Monday, 9 January 2017

Finland stifles high flying Canada for gold medal at Nations Cup

Despite Canada outshooting their Finnish opponents by a 27-18 margin, they were unable to solve All-World goaltender Noora Raty, who provided the heroics with a sparkling 1-0 shutout in the gold medal game of the 2017 Nations Cup. For the Canadian team, the level of competition at the Nations Cup has been increasing steadily. While Canada is represented by its U22/Development Team, other competing nations tend to bring their senior teams.

Making her debut as a head coach with Hockey Canada was Nadine Muzerall, who established an incredible playing and coaching legacy with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Having served as an assistant coach at multiple levels in the Canada program, she was looking for a golden outcome in her maiden voyage as head coach. As a side note, this season also marks her debut as a head coach at the NCAA level, serving as bench boss for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

While the event has proven to be a big test for Canada over the last few seasons, it supplies such an amazing amount of world class talent nonetheless; the hopes for gold were very high, attributed to such a strong showing in the round robin. The opening game at the Nations Cup saw Canada defeat the Czech Republic, aiming for their first Winter Games berth in 2018, by a 6-2 tally.

A hotly contested match against Sweden saw Canada provide a gutsy outperformance, outlasting their rivals by a 2-1 final. On Day 3, a 5-0 triumph against Germany (the host country for Group A play), provided redemption for Canada. Suffering a 3-2 upset in pre tournament play, Erica Howe need just 11 saves for the shutout while Sarah Lefort scored twice and Sarah Nurse supplied a multi-point performance, as Canada clinched first place in Group A while punching their ticket to the gold medal game.

Competing in Group B, Finland’s round robin matches took place at the SportZentrum in Telfs, Austria, while their counterparts in Group A were on-hand at Finland’s road to the gold medal match began with a 7-2 pummeling of Austria, who are among the top teams in IIHF Division 1A competition.

Finland would proceed to defeat Russia in a 3-2 final, winning their second game by a one goal margin, mirroring Canada’s outcome against Sweden. Competing against Switzerland in the final day of regulation, the Finns would emerge victorious by the same 3-2 score, qualifying for the gold medal game.

In the decade, Canada has captured gold on five separate occasions (2010-11, 2013, 2015-16), along with a bronze medal in 2012. Looking to capture their sixth gold medal since 2010, and 12th overall in tournament history, the highly touted Emerance Maschmeyer gained the start for Canada between the pipes.

Facing the biggest test in her promising career, Maschmeyer looked across the ice to see Noora Raty as the opposing goaltender. Having earned a bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, along with Top Goaltender recognition at three IIHF women’s worlds and an undefeated season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Raty is among the modern era’s goaltending greats.

With such superlative talent guarding the crease for their respective nations, it would prove to be a defensive stalemate for most of the contest, with both struggling to capitalize on scoring opportunities. The first period saw both goaltenders nullify a pair of power plays, with the Canadian squad outshooting the Finns by an 8-7 mark.

The second period would see Finland take advantage of a power play opportunity to grab the first lead of the game. With five seconds left in Sarah Nurse’s hooking penalty, Michelle Karvinen solved Maschmeyer. Having played at the NCAA level with North Dakota, Karvinen brings a strong knowledge of North American players to international competition, making her a significant asset for the ambitious Finns.

Despite Canada’s efforts, which included three power play opportunities in the second, followed by a pair of opportunities in the third as Isa Rahunen serve a high sticking call, followed by Rosa Lindstedt for cross checking, Raty proved to be a stonewall. Quite possibly one of the most brilliant performances in her stellar career, Raty’s strong play during the third was the golden factor. With Canada outshooting Finland by an aggressive 10-2 mark, accentuating by an extra skater in the final minute of play, Raty remained steady, constantly frustrating a Canadian roster filled with accomplished scorers.

Making 27 saves in the shutout victory, while Maschmeyer would face 18 shots, Raty neutralized seven power play chances, providing Finland with a hard-earned gold medal. For a sullen Canadian squad, the silver marks the second in tournament history, having also emerged with the silver in 2009.

