“As a kid, I dreamed about a women’s hockey league. Now, I’m a PWHL superfan”

“As a kid, I dreamed about a women’s hockey league. Now, I’m a PWHL superfan”

Sixty-four-year-old Debbie Harrison makes eclectic costumes for every game. She’s also befriended goaltender Carly Jackson and inspired Crayola to create a PWHL-themed purple crayon

Debbie standing holding a sign that reads: "Crayola need a new colour PWHL Purple"

I’ve been a hockey fan for more than half a century. I grew up with six siblings—all boys—in Cannington, Ontario. In the winters of the late sixties and early seventies, we would spend hours shovelling snow off the frozen Beaver River. Then we’d strap our skates on and play. The games certainly got competitive, but my dad had been teaching me how to skate since I was three years old. I was hard to catch on the ice.

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At night, we would gather around my parents’ TV to watch NHL games. Bobby Orr, of the Boston Bruins, was my favourite player. When I was 12, I watched the eight-game 1972 Summit Series where Canada beat the Russians; that eighth game, with Paul Henderson’s winning goal, was so impressive to me. I vowed to meet every single player who was on Team Canada that day. (I accomplished that goal last year, when I met the final player on my list, Wayne Cashman, at a sports-card show in Toronto.)

It was a great time for hockey in Canada, but there was one important thing missing: a professional women’s league. Like many girls, my dream was to play in the NHL, but it wasn’t likely to happen. I didn’t have any women role models or even a girl’s hockey team in my community. Eventually, I went into teaching instead.

I wasn’t able to watch women play hockey at a high level until 1990, when the International Ice Hockey Federation held its very first Women’s World Championship in Ottawa. A friend took me to see a game between Canada and Sweden. I was hooked—but then I spent the next three decades watching as people tried and failed to establish professional women’s leagues in North America. The problems were always the same: a lack of funding and fan attention. Most recently, there was the Premier Hockey Federation which started up in 2020. I became a fan of the Toronto team, the Toronto Six, but it never really caught on. The league was dissolved in 2023.

Then, in August of last year, news broke that a new league was in the works—the Professional Women’s Hockey League, or the PWHL. Despite all the previous disappointment, I was immediately optimistic. The funding was good, with big corporations like Canadian Tire and Molson on board. Prominent athletes like Billie Jean King and Ilana Closs were involved as advisers, and there were women as coaches, general managers, league executives, play-by-play commentators and referees.

My excitement continued to grow as the league drew more and more attention. The inaugural draft was televised in September 2023, and then I saw billboards of the players popping up everywhere. I’ll admit, I did not think I would have to wait until I was 64 to witness the creation of a successful women’s league—but even before the season started, I was sold on the PWHL. I couldn’t see it going anywhere but up.

I knew that I wanted to become a huge fan. After all, some of the responsibility for upholding a women’s league in North America falls on us viewers: we can generate buzz. So I bought season tickets for PWHL Toronto and ordered a home-team jersey. The commute into the city would be significant—I’d have to drive an hour from my home in Lindsay, Ontario, to the Oshawa GO station, then take the train to Union and walk to the Mattamy Athletic Centre, where the games were. It’s about two and a half hours each way. But I managed to get seats in row one on the visitors side.

The only issue was that, by opening night on January 1, my jersey still hadn’t arrived. I wanted to show my support, so I made a sign that I could hold. It read “Dream Come True” in the PWHL’s theme colour, purple. The game itself was the most exciting and historic sporting event I have ever witnessed. At the first face-off, it all became real. I don’t have social media, but after it was done, a friend of mine told me that my sign and I had landed on the PWHL Instagram account’s highlight reel.

After that, PWHL Toronto’s manager of fanwear let me know that there was a backlog on jerseys, so it would be a while still before I received mine. Fine, I thought. Here is an opportunity to wear something different. I don’t know why, but the first costume idea that popped into my head was a purple crayon. I’ve always loved crafts, so I went to Fabricland, broke out my glue gun and made a purple outfit for myself. I wore it to the next game, holding a sign that read: “Crayola needs a new colour: PWHL purple.”

Not long after the game, my phone started dinging with notifications. My friends were telling me that, once again, my photo had made rounds on social media—even Crayola had shared it. A few days later, the company made a post on Instagram revealing an unofficial new colour called Powerplay Plum, in honour of the PWHL, and mentioned me in the caption. I was blown away; Crayola is a huge company. I thought: What wonderful positive attention for the league.

Even though I’ve now received my PWHL jersey, I’ve gotten in the habit of wearing elaborate outfits to the games. For one game, I bought black boots that look like hockey skates and wore an old helmet to dress as a reserve player. Another time I made a shirt that said “Eat Sleep Hockey Repeat”—I even went out of my comfort zone by dying my hair purple. For a game in February, I wore a jersey with 26 picture buttons (one of each PWHL Toronto player) and held a sign that said: “I wanted to make a photo button of my favourite player and I ended up with 26.”

I once dressed as a referee, and one of the real referees spotted me. They invited me to line up next to them on the ice for the national anthem. That was the highlight of the season so far.

Debbie standing with the referees at a PWHL game

As more and more people have noticed my antics, there have been a lot of pinch-me moments. I’ve met several PWHL players and have formed a special bond with goaltender Carly Jackson. She was quoted in a news article about my outfits, where she’d called me “lovely.” When I met her after one of the games, I asked, “What are you doing, calling me lovely?” We’ve been friends ever since, and I talk to her after most games.

Another highlight was when one of Montreal’s players came up to me and said, “Hi, Debbie—I don’t know if you know me. I’m Laura Stacey, and I love your outfits.” I was like, “Are you kidding? You are my favourite power forward!” On International Women’s Day, the PWHL gifted me a Sarah Nurse jersey. It was surreal.

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I’ve also met a lot of wonderful PWHL fans. I went to Ottawa for a game in March, and there were about 200 fans waiting at the door to see my outfit. I didn’t feel like I was being greeted as a rival from Toronto. Instead, the feeling was: We’re all PWHL fans. Let’s keep bringing positive energy to the game.

I’m having so much fun being a superfan, but it’s not always easy work. I’m retired from my job at the local school board, and I don’t think I could do what I do if I still worked. Making one outfit can take up to 20 hours. Sometimes I go to five different Value Villages just to assemble material. It’s also not cheap: my season tickets cost $750. Then there are added travel costs for out-of-town games. For example, I’m travelling to Montreal with a friend soon to see a game there. It’s a lot of time and money, but all of it feels justified because I get to support the league.

The attention is also reciprocated by the teams themselves. In Toronto, players come out after every game and set up an autographs table—sometimes the other team’s players join in too. In February, at a skills competition in Nathan Phillips Square, players gave out posters and took photos with fans. It’s obvious that the league cares as much about the fans as we do about them.

Now, with the first season nearing its end, I’m looking forward to watching the playoffs, which begin in early May. If Toronto makes it to the end, I’m not sure who I want them to face. They have been successful against Montreal, but our games against Ottawa have been tougher. And I don’t think anyone wants to play Minnesota because they are such a powerhouse team.

Regardless of what happens on the ice, I’m just thrilled to see this league growing. It’s giving so many women the opportunity to do what they love, and I’m thrilled to be a part of that in my own way. I wish I could have grown up with this league and been able to emulate these impressive players, but it’s better late than never. At one game, I was dressed as a hockey player and a little girl came up to me in awe. She asked, “Do you play for Toronto?” I answered, “No—but I would really love to!”