Friday, 27 April 2012

Order of Canada in Hockey: Which women are Next in Line? (Part One)

In the next few years, which women will follow in the footsteps of Cassie Campbell and have the honour of the Order of Hockey in Canada bestowed upon them? While current players such as Gillian Apps, Jayna Hefford and Hayley Wickenheiser are assured of their spot, there are many worthy choices to choose from in the near future.
 Considering their induction into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame, Angela James and Geraldine Heaney must be locks for 2013 and 2014, respectively. Both played on the first Women’s World Championship Team in 1990, and were in anonymity for many years despite raising Canada to a world power in women’s ice hockey.
After that, the field widens as there are many worthy recipients. Vicky Sunohara was another leader and elite performer during the early years of modern women’s ice hockey. She was another member of the 1990 World Championship team, and played in the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League, the predecessor to the NWHL and CWHL. Before participating at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Sunohara made a name for herself with the Northeastern Huskies, along with fellow Nagano teammates Laura Schuler and Karen Nystrom. With a career that spanned nearly two decades, Sunohara was a role model to an entire generation of girls learning that they too had a place on the ice.
The contributions of French Canadian players to women’s ice hockey in Canada read as a veritable who’s who of hockey. If the government of Quebec ever wanted to establish an Order of Hockey in Quebec, the following would have to be the first six women to claim the honour. They were part of the growth of women’s ice hockey in Quebec during the 1990’s; Manon Rheaume, France St. Louis, Nancy Drolet, Nathalie Picard, Daniele Sauvageau, and Nathalie Picard. Every one of them participated in the League Regionale du Hockey Feminin au Quebec, and Drolet even managed her team while playing as well. All six are worthy of the Order of Hockey in Canada, as Quebec (along with Alberta and Ontario) provided many of the first heroes in modern women’s ice hockey.
Danielle Goyette is probably making an even greater contribution as a head coach than she did as an elite hockey player. A former member of the Canadian National Team that spent many years in anonymity, Goyette is sharing her knowledge of the game as a coach in various capacities. She led the Calgary Dinos to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport national championship in 2012. Her name helps lend a lot of credibility to the quality of women’s ice hockey in the CIS, while recruiting top talent such as Hayley Wickenheiser and Iya Gavrilova to play for her. In addition, she served as an assistant coach on the women’s team that won the gold at the 2012 IIHF Women’s World Ice Hockey championships. She is proving that her leadership skills extend beyond her playing abilities. (As a side note, the only other players from the 1998 Nagano team that have made the transition into coaching include Stacy Wilson, Geraldine Heaney, Laura Schuler, and Karen Nystrom).
TO BE CONTINUED

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Best of Everything in Hockey needs to have a stronger focus on the women's game

A Canadian hockey periodical published a special edition featuring the best of everything in hockey. A section was devoted to the best women’s player, but there should have been a few more pages devoted to the women’s game. Features on the best women’s goaltender, the best women’s NCAA team, the best women’s prospect, and the best women’s coach would have been very much required.
In looking at the women’s game, these areas deserve to be reviewed. The best way for the women’s game to grow is to have these sports (and exclusively hockey) publications to cover the women’s game in more detail. A publication like The Hockey News could easily dedicate two full pages every issue to review the women’s game. If THN would dedicate those pages to the game, it would help to stimulate interest in the game and at least supply the casual fan with a handy resource. It is up to the fans to suggest to the periodicals to include more write ups on the game.
Despite the need to see an increase in the coverage on women’s hockey, the objective for now is to cover the features that should have been. While my selections may augment discussion and create debate, there is no numeric ranking for any of the players that are ranked. All players that are considered the best in their respective category are placed in alphabetical order.
*Best Women’s Goaltender
The key to parity in the international women’s game will be defined in its goaltending. Without Florence Schelling, Switzerland does not claim the bronze medal at the 2012 IIHF World Championships. Her goaltending abilities made the Northeastern Huskies an annual threat to compete for the Hockey East title. Deservedly, she was named 2012 Hockey East Player of the Year.
After leading the Minnesota Golden Gophers to the WCHA Postseason title, and the NCAA Frozen Four title, Noora Raty looked drained at the 2012 IIHF Worlds. Despite the performance of Finland, Raty was the factor in giving the Finns the opportunity to play for the bronze medal. Another elite goaltender who experienced a downturn at the 2012 Worlds was Zuzana Tomcikova. After being named Most Outstanding Player at the 2011 Worlds (and breaking many goaltending records at Bemidji State), she was between the pipes as Slovakia was relegated out of the Top Division. Despite this setback, Tomcikova is one of the pioneers of Slovakian women’s hockey, and she remains the only hope that Slovakia has to qualify for the 2014 Winter Games. 
Szabados and Vetter played against each other in one of the most important games in the history of 21st Century 
women’s ice hockey: the gold medal game at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. The game signified a (turning point) for women’s ice hockey, as the television ratings proved that the game had touched the hearts and minds of many. More importantly, the outcome helped Canadian and American fans, and players alike earn a mutual respect for each other, melting the tensions that existed at the Winter Games in Nagano (1998) and Salt Lake (2002).
**Noora Raty (Finland)
**Florence Schelling (Switzerland)
**Shannon Szabados (Canada)
**Zuzana Tomcikova (Slovakia)
** Jessie Vetter (United States)