After suffering numerous disappointments in international play, the gold medal game is a tremendous source of momentum for Finland, looking for a podium finish at the 2017 IIHF Worlds, and subsequently at the 2018 Winter Games. For Raty, who contemplated retirement after heartbreaking losses at the 2013 IIHF Worlds and 2014 Sochi Winter Games, remained faithful to the game she loves, playing at the men’s level in Finland along with a stint for the Minnesota Whitecaps. The outcome of the 2017 Nations Cup may have been her finest hour, displaying with great skill that she has not run out of brilliant performances, adding to her legacy as the greatest goaltender to emerge from Finland.

Notable weekend highlights strong start to New Year for Calgary Inferno

Opening their 2017 with a weekend series against the visiting Brampton Thunder, the Calgary Inferno established themselves among the league’s elite. Clinching a playoff berth with an opening win against Brampton, it may have been an even more impressive win because the club was missing five of its star players. With forwards Sarah Davis and Jillian Saulnier, blueliners Kassidy Gosling and Brigette Lacquette, along with goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer, these five fantastic stars suited up for Canada’s U22/Development Team in a silver medal outcome at the 2017 Nations Cup. Blayre Turnbull, whose legend includes the game-winning goal at the 2016 Clarkson Cup, logged the game’s opening tally. Gaining the assist included team captain Brianne Jenner and Delayne Brian, the MVP of the 2016 Cup playoffs. Said goal would prove to be the only scored in the first as a period of highly disciplined play and clean checking exemplified the high quality of hockey on this day. With the second stanza underway, All-Star Jess Jones continued her high scoring ways for the Thunder, slipping the puck past Brian. Both assists came from the Thunder’s blueline corps; Laura Fortino and captain Jocelyne Larocque. Despite the tie score, the Inferno would regain the lead at the six minute mark as Bailey Bram provided the heroics. Among the players who gained the assists included Erica Kromm, who played in her 100th career game with the Inferno earlier this season. Another member of Brampton’s blueline would make her presence felt in the second. Veteran Dania Simmonds, an alum from Union College kept the club competitive, tying the score at 2-apiece while CWHL All-Stars Courtney Birchard and Rebecca Vint earned the assists. Before the second would expire, there were more offensive fireworks to follow. First year player (and Russian national team player) Iya Gavrilova provided the Inferno with their second goal of the period, as Jenner earned her second assist of the game. The Thunder would reply with another goal, with familiar names contributing as Fortino placed her name on the scoresheet while super rookie Shannon MacAulay and Jones (currently second in the race for the Angela James Bowl) logged the assists, with the second ending in a 3-3 tie. Gavrilova would supply the heroics in the third period in a hotly contested match. With Simmonds serving the only penalty of the game, it provided Calgary with the much needed opportunity to break the tie. With 5:53 left in the game, Gavrilova scored on the power play as Bram and Johnston gained the assists. Despite Brampton’s best efforts, they were unable to force overtime, as Brian gained her fifth win of the season for the Inferno, while Gavrilova gained First Star of the Game honors. Jones was the only Brampton player to gain Three Star recognition, emerging as the Second Star, while Bram was honored with the Third Star. The following day, Calgary participated in a game which exemplified their proud role as hockey humanitarians. Hosting a ‘Keep the Beat’ fundraiser in support of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the event has seen over $10,000 raised in the past two seasons.

Organized by assistant captain Jacqui Pierri, she was proud of the way the team and community displayed tremendous teamwork. Such efforts during the game included a Silent Auction, the Chuck-A-Puck contest (which saw Pierri on the ice), along with educational resources including a CPR demonstration along with details on heart health and research, a win-win situation.

Looking to get the win on the ice was the Thunder, who scored the first goal of the game as Jamie Lee Rattray beat Genevieve Lacasse at the 2:30 mark, with Jess Jones adding to her team best point total. Penalties would define the latter half of the first period, as Aina Takeuchi, the first Japanese player to win the Clarkson Cup was called for body checking, while Haley Irwin would sit in the penalty box for slashing.

