Former PHF Staff Raise Concerns about Digit Murphy's Professional Conduct
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Former PHF Staff Raise Concerns about Digit Murphy's Professional Conduct

Former PHF Staff Raise Concerns about Digit Murphy's Professional Conduct by Melissa Burgess

While Digit Murphy has often been lauded for her contributions to the growth of women's hockey, her recent hiring as president of the Premier Hockey Federation's Metropolitan Riveters has activated a ripple effect in the sport. To some, Murphy is a well-respected leader. To others, she has been abusive and demeaning towards staff members and players and should not have a place in the hockey community.

Murphy's shift to the Riveters from her position with the Toronto Six, where she served as President and Director of Player Personnel, was officially announced on May 5. The Ice Garden's Dan Rice initially reported the news almost a month prior, on April 11.

Two days later, Anya Packer announced via Twitter that she would not be renewing her contract as the team's general manager. Packer was clearly loved within the Riveters community, including among several staff members who spoke highly of her, and said that her decision to leave was a contributing factor in their own departure. Before Murphy joined the Riveters, her behavior had also raised concerns elsewhere during her coaching career, and was cited as the reason at least one staffer departed from the Toronto Six.

The domino effect

Jess Belmosto, who had served as a public relations specialist with the Riveters before stepping down, said she heard about Murphy's hiring through The Ice Garden's report and began having doubts. She said there was no communication from team ownership until several days later, on April 15.

"As soon as Anya's decision was made known, I knew mine was going to be coming soon," she said. "I wasn't a contract employee or anything, so there was no safety net for me. I didn't feel as if I would be brought back (since Anya hired me) and considering Digit's reputation in the workplace, as well as her anti-trans work, I was uncomfortable."

"The priorities between ownership and I clearly shifted," she added. "In public relations, you're faced with challenges every day, but this one became way too personal. I wasn't willing to sacrifice my morals, beliefs or anything to rehab an image of someone who saw no issue with the organization she was aligned with [and] referring to it as Internet drama."

"With all the anti-trans legislation happening in the US right now, it's time to take an active stand with the trans community," Belmosto added.

The Riveters' entire statistics staff has also departed the team.

Another Riveters staff member (Staff Member #1) who left also referred to Murphy's involvement with the anti-trans Women's Sports Policy Working Group as part of the reason for their decision, but said it's more than just that.

"I don't think she's ever apologized for that [her involvement with the Women's Sports Policy Working Group], and instead has kind of tried to gloss over the issue with panels and other PR things," the staff member said.  "This is an issue I care so deeply about, because besides my having queer friends and family, several PHF players openly identify as queer. It's brutal to see the owners continue to reward her with important leadership positions while the league publicly pushes a messages of inclusion," the staff member added.

Murphy did apologize directly to trans hockey writer DF Pendrys during an interview, and later sent a video to The Hockey News in which she stated to trans women: "I want to be your advocate and I apologize to you if I did anything to offend you." When this apology was poorly received, Digit Murphy's Twitter account issued an additional multi-tweet apology to Pendrys. While these subsequent apologies said many of the right things about inclusion and trans rights, many fans and journalists, including DF, felt that the PHF and Toronto Six's initial response to the issue was incredibly dismissive and that these apologies fail to address the issues with that response.

Alongside the current PHF transgender and nonbinary inclusion policy, which outlines several arbitrary eligibility factors that do not prioritize self-identification for trans and nonbinary athletes, the overall evidence for actual trans inclusion in PHF hockey is somewhat thin. The PHF did a charity promotion during Pride month in June 2022 that highlighted LGBTQIA+ artists which featured two non-binary artists. Neither the apologies nor the charity initiative directly address the issues of transphobia in sports which are continually fueling anti-trans legislation and violence across the United States and elsewhere in the world.

Another staff member (Staff Member #2), whose position with the Riveters was their first in pro hockey, said Packer's departure was the main reason they decided to leave, and that they had "little knowledge" on Murphy until they read about the hiring. That news piece, it turned out, reassured them they had made the right choice.

"I'm just confused as to what path they are taking to grow the game," the staff member said. "[The hiring] went against what the PHF and women's hockey as a whole stands for. Inclusivity and acceptance are highlighted throughout the league and the entire sport."

"I'm not so sure the hiring was done from an ethical perspective, as much as it was a business move. That does not necessarily make it any better, however," they added. Several sources we spoke to felt that Murphy remains in the PHF because she is a close associate of John and Johanna Boynton, who operate BTM Partners LLC, not because of any particular benefit she provides as a front office staffer in hockey or because of her track record on inclusion.

From the various staff members we spoke to, one thing is clear: they all love the Riveters as an organization and support its players.

"I love every single player and staff member at the Riveters, and full support the PHF's efforts to bring women's hockey to a broader audience and helping our incredible players showcase their talents as they deserve. I'll still be a fan of the players and support them as best I can. But the staff play a vital role in making this game happen, and we deserve to be treated with respect and dignity when we're doing our jobs," one staff member said.