*Best Women’s NCAA Team
With Minnesota having recruited some of the top high school players in the state of Minnesota (including Ms. Hockey Award winner Hannah Brandt), the Gophers will find a way to remain competitive. Head coach Brad Frost is one of the elite coaches in the NCAA, and with Noora Raty returning for another season, the Gophers are poised to return to the Frozen Four.
Wisconsin is another team that has done like Minnesota, recruiting more talent from their home state. With Mark Johnson behind the bench, the Badgers have enjoyed multiple Frozen Four titles. 2012 Patty Kazmaier Award winner Brianna Decker is back for her senior season. Coupled with Alex Rigsby, the best American born goaltender in the NCAA, and team leader Lauren Unser, the Badgers will fight neck and neck with Minnesota to be the number one team in the nation.
With the graduation of Florence Schelling from Northeastern, and Genevieve Lacasse from Providence, Boston College and Boston University clearly stand out as the elite teams in Hockey East. Terriers goaltender Kerrin Sperry will have every opportunity to emerge as the top goaltender in Hockey East. In addition, the Terriers have Triple Gold Club member Marie-Philip Poulin, which makes everyone around her better. The Eagles, under the leadership of Katie King, have emerged as one of the best programs in the NCAA. Recruiting Alexandra Carpenter in 2011 makes her the jewel in the crown for the Eagles. As a freshman, Carpenter was a nominee for the Patty Kazmaier Award, and played in the NCAA Frozen Four. As Carpenter goes, so will the Eagles.
Although Harvard was able to recruit a superlative goaltender in Emerance Maschmeyer, the Cornell Big Red have too much talent to not finish first in the ECAC again. Lauren Slebodnick proved herself as the best backup goaltender in the NCAA, playing behind Amanda Mazzotta, and is ready to prove she is worthy of the starting position. Elite forwards Brianne Jenner and Jillian Saulnier provide enough firepower to carry the Big Red. Having recruited Canadian Under 18 National Team member Morgan Richardson (daughter of former NHLer Luke Richardson), the defense has a strong future.
**Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
**Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
**Cornell Big Red (ECAC Hockey)
**Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
**Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)

*Best Women’s Prospect
The best women’s prospect is an NCAA or CWHL player under the age of 24 who has the most potential to be an impact player at the upcoming 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Hannah Brandt was the winner of the 2012 Minnesota Ms. Hockey Award and participated in the US Training Camp for the 2012 IIHF Worlds. Heading to the University of Minnesota, one of her teammates will be Amanda Kessel. The younger sister of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel, Amanda is a superstar in her own right. An All-American in just her sophomore season, Kessel is proving that the best is yet to come.
With the graduation of Rebecca Johnston, Brianne Jenner is the best hope for the Cornell Big Red to contend for another national title. A member of the gold medal winning Canadian team at the 2012 IIHF Worlds, Jenner is an All-American selection and an early favourite to win the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award.
The 2011-12 NCAA season was the final one for Natalie Spooner and Jennifer Wakefield, and both left their mark on the game. Spooner made her final season at Ohio State a memorable one by re-writing the Buckeyes record books. A remarkable talent, Spooner is poised to be the next Jennifer Botterill. She is the perfect complement to Gillian Apps, as both have played on the same line on the Canadian National Team. Wakefield seems like the next Jayna Hefford, a tireless skater with great puckhandling ability who always keeps cool. Having played with Isabel Menard and Marie-Philip Poulin, Wakefield won several awards during her senior season at Boston University. Of all her accolades, none were bigger than being named to the Hockey East 10th Anniversary Team.
**Hannah Brandt (United States)
**Brianne Jenner (Canada)
**Amanda Kessel (United States)
**Natalie Spooner (Canada)
**Jennifer Wakefield (Canada)

*Best Women’s Coach
**Danielle Goyette (Calgary Dinos)
** Katie King (Boston College Eagles)
** Shannon Miller (Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs)
**Laura Schuler (Canadian Under 22 team)
**Katey Stone (Harvard Crimson)

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Julie Chu making a case as the best women’s player in the world