As the second period progressed, it was Cornell alum Hayleigh Cudmore that would place the Inferno on the scoreboard as Jenner and Brittany Esposito gained the assists. Following the goal, the Inferno hoped to take the first lead of the game. Several opportunities presented itself as the Thunder were plagued by penalties. Starting with Jenna McParland called for tripping, it continued with captain Larocque serving a penalty for body contact. Afterwards, first year player (and Bemidji State star) Katlyn Tougas was directed to the penalty box.

Despite three unanswered power play opportunities, the Inferno were stifled thrice. Adding to the frustration was the fact that Jessica Campbell was called for slashing. Ironically, it was the Inferno that played more aggressively as Pierri nearly scored. Penalties would continue to define the third as Meaghan Mikkelson served two minutes for cross-checking. Taking into account that the Thunder now enjoyed a 5-on-3 advantage, it could have served as the game’s turning point. Instead, the frustrations continued, as the Thunder could not capitalize. Compounding their woes was the fact that Rattray would be called for body contact as both sides seemed to engage in rather sloppy play.

In the third period, the Thunder struggled to roar, as tensions rose between both clubs. Such tension saw Rattray and Nicole Brown add to the appalling number of penalties called in this game. While Rattray was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, emotions running high in this tight contest, Brown was plagued by 10-minute misconduct.

Rebecca Johnston would punish the Thunder by scoring on the power play, with Gavrilova gaining the assist, as the enthusiastic crowd roared in approval. While Johnston’s goal would serve as the game-winning tally, the final two minutes of the game would provide for more on-ice electricity.

With Kristen Richards called for boarding, a dejected Thunder saw any chance of tying the game withering away, as Gavrilova gained her second point of the game, lighting the red lamp, as Mikkelson and Bram earned the helpers. Refusing to show any signs of quit, the Thunder opted for the extra attacker in the final minute of the game. Despite the significant number of scoring talent that dons the Thunder colors, such efforts to tie the game were not meant to be on this day.

Instead, it was Calgary that scored again as Campbell soared down the ice, burying the puck into an open net, as Turnbull and Jenner added to their point totals with the assists. While the Thunder outshot the Inferno by a 12-6 margin in the third, the Inferno made it count when needed, strengthening their grip on home ice advantage for the first round of the postseason. Campbell (first) and Cudmore (third) were among the players named for the game’s Three Stars, while Courtney Birchard, who played valiantly on the blueline for the Thunder was recognized as the Second Star.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Landmark season for Harrison Browne continues with NWHL All-Star Game nod

With the 2017 NWHL All-Star Game to be hosted in Pittsburgh, there is a strong momentous feeling of history as professional women’s hockey shall be contested for the first time ever in the Keystone State. As one of America’s greatest sporting cities, steeped in sporting tradition, the Steel City shall see history being made twice in one day.


In addition to the All-Star Game itself, one of its competitors continues to empower and inspire. As the first transgender athlete in the modern history of sport, Harrison Browne of the Buffalo Beauts was revealed as one four players that were voted in to participate. While this shall signify the first time that an All-Star event in any sport will feature a transgender participant, Browne has proven to be an All-Star off the ice.


After the brave revelation last autumn, in which Browne (née Hailey) courageously approached NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan and spoke candidly about this heart wrenching decision, it served as a landmark moment in league history, while providing inspiration for LGBT athletes the world over. As a historical note, it is believed that Albertine Lapensée, one of Ontario’s great women’s players, who skated prior to the Great Depression, became a transgender individual after her playing career.


Since then, Browne has attained a certain celebrity status, being featured in numerous publications, including The Hockey News (where he was recognized as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Hockey) and in Sportsnet Magazine. Despite the occasionally overwhelming media attention, Browne remains humble, focused on helping the Beauts return to the Isobel Cup Finals, while maintaining a professional demeanor that sets a positive example.


Considering that the NWHL All-Star Game is meant to be a celebration of the game and its heroes, it is only fitting that Browne shall be among the players gracing the ice. With more than 20,000 fans having voted over the span of two weeks, Browne was among the top four vote getters. Joining Browne shall be the likes of Gigi Marvin, a two-time Winter Games gold medalist, along with a pair of New York Riveters, Madison Packer and rookie Rebecca Russo. 

