Thursday, 22 December 2011

Failure not fatal for Canadian women's team

On the surface, the year 2011 may seem like a failure to the Canadian women’s team. Despite some great performances (Kelly Babstock being named ECAC Player of the Year, Meghan Agosta becoming the NCAA leading scorer, and Hillary Pattenden becoming the NCAA all-time wins leader), there were some heartbreaking events. It began with the United States usurping Canada (the defending champs) at the IIHF Under 18 worlds. Despite a gold medal for Canada at the MLP Cup, silver seemed to be the defining colour of the year.
In April, the United States bested Canada at the IIHF World Championships. This event was preceeded by another painful loss. In selecting the 2011 Patty Kazmaier Award (given to the top NCAA female player), American Meghan Duggan beat out Meghan Agosta to claim the prize.
Several months later, another  setback was endured. August 2011 marked the first IIHF 8 Nations (also promoted as 12 Nations) Tournament. In the round robin, Canada suffered its second ever loss at the hands of Sweden. Despite Meghan Agosta having a strong showing at the tourney, Canada showed they were not invincible. The year concluded with a difficult overtime loss in the gold medal game of the 2010 4 Nations Cup.
Looking at the year deeper, it was definitely a year of transition. For the first time in many years, there were numerous vacancies on the roster. At the beginning of the year, Becky Kellar, Gina Kingsbury, Carla MacLeod and Colleen Sostorics announced their retirements. No team, no matter how good can replace so many top notch athletes (especially with over 40 seasons of combined experience), especially on defense.  The effect to the team was compounded by the retirement of Jennifer Botterill (four time Winter Games medallist), and the personal leave of absence of goaltender Kim St. Pierre (statistically, the greatest female goaltender in IIHF history).
Despite the deficiencies on defense, there were several highlights during the year. Natalie Spooner has emerged as an impact player who can pick up where Jennifer Botterill left off. The national team sees a reunion of sorts as former Mercyhurst player Meghan Agosta was reunited with Mercyhurst graduates Vicki Bendus (the 2010 Patty Kazmaier Award winner), and Jesse Scanzano. If the three can recapture their glories from Mercyhurst, there will be many golden moments for Canada in the near future. In addition, many prominent superstars from the Cornell Big Red women’s program (such as Brianne Jenner and Lauriane Rougeau) are getting the opportunity to show their skills with the national team.
Although Canada’s performance at the Eight (or Twelve) Nations Tournament was not the desired result, the disappointment can be set aside by the fact that Canada gave three young, promising goaltenders (CIS legend Liz Knox, Harvard graduate Christine Kessler, and Providence Friars superstar Genevieve Lacassse) the opportunity to don the Canadian jersey. By being given the keys to occupy the crease for Canada, those keys may open the door to potential roster spots at the 2014 or 2018 Winter Games.
The new faces and the transitions involved put the Canadian team at a tremendous disadvantage. In observing the year, there were some key findings. The opportunities given to these young players to compete at a higher level were irreplaceable. In witnessing past glories, these young players understand that what was accomplished was easier than it looked. Now they understand that they cannot take wearing the red and white for granted. This is the wakeup call for any player hoping for a future with the national team to pick up their game and rise to the occasion.
The disappointments of 2011 may lead to the glories of tomorrow. Should greater success emanate in the future, Canada’s women will look at the growing pains of 2011, and learn that failure is not fatal.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Magazine article step in the right direction for the CWHL