"Maybe [Digit has] changed, and maybe the Riveters will still be the welcoming, supportive environment I know it to be. But right now, I just can't justify working for someone who's so often stood against things I care so deeply about," they added.

Jess Belmosto and the other staff member did not raise their concerns directly to the Riveters organization, but Digit's concerning rhetoric around the Women's Sports Policy Working Group was public, and many others did via social media, so the idea that staffers might have been concerned about the incident should have been on the radar of the PHF, the Riveters, and BTM Partners.

A reputation for disrespect

Staff Member #1 said their decision to step away also involved Murphy's abusive reputation.

"The women's hockey community is small, and things get around. Something I've heard quite a bit is that she's often abusive towards staff," they said. "She tends to yell at and demean her staff and ends up creating work environments that are extremely difficult to work in."

"I've heard of a few people who've complained about her use of abusive language, phone calls that were just her yelling about the staffer's alleged mistakes, and lots of other constant indignities in the workplace. This is all secondhand, of course, but the stories I've heard are as recent as this year," they added.

"At the end of the day, we're largely a volunteer staff. We aren't unionized, and most of us don't even have employment contracts. Putting myself in what would likely be a deeply challenging work environment for so many reasons wasn't something I felt comfortable doing," they said.

A professional women's hockey player who worked in proximity to Murphy several years ago in the CWHL cited examples of microaggressions and unprofessional behavior that she witnessed.

"When she was recruiting for [Kunlun Red Star], she was asking girls on our team if they had any Chinese heritage," Player #1 said. "She approached one of my teammates [...] and said something to the effect of Hey, you look Chinese! Do you want to play for us?" Player #1 indicated that this former teammate is not Chinese, but is part of a minority ethnic group. Player #1 also said that Murphy pointed out that the player had a unique letter in their name and suggested that they could "make it work" to appear as though they had Chinese heritage.

When the player and their team eventually traveled to China to face Murphy's KRS team, the player says Murphy instructed her equipment manager to give the opponents only white pucks for use in practice, even though standard black pucks were available. (The team paid per pound for baggage, and assumed that KRS would supply them the needed pucks, given that they were traveling a significant distance to play there.) The white pucks obviously are not the same pucks that would be used in a game situation, and can cause practice to be less effective.

Individually, these may seem like small things, but in speaking to multiple sources who spoke independently about this type of behavior, a pattern begins to emerge in which Murphy is placed in leadership roles with little oversight regarding how employees around her are treated.

We at the Victory Press have also reviewed correspondence from January 2021 where concerns were raised by a staff member to league leadership and team owners regarding Murphy's professionalism & conduct, undermining of league staff, and stating that she treated the players like "kids." As far as we know, no action was taken as a result of that correspondence, and Murphy's role within BTM Partners and its teams has continued to grow since.

A few weeks after that correspondence, when a COVID-19 outbreak shuttered the NWHL season in Lake Placid, Murphy spoke off the cuff, saying that her team felt "100% safe" and "We would have died if we could play the game. We would have died if we could have played against Minnesota."

While Digit has a habit of using hyperboles and intense language, she said this quite nonchalantly in the midst of a global pandemic that had, at that time, killed over two million people. This is just one moment that rubbed people the wrong way, but all of these moments of "rubbing people the wrong way" can add up to a pattern of unprofessional behavior, intimidation, and mistreatment.

It was demoralizing.

To get a better understanding of Murphy's day-to-day impact on those around her, I spoke with Alyssa Turner, who previously ran the Toronto Six's marketing and social media, about her experience working with Murphy. As seems to be the general consensus, it's not one big thing but an overarching culture of disrespectful behavior and emotional abuse that fosters a toxic environment.

Turner said that she didn't know much about Murphy before she joined the Toronto Six, other than that she had been the head coach of the Kunlun team that lost the 2018 Clarkson Cup Final.

Answers have been lightly edited for grammar & readability.

Melissa Burgess: In what capacities did you work with Digit Murphy during your time in the PHF & with the Toronto Six? How often did you work with or interact with her?

Alyssa Turner: When I was with the Toronto Six, despite Digit never being my marketing or social media boss/manager, she always had to know what was going on with my work & was always texting or calling me to make sure I was getting certain posts up, emailing people or doing whatever she wanted me to do that specific day. It was a non-stop form of communication and was rather exhausting, to say the least. She always talked about the "ecosystem" and how everything we had to do had to be connected. It was exhausting.

MB: You spoke on Twitter about how "awful" she was to you and your mental health in the workplace. Can you provide some details, as much or as little as you want? Was it a few big things, or perhaps a bunch of smaller microaggressions that added up over time?

AT: It wasn't anything big in particular. I'd say it was more of a bunch of little things, all of the time. It never stopped. Ever. Those little things were particularly worse toward the beginning, when the expansion team was in its first 1-4 months of existing.

I didn't seem to enjoy what I was doing work-wise for the T6 until I was able to start attending practices & interact with the players more. Before that began, Digit was never not texting, emailing, or calling me. I wasn't making enough to be working full time, but I was working full time and then some. My work never felt appreciated by her; that only ever came from the players.