One of the premier publications in the world on ice hockey, The Hockey News, recently ranked Hayley Wickenheiser and Meghan Agosta as the best two women’s players in the world. Heading into the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, that ranking may need to change to reflect Julie Chu’s status as the world’s best.
While Chu may not be as prolific a scorer as Agosta and Wickenheiser, she has quietly emerged as a leader and the heartbeat of the US National Team. She was recognized by Katey Stone as the captain for the US at the 2012 IIHF World Championships. Although the US National Team has a lot of young, talented players emerging (such as Hannah Brandt, Kendall Coyne, Amanda Kessel, Meaghan Mangene), they will benefit greatly from the wisdom and maturity of a strong leader. Chu has proven she has the tools to bring out the best in younger players.
For several years, Chu was an assistant coach (with Montreal Stars teammate Caroline Ouellette) at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Having learned under the tutelage of elite coach Shannon Miller, Chu honed her coaching skills, and learned how to motivate. Her education under Miller reached fruition as UMD won the NCAA Frozen Four in 2008 (their first since 2003). The coaching skills she acquired will help give the young prospects on the US National Team the opportunity to develop into elite superstars, as they attempt to win gold at the 2014 Sochi Games.
Her play with the Montreal Stars of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League may not garner as much attention as other players on the team, but she has a presence on the team. In her two years with the Stars, the league scoring record has been shattered twice (Caroline Ouellette – 2011, Meghan Agosta – 2012). While it may not have been Chu that broke the record, her skill takes the pressure off of others around her. In addition, Chu’s contributions in the early history of the Clarkson Cup speak volumes about her abilities. Chu is the only player to have participated in the first four Clarkson Cups (2009 to 2012). She is the only player to have won three consecutive Clarkson Cups (2010 – Minnesota Whitecaps, 2011 and 2012 – Montreal Stars), while becoming the first player to have won the Clarkson Cup with two different teams (Minnesota and Montreal), respectively.
Her finest hour may have been the 2010 Clarkson Cup. As a member of the Minnesota Whitecaps, the team eliminated the defending champion Montreal Stars in the semi-finals. In the championship game, the Whitecaps had less than a dozen players suited up for the game, and managed to beat the Brampton Thunder (who had Winter Games medalists, Gillian Apps, Lori Dupuis Molly Engstrom, and Jayna Hefford on the roster).
A gold medal at the Sochi Games will make Julie Chu the second American to be part of the Triple Gold Club for Women (the criteria is winning gold at the Winter Games, gold at the World Championships, and the Clarkson Cup). The first American woman was Jenny Potter, who also won an NCAA championship (a rare grand slam in women’s ice hockey).
The National Hockey League has proven that just because a player scores many points, it is not indicative of their leadership or attitude. Some of the best players in the league are known for their defensive skills rather than offensive prowess. The Wisconsin Badgers women’s team (which played in the most recent NCAA Frozen Four) recognized Lauren Unser (who had less than six points), as the most inspiring player on the team. The most important aspects of sport are sportsmanship and winning graciously. As an articulate ambassador for the game, Chu might finish her career having won more than any other player, the   true measure of the best player. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

