque.

“Just a quiet leader, but rock solid,” she said of Larocque.

Harrison has already talked a few friends into buying season tickets next season, too. She says it’s the fans’ responsibility to support the team now.

Looking around her at every game, she’ll see a lot of hockey-mad young girls, just like she was back on Beaver River many years ago.

Their hockey dreams are the same as Harrison’s, but the outcome may be different. 

“The girls now are seeing that there are professional players, that they can actually have that dream,” Harrison said. “And while not a lot of them are able to follow that pathway, they still get that opportunity to try.”

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