Stratford sets the stage for Sami Jo Small’s triumphant return

On a day that saw Les Canadiennes de Montreal make history by participating in the CWHL’s first-ever game at the Bell Centre, there was a shared sense of history among the fans on-hand in Stratford, Ontario. The hometown of Furies second year star Emily Fulton, the franchise hosted a women’s hockey game in the community, exposing their brand of elite hockey to another market of jubilant fans.

Hosting their expansion cousins, the Boston Blades (who both came to existence in 2010), the game would see one of the CWHL’s living legends (and co-founders) stand between the pipes. With a significant part of her hockey legacy synonymous with the blue and white, iconic Sami Jo Small returned to league play, after an absence of more than one season. This was attributed to the fact that Small experienced the milestone of becoming a mom, giving birth to her daughter.

Part of the CWHL’s “Sensational Seven”, a collective gathering of players whose initiative represented the next step in the evolution of professional women’s ice hockey, Small was joined by fellow Hockey Canada alum Jennifer Botterill, Allyson Fox, Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, Mandy Cronin, Kathleen Kauth and Kim McCullough. With vision and alacrity, their contribution to the hockey tapestry spawned into the CWHL. Among those founding sisters, Small is an ageless wonder, whose cheerful smile represents a confident optimism, while adding to her legacy as the only founder still playing. As a side note, Breton-Lebreux hung up her skates in the aftermath of the 2015 Clarkson Cup finals.


For the fans in Stratford, Christmas certainly came early as they gained the chance to witness a triumphant comeback. Of note, it was Small’s first regular season match since January 2015, providing an unforgettable season highlight while mining the game’s growing mythology.

Considering that the 2016-17 campaign also signifies the CWHL’s tenth anniversary, it was most fitting that Small’s first game back took place during this season, helping to bring her career full circle. This unforgettable contest saw Small opposing Blades first-year goaltender (and US U-22 national team alum) Lauren Dahm, who has established herself as one of the league’s rookie sensations, while pacing all goaltenders in games played, minutes logged and shots faced.

The first period at William Allman Arena would see the Furies provide Small with a significant lead. Goals by Emily Fulton at the 3:49 mark and CWHL All-Star selection Michela Cava at 15:11 signified a period of assiduous effort, all players in Furies blue working in a collaborative effort to ensure that Small’s comeback would not be spoiled.

Offensive floodgates would burst early on in the second period. The fans in Stratford were treated to three goals scored in a mere timespan of just 1:21. Meghan Grieves would capitalize on a power play opportunity as hometown hero Fulton was called for roughing, logging her third goal of the season at the 5:13 mark with assists credit to Dru Burns and Kate Leary, her first of the season.

Multi-sport star Carolyne Prevost (who has also competed in multiple Cross Fit events) replied just 24 seconds later, restoring the Furies two goal lead. Jenna Dingeldein would add to the Furies lead 57 seconds later, scoring the first goal of her CWHL career. Gaining the assists on this milestone goal were Renata Fast, the second pick overall in the 2016 CWHL Draft and former Buffalo Beauts skater Erin Zach.

With Toronto’s Tanis Lamoureux called for high sticking at 12:03, it would result in another power play opportunity that the Blades would take full advantage of. Obtaining her second point of the game, Leary would slip the puck past Small as the scoreboard now read 4-2 in Toronto’s favor. Kristina Brown and Dakota Woodworth would be credited with the assists, as the Blades assembled one of their finest performances of the season on the power play.
Despite another high sticking call against Toronto with less than two minutes remaining in the second, Small showed tremendous poise, as the Blades attempted to score for the third time on the power play. Despite the Blades best efforts, the score remained 4-2 after two periods of play.

A scoreless third period for Toronto would only add to the dramatic elements of the game. Near the midway mark of the third, Leary potted her second goal of the game, trimming the lead to just one goal, simultaneously setting the tone on offensive for an ambitious Blades squad looking for their first win of the season. Small maintained her composure while protecting the lead.

Jubilant in victory, raising her stick in the air while she was mobbed by proud teammates, it came as a surprise that she was not named one of the game’s Three Stars, even if it was in the interest of nostalgia. Instead, Emily Fulton would gain First Star honors to a roar of approval from her hometown fans. The surprises would continue as Boston’s Dru Burns was named the Second Star of the Game, resulting in Leary not getting the nod, while Carlee Campbell Eusepi was recognized as the Third Star due to her tireless work on the blueline.