CWHL a great asset for Hockey Helps the Homeless

As a volunteer at the Ottawa edition of Hockey Helps the Homeless, I had the privilege of being the score keeper and the announcer at three men’s games (featuring National Hockey League alumni), and four women’s games (which featured pros from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League [some of which played in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games] and former National Team members competing in Canadian Interuniversity Sport). In writing about women’s ice hockey, I was intrigued as to the outcome of the women’s matches, and how the CWHL pros would play with the ladies who registered.
Four women’s clubs were registered for the HHtH tournament and each team featured at least two CWHL pros. The Ottawa Mission club featured Catherine Ward and Gillian Ferrari, while the Ottawa Inner City Missions club boasted the likes of Emmanuelle Blais and Marie-Philip Poulin. Of note, Poulin was originally meant to play for Ottawa Mission, and Ferrari for Inner City Missions. The two exchanged sweaters, and created a bit of confusion for this humble volunteer during the first game.
Daybreak Housing was the third club, and its roster consisted of Caroline Ouellette and CIS Player of the Year Ann-Sophie Bettez. The fourth club had an embarrassment of riches as Stanley’s Bar and Grill had three CWHL pros (USA national hockey team member Julie Chu, Montreal Stars founder Lisa-Marie Breton Lebreux, and Clarkson Cup champion Alyssa Cecere).
The highlight of the day was Catherine Ward playing in net as a goaltender for Ottawa Mission. Against Daybreak Housing, Ward had a shutout through almost two periods. Although she lost her shutout, she helped Ottawa Mission prevail by a 2-1 tally. Ward looked extremely comfortable in the net and must have had some goaltending tips from her former McGill teammate All-World goaltender Kim St. Pierre.
In the championship game between Ottawa Mission and Stanley’s Bar and Grill (both went 3-0 in the round robin), the pros were not allowed to participate (as they would be playing the final game of the evening versus the NHL alumni). Despite the exclusion of pros, both teams played an outstanding game. The pros that competed for Stanley’s Bar and Grill (Breton Lebreux, Cecere, Chu) showed true class by standing behind the player’s bench and showing their support for their teammates. The other pros sat in the stands, observing the action on the ice.
Heading into the championship, Ottawa Mission players Stephanie Briggs and Phyllis Bergmans now had autographs from the pros all over their jersey. Seeing the autographs adorned on their jerseys restored the true spirit of hockey; which is the enjoyment of the game. In addition, two skaters from Daybreak Housing were loaned out to Ottawa Mission for the title game; Renée Thouin (who assisted on many of Caroline Ouellette’s goals during the round robin), and Jocelyne McAllister. Thouin got to wear got to wear Marie-Philip Poulin’s #25 jersey, while McAllister wore the #16 jersey from Clarkson Cup champion Gillian Merrifield.
The final score was 3-1 for the Ottawa Mission although it was a tightly played contest that could have gone either way. Down 2-0, Stanley’s scored a goal, and pressed throughout the third period, but an empty net goal in the dying seconds sealed their fates. Goaltender Marie-Jose Blanchette was the star of the day for the Ottawa Mission. During the event, she tallied three wins (including the championship game) and always maintained her composure when blocking shots from the likes of Caroline Ouellette, Emmanuelle Blais and Marie-Philip Poulin. If there was an MVP award for this event, Blanchette would win it.
Stanley’s skater Susan Wright stood out as one of the stars of the game for the losing side. A gifted skater with breakout speed, she was the defense partner of Breton Lebreux in the earlier contests. In addition, she won the Shootout Contest (which also included men) and claimed a brand new stick as first prize. If the CWHL comes back to Ottawa, Wright would deserve an opportunity to attend training camp.
There were other players who stood out as well. Wright’s teammate Katherine Miller, is another strong skater and is very good at putting the puck in play. Ottawa Mission skater Nathalie Bedard spent the entire day just accumulating point after point. She was an impact player and seemed very comfortable playing against the pros. Renée Thouin (who played the round robin with Daybreak Housing) is another skater who would deserve an opportunity to attend a CWHL training camp. Playing with Ouellette, she played as if she was Jayna Hefford.
On the topic of Ouellette, she was definitely the player of the game in the CWHL vs. NHL Alumni game. Although Laurie Boschman (the first Ottawa Senators captain) played for the CWHL team (as the CWHL team only had nine players), Ouellette just placed the CWHL team on her shoulders and played with a fire that could not be extinguished.
The CWHL team prevailed by a 7-3 tally, but it was a real treat for the spectators in the stands to see so many greats on the ice at one time. To see 1972 Stanley Cup champion Rick Smith and 1993 NHL All-Star Brad Marsh on the ice together, playing against the likes of Clarkson Cup champions Catherine Ward and Julie Chu, it showed how hockey has grown and evolved, and that women have just as much of a place on the ice, while displaying sportsmanship and mutual admiration. 
Without doubt, if the CWHL pros wanted to, they could have scored goals at will. For even the most novice of fans, it would be easy to distinguish which women were the pros. Despite their superior skills, the pros did everything to make the participants feel welcome and valued. The pros were always passing the puck, and always displayed patience (as some participants tripped and had difficulties when shooting the puck). It was clear early on that the pros mission was to ensure that the participants had fun and cherished their experience, and that mission was truly accomplished.
The entire HHtH experience had a feeling of professionalism to it. All the volunteers worked tirelessly to ensure the event was a success, while all participants and pros, had a very beautiful jersey to commemorate their experience. To accommodate twelve teams (four women’s, eight men’s), every colour of the rainbow was used, with the Ottawa skyline adorning the bottom of the jersey. Each jersey had the player’s name and a number assigned to it, giving a feeling of pride, when wearing it. 
In speaking to some of the participants, being able to play with Olympians and Clarkson Cup champions was an unforgettable experience. The one common reply that all the participants gave is that they found the pros to be very nice and friendly. Having been to past CWHL and CIS events, I know firsthand that the pros are friendly and accessible, and enjoy their fans. Truly, they are not just role models, but class acts.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Cassie Campbell: worthy recipient as first female to claim Order of Hockey in Canada

The announcement in April 2012 that Hockey Canada would establish the Order of Hockey in Canada is another opportunity to help preserve the history of the women’s game while helping to acknowledge the legends that graced the ice. While some may have argued for Angela James, the first female recipient is Cassie Campbell-Pascall (the first female captain to lead Canada’s women to back to back gold medals in the Winter Games) and she will undoubtedly be the first of many legendary females to have this honor bestowed upon them.

While the first class of recipients (Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Gord Renwick, Jean Beliveau, Campbell) will augment discussion and generate debate (because players such as Maurice Richard, Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Howie Morenz, Syl Apps, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Paul Henderson, Phil Esposito Angela James were not included), the reality is that Hockey Canada has an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Although Angela James was the first Canadian woman in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and James and Geraldine Heaney were inducted together into the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Hall of Fame, Campbell proved she is deserving of the honor, as she was in many ways the first face of women’s hockey.

Manon Rheaume will always be the First Lady of Hockey, and the inspiration for so many others that followed (such as Charline Labonte and Kim St. Pierre). Her hockey cards remain collector’s items, but her professional career competing against men had its ups and downs. Despite the fact that she also competed against women, her accomplishments at the 1994 Women’s World Championships did not generate the media attention that it should have. Ironically, Campbell and Hayley Wickenheiser made their debuts with Team Canada at those 1994 Championships, and they would end up setting the table for the next decade of women’s hockey.

