Although the Brampton franchise has not officially used the name since the contraction of the league in 2010, most aficionados have still associated the name with them. Despite sentimentality, the Thunder name will definitely be retired this summer. Considering that professional women’s hockey in Canada does not yet have the tradition woven into the fabric of Canadian culture to the extent that their male counterparts do, the name Thunder signified longevity in women’s ice hockey. The Thunder date back to the birth of the NWHL, and won the first championship in CWHL history (in 2008).
Over the years, the Thunder roster was a veritable who’s who of some of the most prominent players in women’s ice hockey. Home to both Canadian and American women, it may be another generation before a franchise has so many women that have had a significant impact on the growth of the game. Justine Blainey (now known as Dr. Justine Blainey-Broker), whose landmark case against the Ontario Hockey Association (due to a discrimination complaint against the Metro Toronto Hockey League) was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada, opened the door for girls to play with boys (something that commonly exists now at the Midget AA and Midget AAA levels). Just as baseball had Curt Flood, and basketball had Spencer Haywood, two athletes that questioned the rules of their establishments and fought for the greater good, Justine Blainey did the same in Canadian hockey. Her playing career would end in a Brampton Thunder uniform.
Samantha Holmes-Domagala (founder of the Strathmore Rockies, and general manager of Team Alberta in the CWHL) was another player who helped tear down the glass ceiling. Her letter writing campaigns to Juan Antonio Samaranch, former head of the International Olympic Committee, and the Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney, former Prime Minister of Canada, helped get the ball rolling to consider women’s ice hockey as an Olympic sport. In the early 2000’s, Holmes donned the Thunder jersey. Of note, one of the players that would one day win an Olympic gold medal in women’s ice hockey made her own impact with the Thunder. The first time that a goaltender scored a goal in a professional women’s game, it was done as a member of the Thunder. 2002 and 2006 Winter Games gold medallist Sami Jo Small accomplished the feat with the Thunder name and logo emblazoned on her sweater.
At a time when the Canadian-American rivalry was at an extremely high level of tension and disdain, it was the Thunder that opened their doors to US women’s ice hockey players. Kathleen Kauth (who had qualified for the 2002 United States Winter Games team) had tragically lost her father in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Despite missing the 2002 Winter Games, she would courageously return to the 2006 Torino Winter Games and claim a bronze medal. In between those four years, Kauth would play for the Thunder. The admission of Kauth into the Brampton Thunder was the catalyst towards softening the animosity between Canadian and American players. After the Torino Games, Kauth would serve as one of the co-founders of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Meghan Sittler (daughter of Toronto Maple Leafs legend and Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler), a Canadian expatriate who played on the United States national team found her way back to Canada via the Thunder. Several years later, United States Winter Games medalist (and Wisconsin Badgers legend), Molly Engstrom, would compete for the Thunder. Engstrom, an All-World defender, participated with the Thunder in the 2010 and 2012 Clarkson Cup.
Retiring the Thunder name is to close a chapter in Canadian women’s ice hockey history and CWHL history. The Thunder was the backbone of the NWHL and the still nascent CWHL. The name represents what professional women’s hockey has managed to do in its very difficult beginnings: survive. In decades from now, the Thunder will be reminisced in the same way as the men’s teams that did not survive the Great Depression are today; the Quebec Bulldogs, the Montreal Maroons, the Hamilton Tigers, and the Vancouver Millionaires. While the myth of these defunct teams grows as hockey seasons go by, their impact on Canadian hockey resonates in the hearts of the studious fans and hockey historians who aim to preserve their unique role. Future generations of women’s ice hockey players will romanticize the name Thunder and embrace the history that it represented.