Emerging victorious for the first time since January 11, 2015, Sami Jo Small would register the 63rd win of her distinguished CWHL career, while reaching the magical number of 25 career wins with the Toronto Furies, a team that she co-founded.

Balancing the roles of athlete, ambassador, entrepreneur and mom, Small’s greatest contribution may be as a role model. Small has taken on various leadership roles in her distinguished career. From a players association representative, she has also taken on the reins of fund-raising chairwoman while also occupying a position on the league’s board member, testament to her multi-tasking devotion to the league she helped bring to fruition. Her path helped to pave the way for other players to emulate her accomplishments, learning about the off the field aspects that are sometimes overlooked in professional sports.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Could a merger really work between the NWHL and the CWHL?

Since the NWHL’s opening faceoff, there is an appearance of serious undercurrents about tensions and/or hatred taking place between them and the CWHL. While the Women’s Winter Classic should have been a brilliant showcase highlighting the talents between both leagues, significant media coverage leading up to the event only focused on the animosity between the existences of both leagues.

Unfortunately, that black cloud was an ominous harbinger of things to come. Not only did the contest end in a 1-1 tie, as relations between the league remained in stasis, a devastating injury to Denna Laing (who played in both leagues), cutting such a promising career short, is a tragic legacy of the event. Through no fault of her own, said injury also held symbolic connotations, as both leagues should have worked together in a collaborative victory, using their platforms to raise funds for medical expenses, along with increased awareness on injury prevention, but only one league exerted such measures while the other opted to remain somewhat neutral.

Sadly, a sophomore slump plagued the NWHL as reduced attendance and dwindling revenues forced a re-evaluation of their salary structure, bringing about very painful cuts. Undoubtedly, said cuts have brought out the cynics and the skeptics, eagerly predicting the ambitious league’s demise.

Taking into account that the players have displayed tremendous professionalism, taking to the ice and remaining loyal to the game and their gracious fans, it reinforces the notion that the players are the heartbeat of any league. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest aspects to the NWHL’s inaugural season was an emphasis on recognizing the world class efforts of the non-Olympic talent, subsequently extending their careers.

Such players (like Brittany Ott, Madison Packer, Kelley Steadman and Shelby Bram among others) not only got a chance to shine, proving that they could be ambassadors for the league, but fan favorites as well. Fittingly, many of these non-Olympic stars made their mark at the NWHL All-Star Game in Buffalo.

Even though the NWHL should stay the course and find ways to be more innovative going forward, the harsh reality is that the spectre of merging shall not go away anytime soon. If the NWHL is unable to regroup and folds, there is no question it will set the professional women’s game in the United States will be set back at least a decade, evaporating any momentum that may have been built, while extinguishing many promising careers.

For a surviving league to not pick up the remnants (it could probably do so with unpaid players), it would likely work against them. Not only does it open the door for another rival league to take place in the future, such a league could have more financial clout and a more ruthless approach, potentially haunting the cautious league into a regrettable oblivion.

Considering that the season (2017-18) to follow shall be an indicator of each league’s viability, with hockey superpowers Canada and the US both holding centralization in preparation for the Winter Games, it will be a challenge to see which league can recruit, and retain, the best talent available.

Traditionally, professionally sports cannot exist with the presence of rival leagues. Football saw the NFL absorb the entire AFL, while portions of the ABA and WHA were granted entry into the NBA and the NHL. These mergers were based on the existing (and escalating) fight for talent, while increasing salaries cripple cash flow and certain markets become battlegrounds, such as Boston has become with clubs in both professional women’s leagues. 

Considering that a significant aspect to the game’s future shall take place in the United States, the admirable efforts of the NWHL to establish strong markets, especially in New York State, along with bringing its second All-Star Game to Pittsburgh, not only comprise part of the league’s legacy, it is a platform upon which to keep building the game.

One could argue that there is no obligation between these two leagues to merge, regardless of which league is better operated, but if either league were to collapse, there is an argument that the other would need to provide an assist for the greater good of the game.  Realistically, there are components from both leagues that could be applied to one amalgamated super league and put it in the proper direction.