In autumn 1997, Campbell appeared on the cover of Elm Street magazine, and an entire nation of hockey fans fell in love with her. She would follow this by appearing with Don Cherry on cans of Chunky Soup, with Brendan Shanahan on boxes of Maple Frosted Wheaties (which would become collector’s items in the United States), and grace the cover of Chatelaine in winter 1998.  She would also have the honor of throwing out the first pitch at the Toronto Blue Jays 1998 Canada Day Game (versus the New York Mets)

There is no question that this level of publicity emanated from the fact that Canada was icing its first women’s ice hockey team in the Winter Games. With the excitement generated for the upcoming 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Campbell had that girl next door appeal. Although Manon Rheaume played on that 1998 team, Campbell was a new face. While Rheaume would gain an endorsement with Old Spice, and there were other players who gained endorsements (Geraldine Heaney was on the box of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Nancy Drolet graced the boxes of Reese Cereal, and Vicky Sunohara was with Betty Crocker), Campbell emerged as the media darling of that time.

Despite the new found fame (which may have been overwhelming and unexpected), Campbell never forgot she was a hockey player first. She would help Canada win the gold medal at the 1999 World Championships, and she would be named Canada’s captain (although it was briefly shared with Therese Brisson) in 2000. Her performances at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City (2002) and Torino (2006) cemented her legacy as a leader.

Although she would parlay her fame into a reporting job with Hockey Night in Canada, and hockey clinics with Chevrolet, the charisma and likeability she displayed paved the way for other women’s players. Jennifer Botterill would interview NHLers for Wayne Gretzky’s website, and also appear on HNIC, while Tessa Bonhomme would become a reporter for Leafs TV and win the top prize on Battle of the Blades. Some hardcore fans may argue that Campbell gained opportunities because she was pretty; she helped generate interest in women’s hockey (which turned many women’s players into household names), and escape the obscurity that plagued many players from the 1980’s and 1990’s. In the end, she gave more than just a face to women’s hockey, she provided a legacy.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Florence Schelling: making her case as the world’s finest

Based on her strong performances in international play and with the Northeastern Huskies of the NCAA, it was only a question of time before Florence Schelling knocked down the door and advised the world that she had arrived. The 2012 IIHF Women’s World Ice Hockey championship was the continuation of events in a year that has become her coming out party.
She ended her senior season with the Northeastern Huskies by leading them to a regular season championship, while placing herself as one of the three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award. While she was privileged to play with some superlative talent at Northeastern (Kendall Coyne, Julia Marty, Casey Pickett), she was the heartbeat of the program.
Some of her highlights at Northeastern included participating in the first women’s outdoor game at Fenway Park (January 8, 2010 versus New Hampshire), playing at Boston Arena (the rink Eddie Shore made famous), and helping the Huskies win the 2012 women’s Beanpot tournament (the Huskies first in over a decade). Her body of work culminated in being named a 2012 All-America selection, and Hockey East Player of the Year. Although her NCAA career has reached its zenith, a new road will be paved as she builds her case as the world’s finest netminder.
By helping Switzerland defeat Finland by a 6-2 tally in the bronze medal game at the 2012 Women’s Worlds, Schelling can proudly wear the first medal won by a Swiss team. While Finland has one of the world’s greatest netminders in Noora Raty (who helped Minnesota win the 2012 NCAA women’s Frozen Four), no one would dispute that Schelling had the better game. Overall, Schelling accumulated 219 saves in five tournament contests, including 50 in the bronze medal game.
As hockey afficionados can attest, this was not the first Women’s Worlds in which Schelling stole the show. At the 2008 Worlds, she was the only goaltender that played in every minute of every game (which included an overtime period and a shootout). In that tournament, she led the Swiss to a fourth-place finish, while sending a message that she was ready for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.
In the aftermath of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games (where Schelling helped the Swiss to a fifth place finish), the concern of the IIHF was that other countries were not catching up to the United States and Canada in terms of women’s ice hockey supremacy. What Schelling proved at the 2012 Worlds is that the future for the less competitive countries shall be defined in the quality of its goaltending.
After her superlative senior season, Schelling became one of the first players to declare herself eligible for the CWHL Draft. For all the New England sports fans that feared Schelling may return to Switzerland (and the Canadian sports fans who never had the opportunity to see her), she will continue to share her great goaltending gifts with North American fans for years to come.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

CWHL needs to reconsider Ottawa

With the 2013 Women’s World Championships coming to Ottawa, the nation’s capital is quickly becoming the hub of women’s ice hockey activity in Canada. That impact is being felt at various levels. The Ottawa Lady Senators of the Provincial Women’s Hockey League have developed many talents for the NCAA. Stefanie McKeough (from nearly Carlsbad Springs) participated in the championship game of the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four with the Wisconsin Badgers. Fannie Desforges (with the Ottawa Gee Gees) made a name for herself as a two sport star. Not only was she a Second Team QSSF All-Star selection (in hockey), but she claimed first place at the Red Bull Crashed Ice competition in Quebec City.

When the city of Ottawa hosted the NHL All-Star Game in February 2012, the festivities included Canadian gold medallist Meaghan Mikkelson Reid and Caroline Ouellette at the opening of the outdoor Rink of Dreams. Canadian legend Jennifer Botterill and USA national team member Jessie Vetter were part of an XM Satellite Radio and a fan meet and greet at the NHL All-Star Fan Fair. That same event included an autograph session with Battle of the Blades champion Tessa Bonhomme.

