Creating the Winning Formula

Featured photo credit: Teri Di-Lauro

After making noise last summer in the relocation of a franchise with over 25 years of history, Chelsea Purcell continued to put her stamp on the now Markham based Thunder as a first-year general manager in 2017-18.

Being a leader is not a new hat for Purcell. Having played in the CWHL from 2011-2014, she was the first captain of Team Alberta (Calgary Inferno), appearing in 62 regular season games while registering 23 points (10 G, 13 A). She then played overseas for two seasons with Aisulu Almaty of the European Women’s Hockey League. Her leadership as a player has transferred into her front office style.

“I was more of a dressing room leader than the kind that puts up all the points,” says Purcell. “I made sure people got along and felt welcome, which is similar to how I work as a GM now. There is definitely a lot of correlation from being a captain to being a GM and I’ve utilized those lessons.”

Coming to the Thunder, Purcell served two seasons under the tutelage of Lori Dupuis, a Thunder legend who was GM of the team from 2013 to 2017. Learning from someone who had been a part of the Thunder organization for 18 years (14 as a player) was an invaluable experience.

“It’s amazing how many little things you don’t realize go on behind-the-scenes. I was so lucky to be able to watch her and work alongside her,” Purcell recalls. “Lori made sure I wasn’t going into the job blind. She built the Thunder up for so many years and wanted to make sure that the organization was handed off to someone who would take care of it.”

Jess Ritchotte

With the end of the 2016-17 season came major changes for the Thunder franchise. Dupuis officially stepped down from her role as Thunder general manager at the end of the season, allowing Purcell to step in for the interim. The month of March saw Purcell kick it into high gear as talks about moving the Thunder franchise to Markham began. She created a business plan, met Markham’s Mayor, Frank Scarpitti, and toured different facilities.

“It was a lot of work, but it was something I was committed to doing, to help grow the game and the league,” remembers Purcell. “The day that we announced the team’s relocation, I was so proud of what we had accomplished in such a short period of time.”

From there, the CWHL’s search for the next Thunder GM did not last long, officially announcing Purcell as GM of the Thunder in August, a month after the relocation.

“The role is definitely a ‘general’ manager!” Purcell says. “Working with great people like our graphic designer, communications manager and countless other volunteers allows me to hand off some duties so we can all play to our strengths. It helps to know the brand and all our operations are in great hands.”

Another general task? Building the locker room, both figuratively and literally.

“I helped design it, then came the painting, the staining, building shelves in the storage room… you could say I enjoy being busy,” laughs Purcell. “I was at almost every practice last year and rarely watched them because I’d usually be busy doing something. Whether it was meeting sponsors or supporters, reorganizing the storage rooms, going through merch or just cleaning up. If there isn’t the hands-on work we are planning events, building the team schedule and figuring out which fundraisers and outreach games we should do,” she revealed, “I have players give me ideas of what they want because it’s not about me, it’s about them and the things they believe in.”

In terms of roster duties, Purcell made some big waves in her first season as GM. After the final cuts were made to the United States’ women’s Olympic team roster, the hockey world was shocked as Olympic silver medalist and star defender Megan Bozek now had nowhere to play.

“It was unexpected. News of it broke right before the holidays, so you wonder how long do you wait before reaching out? What do you say and how do you say it?” remembers Purcell. After a couple of days, she finally reached out to Bozek, extending her apologies about the release, and letting her know that when she was ready to think about moving forward to get in touch. Bozek responded right away.

“When a player like Megan hits the market… it doesn’t get any better. You don’t have to give anything up (except cap space), and I was lucky that some of her friends were already on the team,” Purcell says. “They stayed on top of her, and when it comes down to it, you don’t go somewhere to play for the GM, you go because you want to win and have fun doing it. Having your friends as your teammates guarantees fun.”

Chris Tanouye

A few months later, it was time to bring the Thunder’s Olympians back into the fold: captain Jocelyne Larocque, former CWHL Defender of the Year Laura Fortino, and CWHL Rookie of the Year Laura Stacey.

“Joce always knew she would return post-Olympics. She is a leader in every sense of the word,” Purcell says of her captain. “The other two took a bit of work, but to be honest I didn’t really have anything to do with it except getting them out to a game.”

On March 3, Larocque returned to the ice wearing her ‘C’ on the new Thunder green for the first time. Fortino and Stacey came to drop the puck, watch the game, and meet with the Thunder faithful who cheered them on while in South Korea.

“After that weekend, they were both very excited and made their own decisions about returning. I never wanted to pressure them into anything,” the GM recalled. “They saw we could win and they wanted to be a part of it. Of course it’s always tough to have players return late and push others out of the lineup, but the team was all on the same page, and from there we just kept getting stronger.”

The road to the Cup featured many 16+ hour days as Purcell worked hard to stay organized with her non-hockey job, and then hitting the ground running in the evenings with her GM duties.

“When you love what you do it doesn’t feel like work. I work hard because I want to help grow the game. To finish the season with the Clarkson Cup, knowing how much work and late nights came with it… I couldn’t be more proud of the team.”

A GM’s work is never over, and Purcell is now preparing for the CWHL Draft. There is more to be done, and Purcell is on a mission.

“We weren’t the favourites last year and may not be again this season. Nothing is better than a challenge, so we’ll be looking to prove them wrong again.”