Not only did the dedication of the players prevent the NWHL from folding after its visceral announcement concerning salary reductions, the reality is that the CWHL is an unpaid league, which survives because of the loyalty of its players. While the NWHL’s biggest criticism was its secret investor (which may emerge as its Achilles heel), it did many great things, including the arrival of Dunkin Donuts as a premier sponsor, along with a remarkable amount of media exposure in its inaugural season. One could argue that such attention in one season was more than its Canadian counterparts ever accumulated in its entire existence.

Should a merger actually take place, the reality is that it needs to be one that works not only for the players, but for the fans as well. A list of ground rules should be established that all parties can agree to:

Hire a new commissioner that both sides can agree on

Neither CWHL czar Brenda Andress nor NWHL founder Dani Rylan should be allowed to run a new amalgamated league, simply because it would make it appear that one league won over another or that one individual holds more influence, altering the perceived balance of power among fans.

Both individuals could still remain involved, either contributing as heads of divisions, board members, or even be allowed to pull double duty and also be granted GM positions. Realistically, Rylan would bring a much more visually appealing approach helping to promote a superleague in a PR role, while Andress is likely better suited in an administrative capacity.

Someone with a strong background in women’s sports, but not hockey (seriously) would have to be agreed upon as a new commissioner. If a new hire is brought in with a hockey background, it may create further tensions, likely perceiving them as influencing and/or manipulative. A name that comes to mind as a possible candidate (or compromise choice) for commissioner would be Val Ackerman, who worked tirelessly during the early years of the WNBA.

Give the league a new name

Even if the CWHL were to rename a merged league as the Continental Women’s Hockey League, it would not work because the acronym would suggest that it is the superior league to the former NWHL. Once again, no league can appear to be a winner. A complete rebranding would have to take place, such as the WNHA – Women’s National Hockey Association. There would be one Canadian division comprising the CWHL teams and an American division with the NWHL teams.

Compensation structure would have to change

Undoubtedly, the efforts of the NWHL to provide a living wage to its players hit an unfortunate snag in its second season. In a merged league, compensation would have to exist but in a much different way. In an 18-game season, each player could earn $225 per game ($4050 per season). For a roster of 20 players, that would comprise $81,000 per team.

Financial incentives could be provided for whichever player captures the league scoring title, rookie scoring title, goaltending title, along with compensation for appearances at the All-Star Game and in the championship game.

No interdivision travel

In order to control costs, Canadian and American teams would no longer play each other. One of the Boston teams could either relocate to Canada or fold altogether. The division champions (determined by postseason play) would play each other for the Clarkson Cup in a neutral site, preferably an NHL arena. Both teams would receive compensation for appearing in the finals. An exception to this rule would be participation in an outdoor game.

Keep the Isobel Cup

Taking into account that the Isobel Cup represents a proud chapter in professional American women’s hockey, it deserves to survive in a merged league. The American-based team that finishes with the best regular season record could be awarded the Isobel Cup in recognition.

Have no more than 10 teams in the league and just 1 in Boston

So much of the dysfunction between these leagues took place because of Boston having two teams.  It altered the talent pool and decimated the Blades. One team should remain while the other could relocate to Winnipeg, providing the Calgary Inferno with a much needed Western-based rival. The American division could welcome the Minnesota Whitecaps, giving the team a long overdue place in a professional league.

Consider a closer relationship with both the AHL and the OHL

There seems to be this fantasy that one day, the NHL shall be the white knight for women’s hockey, transforming pro hockey into a WNHL, making it flush with cash and providing everyone with a living wage. Sadly, this appears to be a pipe dream at the moment.

Realistically, women’s hockey needs to make itself more appealing in order to attract big league interest. For now, a merged league would have to look at building relationships with leagues such as the American Hockey League and the Ontario Hockey League.

With the impact of the Buffalo Beauts and the New York Riveters, they could easily align themselves with multiple teams in the AHL because so many are based in New York State. Between Albany, Binghamton, Rochester and Utica, the opportunities for promotion are endless.