The training camp for Canada’s contingent at the 2012 Women’s World Championships in Burlington, Vermont was held at Ottawa’s Carleton University (a post secondary institution which is turning its own women’s ice hockey program around by employing former National Team coach Shelley Coolidge). Nearby Aylmer, Quebec hosted two matches in which the Canadian women’s team played boys teams from Quebec. A warm up match for said championships was held on March 31 at the Ottawa Civic Centre which featured appearances by former OWHA president Fran Rider, 1990 world champion member Sue Scherer and 2006 Torino Gold Medallist Katie Weatherston. 

Despite all the energy emanating from the capital region, one key component is missing: the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The CWHL’s Ottawa Lady Senators (formerly known as Capital Canucks, Raiders) were contracted in the aftermath of the 2009-10 season (along with the Vaughan Flames). In its brief history, the team had Katie Weatherston on its roster, while former Ottawa Senators player Brad Marsh served as head coach. Although the team was victimized by lack of marketing, fan apathy, and financial hardship, the city of Ottawa deserves a second chance.
Re-entry into the CWHL would produce a better franchise on talent alone. Over the last few years, local talent such as McKeough, Jenna Ciotti, Brianna and Cobina Delaney, Isabel Menard, Erica Howe, and Morgan Richardson have all earned scholarships to the NCAA. These players (along with local CIS talent Desforges, Danika Smith, Claudia Bergeron) would form the nucleus of a young, talented team that would compete for the pinnacle of CWHL play, the Clarkson Cup.

A litmus test to gage the interest (or potential) of CWHL hockey in the capital region would be for the cities of Gatineau, Quebec and Ottawa, Ontario host the Clarkson Cup as a joint effort. Preliminary matches featuring the Montreal Stars could be contested in Gatineau to stimulate French-Canadian interest, while the Carleton Ice House or Minto Sports Complex could host other preliminary matches. The Bell Sensplex would be a modest but suitable location for the championship game.

With the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League moving to a new arena in 2014 (and talks of a new arena in Gatineau), an Ottawa team in the CWHL could play in a modernized facility and add a touch of class to the league. Jeff Hunt, the owner of the Ottawa 67’s, is part of an ownership group for an expansion franchise in the Canadian Football League, would be an ideal owner for a CWHL franchise. From the outset, there would be no problems with an arena, and a CWHL team could easily be cross promoted with the 67’s. The same holds true for the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Hunt could easily use a new arena to host a hockey doubleheader; the 67’s would play the first game, and fans could stay to watch the CWHL could take to the ice and play afterwards. Based on the 67’s attendance, if only half the fans would stay to watch the CWHL game, there would be an attendance of 3-4,000 fans.

Even if Hunt would not want to own the team, if he would give a CWHL team in Ottawa free use of his arena (or free use of its practice facilities or office space), it would be a great civic gesture and a great statement about the commitment to developing women’s sport in Ottawa. In addition, it would help add a big league feeling to a beleaguered league.

Another aspect that would need to be considered in reviving a franchise in Ottawa is the potential involvement of the Do It For Daron charity, based out of Ottawa. There are many junior girls teams that have the DIFD purple heart logo emblazoned on their jerseys. The Ottawa Senators Foundation has worked with DIFD, and the Sens have hosted an annual Mental Health Awareness night in tribute to the Richardson family. In addition, the Carleton Lady Ravens hosted a DIFD Night in February 2012 (in a match versus Concordia). A new franchise in Ottawa could also have the purple heart on their jerseys as a way of helping to increase awareness, and host a DIFD night. As the CWHL has hosted games for charitable functions (breast cancer, blindness), DIFD would be an ideal complement.

Ottawa hockey figures such as Eugene Melnyk, Brad Marsh, Luke Richardson, Katie Weatherston and Shelley Coolidge have worked tirelessly to grow and maintain women’s ice hockey in Canada’s capital region. Nothing would be worse than to see their contributions gone for naught. The time is right to believe in Ottawa and ensure that the momentum that emanates from the 2013 Women’s World Championships carries through to newfound glories.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Whitecaps Invitational, Why Not?