One thing Digit always pushed was the idea of making sure the team's "3 Pillars" (Inclusion, Education, Empowerment) were being reflected through our social/digital brand. I never once learnt about inclusion, education or empowerment from Digit Murphy herself but I did learn those things through the fans and the players.

When I started going to practices and finally had the chance to capture live content I'd say that things were better in regards to me feeling like my job had any sort of worth. But my interactions with Digit? Not great. During practice itself, she was coaching on the ice so I didn't interact with her much. I just did my own thing. But before and after the team hit the ice was my least favorite part.

I vividly remember one time showing up to practice once wearing tighter pants than I would normally wear and she asked me if I had lost weight. One time I joked around about being an extra player in Lake Placid if needed and she looked me up and down and basically told me I'd never make her team.

Leading up to the bubble season in Lake Placid, the amount of spots that each team could bring into the bubble was very small. After I had done the math I had realized there was about one spot left after all of the players, coaches, trainers, etc. I had requested a phone call with Digit a few weeks before [Lake Placid] and had tried to pitch myself for that extra spot as I and many others knew how vital a strong social media presence for the team inside of the bubble would have been. The key word here is "tried." She immediately laughed at the idea.

She told me I wouldn't be needed and I was better off staying at home so the job could be used for a "video coach." I tried to pitch myself as someone who could take on that role inside the bubble and feed live clips to the coaches as I would already be clipping things for social. Again, she laughed. Claimed I'd be unable to do that. Said she had someone else in mind. It was humiliating.

I've never had to hit mute so many times on one single phone call because of how many tears I was holding back while trying to fight for my worth with what I do.

Despite growing the team Twitter account by 15k followers and the team IG account by 11k followers (humble brag) I never once felt an ounce of appreciation for any of what I accomplished from Digit Murphy. Not from day one on the job, or till my final day. It was demoralizing.

MB: Would you consider her to have been mentally or emotionally abusive to you or to other staff, players, employees, volunteers, etc.?

AT: Yes.

MB: You said that Digit is the reason you never re-signed a contract with the Toronto Six and the PHF, and that Digit should not have a spot in this sport anymore. Is there anything else in regards to this that you wish to elaborate on that we haven't already covered?

AT: I love that league and that team more than I will ever truly admit. I put my heart and soul into every single piece of content I created for the T6 and the league. I never felt like I was given a fair hand, but I didn't need to be given a fair hand to give the players the social media voice they deserved and the fans the content they also deserved. That was always my top priority.

The PHF's players, employees, volunteers and fans deserve better. They deserve to feel safe and welcome. They deserve to be surrounded by people who make them feel like they belong. Digit Murphy doesn't bring that to the league.

Turner stated that she did not bring up concerns to higher-ups during her time with the Six, including to the Boyntons, because she felt uncomfortable doing so and did not think she would be listened to. She did, however, discuss her experiences with other staff members from around the league.

Sphere of influence

Another person I spoke to who worked with Digit said that Murphy doesn't belong in the game and spoke of the toxic culture that she creates within organizations. They also said that people are scared of Murphy, so many will not come forward to speak about their experiences. We worked with several sources for this story who spoke only on background due to concerns about Murphy.

Not every person we spoke to had a negative opinion of Murphy. Some who worked with her during the 2019 Aurora Games and struggled to receive their contractually-obligated payments said that Digit fought for them to get paid. (However, some players have still not been paid in full for their participation.)

Another person, who asked to not be named or directly quoted, spoke about how Murphy is a fair person who holds everyone to the same standards, and said that her actions may be misinterpreted because she is a female coach.

Murphy's seeming departure from the Six coincided with the announcement of the Six being sold to an independent group of BIPOC and Canadian investors, but as of writing, this sale has not been finalized & she has still been referenced in the Six's press releases. It's possible that this refers only to her role as Senior Vice President at BTM Partners, which owns the Riveters and Six, as well as the Boston Pride and unnamed Montreal team, rather than a direct role with the Six, but it is unclear.

One thing is clear: Murphy's influence and power in women's hockey and the Premier Hockey Federation runs deep. She remains a Senior Vice President at BTM Partners, and in that role, she has a hand in four teams – Boston, Metropolitan, and Toronto, as well as the new Montreal expansion franchise – in addition to directly being team president for the Riveters.

When reached for comment, John and Johanna Boynton, on behalf of the Metropolitan Riveters and the Toronto Six, provided this statement:

Digit has been an effective supporter and tireless advocate of women's hockey for more than 40 years. Her leadership and passion continues to drive the game forward, and we are proud to have her on our team. We also appreciate Digit's continued commitment to personal growth and development, as we all hope for when confronted with opportunities to learn from our experiences. As ownership, we will assess and address any concerns brought to our direct attention by staff or players to ensure we are fostering safe and inclusive environments for all.

A league representative provided this statement:

At this time the PHF is deferring comments to the Metropolitan Riveters and Toronto Six.

Neither statement commented regarding the concerns raised about Murphy's conduct to the league in early 2021 prior to Lake Placid, which were specifically mentioned in our request.

(Photo: Aaron Burden/Unsplash)