As a side note, the Toronto Furies have participated in women’s hockey day with the AHL’s Marlies and it is an important event on each team’s hockey calendar. If the Furies and Thunder could work more closely with teams in the Ontario Hockey League, it could work beneficially for both sides as each league markets itself as value for families, which could result in increased marketing and brand awareness for both.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Raty vs. Raisanen the greatest moment in 2015-16 season

In a season filled with many exciting moments, from the inaugural NWHL season to Boston College going undefeated in the regular season, an unknown Valerie Lamenta claiming the Brodrick Trophy, two overtime thrillers for the US in IIHF play, plus a historic Clarkson Cup for the Calgary Inferno, one moment shone above all. Taking place in Finland, it was an event that truly signified the growth of women’s ice hockey and the potential for this generation of players (and the next) to keep breaking barriers.

Having both competed with Finland’s national team, goaltenders Noora Raty, 26, and Meeri Raisanen, 25, are among two of the world’s finest. Among Raisanen’s finest accomplishments, she backstopped Finland to a bronze medal at the 2015 IIHF Women’s Worlds, while Raty also obtained bronze at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.

Although both played at the NCAA level in the United States, neither had played each other there. Raty with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, helped the team to an undefeated season as a senior. Raisanen would spend the 2010-11 season with the Robert Morris Colonials (based near Pittsburgh), but struggled with a 3-8-4 record.

In November 2015, Raty and Raisanen would become opponents, but not in the expected setting of a women’s league. Instead, the two were on opposite ends of the ice during a contest in the Suomi-Sarja (men’s third league in Finland), an unprecedented first in hockey history.

Considering that professional hockey in North America has never seen two women’s goaltenders go head-to-head in regular season or playoff competition, it was a match that generated headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Sadly, only 70 people were in attendance for the historic match.

According to Finnish outlet Ilta-Sanomat, both team’s head coaches were in agreement that the two would play each other when the two teams faced off for the first time in the season. Ironically, both coaches, Joni Petrell (KJT) and Tommi Nekkula (D-Kiekko) were no longer with the team by the time that the game took place. Instead, Jarmo Raiha (KJT) and Jari Tapper (D-Kiekko) occupied the position but remained faithful to the decision of their predecessors.

Standing between the pipes for KJT, Raty, who fought the flu and nearly did not play, would emerge victorious against D-Kiekko, which saw Raisanen guard their crease. Despite a 5-2 final, it was a closely contested game throughout the first two periods. As a side note, the referees for this historic match were Pekka Kemppinen, Tom Lonnqvist, Jussi Hanninen

Otto Leppanen would make his mark in this historic contest. From the outset, he scored the game’s opening goal, as KJT enjoyed a 1-0 lead after one period of play.

During the second stanza, both teams managed to find the back of the net, adding to the intensity. Saku Piha would bury the puck past Raisanen as KJT enjoyed a 2-0 advantage. With Raty continuously denying D-Kiekko of scoring opportunities, the opportunity of a shutout would have only added to the feeling of history.

Such momentum was not meant to be. With 2:01 left, D-Kiekko broke Raty’s shutout bid as Aku Palsola scored. Assists were credited to Henri Niemi and Joni Kumpulainen as KJT’s lead was reduced. The third period would result in more scoring, although the outcome in the game’s final minutes was entirely unforeseen.

Merely 37 seconds into the third period, Kumpulainen aided his own cause, tying the score at 2-apiece. It marked the first time in the game that D-Kiekko was able to overcome a deficit and tie the score. Tomi Martikainen and Samuli Paananen logged the assists in a valiant effort.

With the tie score, the result was a defensive stalemate for over 10 minutes of play. Raty continued to provide KJT with an opportunity to remain competitive, as D-Kiekko tried to gain its first lead of the game.

Instead, the momentum would turn in KJT’s favor as Leppanen scored his second goal of the game. Scored at the 51:56 mark, said goal would stand as the game winner, with Piha gaining the assist for his second point of the game.

Raty would continue to be tested as the period progressed. With less than three minutes remaining, the score was still 3-2 in favor of KJT. Opting for an extra attacker, D-Kiekko played with an empty net, removing Raisanen from the game.