In the aftermath of the 2012 Clarkson Cup, the absence of the Whitecaps from competing is visceral. As a direct rebuttal for not being part of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, it is time for the Whitecaps to raise the stakes and create a competition where teams will want to compete. A Whitecaps Invitational Tournament would give players something to compete for while providing a high quality of women’s ice hockey.
With all the hockey that goes in March and April (NCAA Frozen Four, Clarkson Cup, Esso Cup, PWHL playoffs, IIHF worlds, Canadian Interuniversity Sport championships, and the Minnesota High School title), there is a severe hockey hangover for fans of women’s ice hockey. An autumn tournament hosted by the Whitecaps would be a great way to start the season. A four team tournament that could feature the Whitecaps battle the CIS champion, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association champ, and a fourth club (either from Minnesota High School, NCAA Division III, or a CWHL club that did not qualify for the Clarkson Cup) that would bring a unique level of competition.
The University of Calgary Dinos won their first ever CIS championship and feature two participants from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games (Iya Gavrilova, Hayley Wickenheiser). In addition, two members of the coaching staff (Kelly Bechard, Danielle Goyette) have Winter Games gold, while goaltender Amanda Tapp once played for the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Any team that boasts the world’s greatest women’s player (Wickenheiser) is guaranteed to generate interest.
Of note, Team Alberta of the CWHL (although the Alberta Clippers would be a better nickname) shares some facilities with the Dinos. Both teams were the beneficiaries of a significant donation made by Calgary philanthropist Joan Snyder to help improve the women’s game. Team Alberta features Winter Games gold medalist Meaghan Mikkelson and if the two teams were willing to participate, it could keep the travel costs lower. With devoted media attention in Calgary for women’s hockey, interest would be high.
If a CWHL squad would not participate, a team of all-stars from Minnesota high school, or a top ranked high school team (such as Hill-Murray or Roseville) would add a different flavor. Although it would be likely that a high school team would lose (due to the higher level of competition), an all-star team (if one could be agreed upon) would be an ideal compromise. An all-star team would give the players confidence and provide them with an experience upon which to further develop their skills. Rather than be portrayed as a sacrificial lamb, players from the Minnesota high school system would generate interest throughout the state and help give the tournament more exposure.
Throughout the years, the Whitecaps have played exhibition games against teams from the WCHA. Including a WCHA team in a tournament helps give the games more meaning. As the Minnesota Golden Gophers claimed the WCHA and NCAA tournament titles, to see Calgary (with Wickenheiser) take on Noora Raty and her Gopher teammates would add a whole new dimension to the game. Wickenheiser and Raty have only competed against each other at the IIHF and Winter Games level. On another note, if a team such as the Wisconsin Badgers would be willing to participate, to see a living legend such as Jenny Potter try to score on Alex Rigsby (the most talented American netminder in the NCAA) would be one of those rare, unique moments that would find its way into hockey lore.
Such a tournament (regardless where the teams come from), with its diverse selection of teams would provide a celebration of women’s ice hockey talent at all levels. A Whitecaps Invitational would be a true friendship festival where all players would share a mutual love for hockey.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

WCHA remain Queen Bees of NCAA ice hockey

Despite the best efforts of rival conferences such as College Hockey America, ECAC, and Hockey East, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association claimed their 12th consecutive NCAA Frozen Four women’s title in March 2012. Despite the best efforts of schools such as Cornell and Boston College, the elusive Frozen Four championship remains a dream for them to attempt to claim next spring.
In a deserving finish, the top two ranked teams (both from the WCHA) played each other for the right to be called national champion. The Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA regular season champions) and Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA tournament champions) escalated their already intense, visceral rivalry to another level in an epic battle to be named National Champion.
Although NCAA hockey offers an extremely high level of competition (with 32 teams competing), the dominance of the WCHA in the Frozen Four makes the thought of parity an unlikely one. Many women’s sports at all levels seem to be defined by a high level of dominance by an elite few, while the rest just limp by year by year. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League is dominated by the Montreal Stars, while Canada and the United States have dominated every tournament offered by the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Other conferences have been very aggressive in recruiting, while many key records in NCAA hockey are not held by WCHA schools.  The all-time leading scorer (Meghan Agosta) and the all-time wins leader (Hillary Pattenden) in NCAA hockey are both from Mercyhurst, a College Hockey America school. Ironically, top schools such as Minnesota and Wisconsin tend to recruit from their home states. Despite passing on some bigger names, these two schools still find ways to remain the Queen Bees of NCAA ice hockey.
While Shannon Miller of Minnesota-Duluth has won five national championships by recruiting many Canadian and European players, this has not always yielded positive results for other schools. How can programs such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth find the way to win while others fail? At this point, there is such a psychological edge on all other schools, which it just seems like an insurmountable challenge.
Eventually, another conference will claim the NCAA Frozen Four, but the answer lies in coaching. Since the early 2000s, the top teams in the WCHA have been defined by their outstanding coaches. Minnesota landed Laura Halldorson (and then Brad Frost), Ohio State (despite not winning a Frozen Four) had a great leader in Jackie Barto. Meanwhile, Wisconsin obtained Mark Johnson (son of Badger Bob Johnson, and a member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team). Minnesota-Duluth set the precedent when they recruited Shannon Miller.
Not only is she deserving of a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but her contributions to international hockey, and her ability to motivate made her a prized acquisition for the Minnesota-Duluth program. Another aspect of Miller’s legacy (which has also made Minnesota-Duluth so powerful) is her ability to land top people as key assistant coaches. Winter Games silver medallist Stacy Wilson was a great asset in the early years of the program. Caroline Ouellette and Julie Chu brought youth to the coaching staff and benefitted greatly from Miller’s wisdom. Recently, Laura Schuler (a former head coach herself) has been a great asset to the Minnesota-Duluth coaching staff.
Katey Stone of Harvard (ECAC), and Doug Derragh of Cornell (ECAC) are superlative coaches, and the proof is in their contributions to coaching on their national teams (USA and Canada). Katie King of Boston College (Hockey East) is another coach that manages to keep her teams competitive. All three coaches have recruited extremely well and represent the best opportunity to snap the WCHA winning streak that has accumulated over the years.
The key question is, when will the streak stop? The best answer seems to lie in the 2013-14 NCAA season. With the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, it is likely that some coaching staffs will be disrupted (especially if Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson returns as USA head coach). In addition, any Canadian or American hopefuls for a Winter Games squad are expected to sacrifice an entire NCAA season to attend their respective countries training camps. 
Although many European players managed to make an appearance at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games while missing little time with their NCAA schools during the 2009-10 season, there is the issue of burnout. With more Europeans in the NCAA, and the fact that the Winter Games are in Sochi, Russia, the time and travel involved may result in some European players missing the entire 2013-14 NCAA season.
Other ECAC schools such as Clarkson, Dartmouth and Quinnipiac have recruited aggressively (landing Canadian National Under 18 players such as Erin Ambrose, Laura Stacey and Nicole Connery) and present opportunities for a wonderful Cinderella story in 2014. Although these highly touted recruits may be part of the 2018 Winter Games, they will likely participate for their respective schools in the 2013-14 NCAA season. Along with stars such as Lindsey Holdcroft (Dartmouth) and Kelly Babstock (Quinnipiac) entering their senior years in 2014, the foundation that has been built can provide any of these teams with the necessary edge to fly below the radar and be the Cinderella team that claims a Frozen Four for a team outside of the WCHA.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Time to officially recognize the Triple Gold Club for Women