Cheers to Sportsnet Magazine for its article on the Canadian Women's Hockey League. Said article helps bring awareness to a league that desperately requires one. The imbalances that exist are eye opening. The concept of a world class athlete like Jayna Hefford (competing for the Brampton Thunder) having to work three part time jobs, while a fourth line forward in professional men's hockey can earn $500,000 reflects a great disparity. Although it is true that Hefford will one day be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the road to get there will have been a hard one.
Based on past failures in the United States of professional women's soccer, and the struggles of some franchises in the Women's National Basketball Association, attracting a potential investor will be an arduous task. It would be easy to say that professional men's hockey has a moral obligation to subsidize the league. As the CWHL is a not for profit organization, a strong selling point would be the idea of a contribution as a potential tax deduction. With the wealthiest men's team based in Toronto, and three of the CWHL franchises competing in the Greater Toronto Area, it would seem possible that they could be approached for a contribution.
The painful reality is that although hockey is a sport and a strong symbol of national pride in many nations, it is also a business. Regrettably, many businesses will only invest in smaller enterprises if there is a potential for profit. If the CWHL can prove that it has the ability to generate revenues, and finance itself without worry, its potential could reach fruition.
A big step towards tapping into that potential would be television coverage. With so many sports networks struggling for content (while airing poker, fishing and horse racing in the early hours) , the CWHL could offer the networks their programming for free. Whatever revenues are raised could be shared equally between the two. There are local cable channels throughout the country that feature minor hockey on their cable access programs. There is no reason why the CWHL could not be part of a local cable programming schedule. While it may not generate revenue for the teams or the league, it would create exposure. If these are not viable options, a YouTube channel with weekly highlights should be feasible.
Part of being a sports fan is the connection to a team. A strong element of any connection to a team emanates from merchandising. If the CWHL teams were to auction game used jerseys or game pucks online (preferably signed), many sports memorabilia collectors might see it as a more cost-efficient way to build their collections. A hockey card license with a company such as In the Game (which has produced women's ice hockey cards in sets such as O Canada and Between the Pipes) could stimulate interest in the league. (Some of the first year players or bigger name stars could easily be included in ITG's Heroes and Prospects annual card set). Another effort at merchandising is a calendar featuring player autographs and a certificate of authenticity to appease collectors (in addition, half of the proceeds could go to cancer research).
At this point, seeking support from professional men's hockey may be aiming too high. The Ontario Hockey League offers many opportunities, considering it has five franchises in the Greater Toronto Area (Barrie, Brampton, Mississauga, Niagara, Oshawa). Perhaps the CWHL teams from the GTA could entertain a joint venture with these franchises.
The benefit is that the franchises, (and the league in general) already has an audience. Any partnership would create exposure, with the hope of rapidly increasing interest. Many patrons of the OHL are families, so the CWHL could captivate the interest of younger fans. Doubleheader games with the OHL and CWHL (where the CWHL could play after the OHL game has finished) would bring value to the sports fans dollar.
The plight of these players borders on tragic, as it is reminiscent of many sports leagues during the Great Depression, where athletes participated for love, rather than money. In addition, the idea that many of these players obtain celebrity status when participating for their countries in the Winter Games every four years, while returning to obscurity afterwards could make any player feel dejected. The concept of women participating in sports traditionally played by men is still a nascent concept for many sports fans. Until this concept is firmly established in the hearts and minds of sports fans, the league will have to find innovative ways to grow and expand their product. If the league is unable to find and develop these ways, the league will not only struggle to obtain growth, but will run the risk of eventually being undermined by someone who not only knows how to capitalize on those ways, but will have deep enough pockets to make it a reality.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Pattenden another in long line of Mercyhurst players making NCAA history

Despite making women's ice hockey history on December 14, 2011, there are still many more milestones to accomplish for Mercyhurst Lakers goaltender Hillary Pattenden. In breaking Jessie Vetter's all-time wins mark of 91, Pattenden has staked her claim as one of the greatest goalies to ever play in the NCAA. Career win 100 is still within reach, and if she can reach that milestone, she will always hold the claim of being the first to hit the century mark. (Pattenden was also the first freshman goaltender to have at least 20 victories in one season).
The other milestone that has eldued Pattenden is an NCAA Frozen Four championship. As a freshman, Pattenden participated in the championship game of the 2009 NCAA Frozen Four. In an ironic passing of the torch, the opposing goaltender in that game was Jessie Vetter of Wisconsin. Despite a strong showing by Mercyhurst, Vetter ended her NCAA career as a champion. Heartbreak ensued in 2011 as Mercyhurst (with Winter Games gold medallist Meghan Agosta in her senior season) hosted the Frozen Four but were unable to qualify. Once again, Wisconsin emerged as champions, with freshman goaltender Alex Rigsby between the pipes.
With only one loss in that championship season, Rigsby could be the next in line to one day overtake Pattenden in the all-time wins column.  Although records were made to be broken, Pattenden has proven her worth as an elite goalkeeper during the 2011-12 season. With the departure of seniors Meghan Agosta, Vicki Bendus and Jesse Scanzano in spring 2011, to call the 2011-12 season a year of transition is an understatement.
Having faced early competition from a vastly improved Robert Morris Colonials squad, changes to the coaching roster, along with an influx of many new faces, it would have been easy for Mercyhurst to have a rebuilding year. Complemented by a career year from Bailey Bram, and strong leadership from captain Pamela Zgoda, Pattenden has risen to the occasion and kept the Lakers in serious contention for another NCAA Frozen Four. Of note, this is not the first season in which Pattenden was faced with obstacles. The 2009-10 season showcased Pattenden’s skills. With the loss of Meghan Agosta (competing in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games), Pattenden posted an impressive record of 29 wins, compared to only 3 losses and 3 ties, as she helped the Lakers win another conference championship.
She follows in the footsteps of other Mercyhurst players that have contributed to NCAA women’s ice hockey history. Forward Vicki Bendus was recognized as the Patty Kazmaier Award winner after the 2009-10 season. Winter games gold medallist Meghan Agosta broke the NCAA points record during the 2010-11 campaign.
There are many goaltending legends in NCAA women’s ice hockey (Ali Boe, Molly Schaus, Florence Schelling, Jackee Snikeris) that never won a Frozen Four title. It has not diminished their contributions to the game. Whether Pattenden gets the opportunity to end her career on a championship note, her legacy as one of the game’s greatest is firmly established.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Rockland hosts another chapter in Canada - US rivalry