Capitalizing on the empty net, Leppanen would get the hat trick on an unassisted goal at the 58:15 mark. Undeterred, D-Kiekko continued to play with the extra attacker, leaving Raisanen on the bench. The result was another KJT goal, as Joel Narhi buried the puck with only 13 seconds remaining in a 5-2 final.

Undoubtedly, Raty proved to be the most valuable player of the game. She was crucial throughout as D-Kiekko outshot KJT by an astounding 17-2 margin in the third period. Of note, KJT was also outshot in the first two periods, 7-5 in the first, followed by a 12-7 mark in the second. Raty would record 36 saves, compared to just 14 for Raisanen.

Last season, Raty had also played in Finnish men’s hockey. Starting with the Mestis-league (second division play), Raty stood between the pipes for Kiekko-Vantaa, seeing action in 8 games. Before season’s end, she would also make six appearances with Bewe Tuus Ki, a club in the Suomi-Sarja league. Perhaps the most unique aspect of her season was the fact that her Minions-themed hockey mask was considered one of the most stylish masks in all of hockey, male and female.

Raisanen has seen action for two clubs this season, although different from Raty’s experience. Of note, she is competing in both men’s and women’s hockey leagues in her native Finland, another rare and admirable feat, making her one of the most intriguing figures in women’s hockey.

In addition to competing with D-Kiekko, she also occupies the goaltending position for JYP in the women’s Liiga. Last season, she played in the Russian women’s league. As a side note, Raty did start the 2015-16 season with the Minnesota Whitecaps, a professional women's team in the United States, appearing in a series of exhibition games.

Such a feat has never been accomplished in North America. Although Shannon Szabados, who plays men’s hockey in the SPHL, had her playing rights acquired by the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno, she has never managed both leagues in one season.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Howe Amazing a team close to elite goaltender's heart

Among the rookie class on Canada’s national women’s team at the 2016 IIHF Women’s Worlds, goaltender Erica Howe has experienced a season filled with milestones. Standing between the pipes for the CWHL’s Brampton Thunder, she also backstopped the club to its first postseason appearance since 2013. Of all the teams she has played with this season, the one that may carry the most emotion goes by the sobriquet, Howe Amazing.
The core of Team Howe Amazing starts with her mom Jane, along with siblings Kathleen and Kevin, among others. Part of a group of friends and family that shall be running in the Brain Tumor Walk on June 18, it is Erica’s opportunity to pay tribute to her late father, Peter. Diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforma in March 2005, it is one of 120 variations of brain tumors. Her father would fight valiantly for over three years, before succumbing in November 2008 at 58 years young.

Sadly, brain tumors have taken the lives of many notable names in sport. Most recently, basketball player Lauren Hill, who played one season with Mount St. Joseph University, lost her battle after 16 months of her diagnosis. Pro football running back Craig "Ironhead" Hayward suffered from chordoma while legendary baseball player and Hall of Famer Gary Carter passed away in 2012 after fighting glioblastoma multiforme.
Throughout a superlative hockey career already filled with many milestones, Peter Howe always holds a special place in Erica’s heart. Undoubtedly, he was Erica’s biggest fan and would have continued to be so as she progressed in the sport. Responsible for getting her to gruelling morning practices, he was a positive influence in those formative years, definitely a significant source of support. Considering that her father loved sport, he also proudly donated his time in soccer, a sport that saw all of the children in the Howe family; Kathleen (currently an educator), Kevin (a former competitor on So You Think You Can Dance Canada) and Erica participate.
From helping Canada capture its first-ever gold medal at the 2010 IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds, to Clarkson becoming the first non-WCHA team to win a Frozen Four national title, along with being credited for the first win in CWHL All-Star Game history, Howe is one of the game’s most promising stars. As a side note, she also appeared on a trading card, gaining cardboard immortality in Upper Deck’s 2011 World of Sport card set. Through it all, perhaps Erica’s greatest achievement is her ability to remain positive and refuse to wallow in self-pity.
The presence of an exceptional athlete such as Erica helps increase awareness of this outstanding initiative. Running in the hopes of raising funds for research and support, the goal is to ensure that the future is one where no family has to suffer the loss of a member gone far too soon.