With the Montreal Stars winning their third Clarkson Cup in four years, Stars skater Meghan Agosta became the fifth member of the Triple Gold Club for Women. To gain entry into said club, the feat is gained by winning a Gold Medal in the Winter Games, gold in the IIHF Women’s World Ice Hockey Championships, and the Clarkson Cup. Personally, my first exposure to such an idea was presented by renowned ice hockey author Andrew Podnieks in his book Canadian Gold 2010. The IIHF recognizes a Triple Gold club for men, which encompasses Winter Games gold, IIHF gold, and a Stanley Cup (which can be accomplished by players and coaches).
To this day, a Triple Gold Club for Women is not yet officially recognized by the International Ice Hockey Federation. Although the Clarkson Cup finds its home in the still growing (and financially beleaguered) Canadian Women’s Hockey League, it is the only championship for women outside of Winter Games, IIHF sanctioned tournaments, and the NCAA.
Although the Clarkson Cup is still on its way to try and become part of Canadian lore such as the Stanley Cup, it is a safe bet that the Clarkson will still exist, even if the CWHL collapses. Should the National Hockey League one day subsidize a professional women’s league, the Clarkson Cup would have to be the title that teams strive for.
Just like its male counterpart, the Stanley Cup, the Clarkson also holds a unique history (born out of  a direct rebuttal to the NHL lockout of 2004-05), that will continue to produce stories of wonder and amazement. The fact that an American team (the Minnesota Whitecaps) has already won the Cup adds a unique aspect to its history. If women’s ice hockey can continue to find a home at the Winter Games, it will be more momentum to help recognize the Triple Gold Club.
Without question, the credibility of the Triple Gold Club falls to the CWHL. If the league can survive by being profitable and/or growing its fan base, the Clarkson Cup will hold greater importance. This in turn will make the Triple Gold Club a prestigious accomplishment. The credibility of the CWHL will only rise substantially if there is a higher level of talent. This is imperative to help meet the IIHF halfway and prove that the Clarkson Cup is a worthy hockey trophy.
Welcoming the Minnesota Whitecaps would be a significant addition to the league (and help build a rivalry with the Boston Blades). With more NCAA talent emanating from Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the future of the Manitoba Maple Leafs suggests entry into the CWHL. With a small number of Europeans having competed in the NCAA and CWHL, a European player winning the Clarkson Cup would give it added value.
Although the Montreal Stars make winning the Clarkson Cup look easy, all one has to do is look at the legends competing for the Toronto Furies (Tessa Bonhomme, Sami Jo Small) and Brampton Thunder (Gillian Apps, Jayna Hefford, Cherie Piper), and see how frustratingly close they are to the Triple Gold Club (all five of these legends need the Clarkson Cup to gain entry).
If one aspect of the Triple Gold Club is guaranteed, it is that the membership will only grow. If Canada can obtain gold at the 2012 IIHF Women’s Worlds, Marie-Philip Poulin and Catherine Ward will be the sixth and seventh members. If Charline Labonte joins the Montreal Stars and wins the 2013 Clarkson Cup, she will also gain membership. In addition, Julie Chu (the only CWHL player to win the Clarkson Cup with two different teams) can find her way in the club if she can win the gold at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
Even if the IIHF is not ready to acknowledge a Triple Gold Club for Women, accomplishing the three is very difficult. (Of note, Triple Gold Club members Caroline Ouellette and Jenny Potter achieved a rare grand slam, by also winning an NCAA title, respectively). It is symbolic of the hard work and sacrifices women go through just to participate in ice hockey. As the New York Times reported, life for women in the CWHL is pay for play. In years past, players incurred expenses of at least $1000 just for the right to play in the league. For those players who never reached the Triple Gold Club, they have proven to have hearts of gold.