One element that was established at the Under-18 ice hockey exhibition between Canada and the United States in Rockland, Ontario is that the rest of the world is not yet ready to catch up to them. Those three games were filled with as much emotion and drama as the gold medal hockey games at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. Both teams played their hearts out and impressed all in attendance. Canada and the US split the first two games, and the third game was tied at 3-3 after two periods. The level of intensity in ice hockey between these two countries is clearly at all competitive levels. With all the excitement and high level of competition (including scouting by former Winter Games head coaches Melody Davidson and Ben Smith) that was displayed on the ice, there were several players that intrigued:
                Erin Ambrose: Hockey card aficionados already know that she has appeared on cardboard (2010 Upper Deck World of Sports card # 173). Ambrose’s on-ice leadership is reminiscent to that of IIHF Hall of Famer Geraldine Heaney. It was no coincidence that she was named captain of the Canadian team. After the third game, she was at a table near the media room with teammates signing for fans, young and old, while making new friends in the process. All signs indicate that fans will see Ambrose suit up for Canada at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
                Laura Stacey: Like Gillian Apps, Stacey has strong roots to the Toronto Maple Leafs. With her ponytail sticking out of her helmet and gliding through the air, Stacey led all Canadian players in scoring. Her performance reinforces the roots she comes from. As the great granddaughter of the immortal King Clancy (the first NHL player to play all six positions in one game), and the niece of 1964 Winter Games competitor Terry Clancy, she is more than able to carry the torch and continue the proud legacy laid down by her family. Expect Stacey to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the debut of women’s ice hockey at the Winter Games with a medal proudly adorned around her neck at the 2018 Winter Games.
                Meghan Dufault: Based on the performance of Manitoba at the 2011 Winter Games (of which Dufault was a member); Manitoba is quickly becoming a women’s ice hockey hotbed. Following in the steps of the Ste. Anne Three (Bailey Bram, Melanie Gagnon, Jocelyne Larocque), the legendary Jennifer Botterill, and former Under 18 players such as Christine Bestland, Shelby Bram and Caitlin MacDonald, Dufault’s three power play goals in the series make her the next great hockey star to come from Manitoba. Clearly, this level of talent is helping Manitoba catch up to the likes of Alberta, Ontario and Quebec in women’s ice hockey prominence.

Morgan Richardson: With her parents (former NHL player Luke Richardson is her father) in attendance, Morgan is representing Canada like father did at the World Juniors in 1986-87. More importantly, the Richardson family is a great source of inspiration and character. After the death of her younger sister, Daron in November 2010, Morgan was one of the key figures in ensuring the DIFD (Do It for Daron) charity became a reality. With DIFD becoming a source of inspiration to others, Morgan’s performance on the ice is equally so. Had she decided to stop hockey due to her sister’s passing, no one would have blamed her. Her determination to continue and persevere by coming part of Canada’s Under 18 team displays a great deal of inspiration. May her continue for many more years.
Alexandra (Alex) Carpenter: Of all the players on the United States team, Massachusetts native Carpenter is the real deal. The daughter of Bobby Carpenter (Stanley Cup champion with New Jersey in 1995) was rightfully named captain of the United States squad. Not only did she display a strong, physical game, but she consistently displayed strong puck control. On more than one occasion in the series, Carpenter would grab the puck from the US end of the ice and bring it up to the Canadian end. It was shades of another Massachusetts hockey legend, Bobby Orr. Heading to the Boston College Eagles in the autumn, Carpenter should easily be able to replace outgoing BC alum and All-America selection, Kelli Stack.
Like her opposing captain in the series, Erin Ambrose, she is another prodigy who should have a roster spot reserved for the 2018 Winter Games. If the rivalry continues to develop between the two, the fans in attendance in Rockland, Ontario will say they were there when it started.  

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Snyder becomes a hockey hero

With the Canada Sports Hall of Fame in her native Calgary, there should be strong consideration for Joan Snyder as a builder. Snyder’s donations in 2011 ($500K to the Calgary Dinos women’s team and $2 million towards the Winsport Canada facility) are a watershed moment in Western Canadian women’s ice hockey history.
Snyder’s contributions help bring stability and structure to a sport that deserved it, but struggled to find it. With the CWHL’s ambitious westward expansion, Team Alberta now has a foundation it can build on. The concept that the club has their own dressing room and training facilities may be taken for granted in other sports, yet it brings this expansions franchise professionalism and dignity.
Of note, the discussion of allowing the facility to be used for other women’s teams in the world has also been visited. Although the opportunity of using the Winsport facility as a springboard towards respectability is alluring, it will take a generation (or two), before the rest of the world catches up to Canada and the United States.
Although the Canadian – American rivalry will continue to be visceral, and augment conversation throughout hockey circles, what will occur once the rest of the world catches up in women’s hockey? Will the powers that be in the future allow the facility to still be used by foreign countries? What if Kazakhstan were to one day beat Canada in the Winter Games, would Canada recognize this as long overdue parity or would the cries come out to no longer have the facility be accommodating to non-Canadians?
The reality is that as more women continue to play hockey throughout the world, the key element of the donation is that it allows for more ice time, and more importantly, opportunity. Quite possibly, the next Hayley Wickenheiser or Angela Ruggiero will have had the opportunity to play hockey because Snyder helped open the door.
The only way this donation could be viewed as a failure is if the future generations forget what she meant to the sport at this time. For many players in the future, Joan Snyder might be the best friend they never met.