Monday, 24 November 2014

Titanic trio from national team headline new-look Inferno offense

The feeling of optimism that opens the Calgary Inferno’s fourth season is defined by an energetic and exciting offense that evaded the club for several seasons. Off-season trades for Haley Irwin and Bailey Bram were complemented by the free agent signing of Rebecca Johnston.

Considering that Irwin and Johnston each won their second Winter Games gold medals at Sochi 2014, it supplies Calgary with two of its most accomplished players on offense. Complemented by Bram, the first woman from Manitoba to compete on Canada’s U18, U22 and Senior Teams (she won gold at the 2012 IIHF Women’s Worlds), it composes a titanic trio that transform the franchise into Clarkson Cup contenders.

Coincidentally, all three of them were selected in the landmark 2012 CWHL Draft, which would lay the foundation for a new generation of CWHL superstars. Irwin and Bram were selected by the Brampton Thunder, although Irwin would end up playing for the Montreal Stars, while Johnston was drafted by the Toronto Furies.

Skating for their respective clubs, this titanic trio would log a cumulative total of 64 points, (Johnston with 25, Irwin with 21, Bram with 18). In addition, they would finish among the league’s Top 20 scorers that season, with Johnston ranking highest with a seventh overall finish.

That season, all of them would experience postseason play, with Johnston scoring a game winning goal against Brampton in the final game of the Clarkson Cup round robin. Irwin would appear with the Montreal Stars in the Clarkson Cup final, the fourth in franchise history.

At the end of the 2012-13 CWHL season, the franchise (known then as Team Alberta) was faced with a dilemma. While the roster had five defenders who had donned the Canadian jersey (Jocelyne Larocque, Meaghan Mikkelson, Bobbi-Jo Slusar, Tara Watchorn and Kelsey Webster), its offensive unit lacked firepower, scoring the least amount of goals in the league.

Rechristening themselves as the Calgary Inferno in the autumn of 2013, the club found a pair of dynamic players from the University of Saskatchewan. Selecting Julie Paetsch (who has also played football for Canada’s national women’s team at the IFAF Worlds) and Danielle Stone, it ushered in a new era of offensive confidence for the franchise.

Both would finish in the top 10 of the league’s scoring race as Stone broke the Inferno’s scoring records that were once held by Jenna Cunningham. Along with 2010 NCAA Frozen Four hero Jessica Wong, selected first overall in the 2013 CWHL Draft, the result was Calgary’s first-ever winning season and its first-ever postseason berth.

With the astute off-season work of general manager Chantal Champagne, the 2014-15 campaign may be the best-ever for the young franchise. Sadly, the acquisition of more firepower did result in one visceral trade. Larocque, who was a member of the gold medal roster at Sochi was traded to the Brampton Thunder in exchange for Bram. Ironically, both players in the trade grew up in Ste. Anne, Manitoba.

Of note, Bram’s acquisition was the start of a bold message sent to the league that Calgary was determined to build on its historic season and continue winning. Taking into account that Bram played with the likes of Gillian Apps, Lori Dupuis, Jayna Hefford and Cherie Piper in Brampton, the exposure to such accomplished superstars will likely help transform Bram into a better leader.

After the acquisition of Bram, the idea that two of Sudbury’s greatest women’s hockey players would find their way to Calgary seemed unlikely. Having both played for the Sudbury Lady Wolves in their junior years, Irwin and Johnston add a big-league feeling to the Inferno.

Signed as a free agent, Johnston may be the catalyst that helps the Inferno achieve their Clarkson Cup dreams. Although the Furies have found some offensive gems in Carolyne Prevost and Alyssa Baldin during Johnston’s absence in 2013-14, making the offensive situation very crowded, Johnston is exactly the franchise player that the Inferno need.

A change of scenery will allow Johnston, quite possibly the most accomplished forward ever signed by the Inferno, the chance to stake her claim as one of the league’s elite forwards may certainly be fulfilled in Calgary. Playing alongside Bram and Irwin certainly provides for friendly surroundings also. Of note, the three have already combined for 26 combined points in the first seven games of the season.

With a strong physical presence, Irwin (who was Canada’s captain at the 2014 Four Nations Cup) comprises the other half of the Sudbury connection. Considering her classic confrontation with Monique Lamoureux (who was drafted by Boston in 2014) at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, it will be interesting to see if the two can renew rivalries on CWHL ice.

Making their debut with the franchise on October 18, the number 6 adorned the back of Johnston’s jersey, while Irwin donned number 12 and Bram had the number 27, a big numerical difference, compared to the number 67 she wore with Brampton. Despite a hard-fought loss to the Toronto Furies, they would bear a positive influence on the Inferno offence.

Johnston would score the Inferno’s first goal of the season at the 7:12 mark of the first period. Irwin would log a power play marker with assists going to Bram and 2014 Inferno draft pick (and Northeastern alum) Brittany Esposito. Of note, Johnston, Irwin and Bram combined for a six-point output with Johnston logging a pair of goals, while Irwin and Bram recorded two points each.

The following day would yield a more positive result as the Inferno prevailed by a convincing 5-2 tally at the hands of the Brampton Thunder. While Inferno veteran Jenna Cunningham provided heroics with a sterling performance, recording her first hat trick of the season, Johnston contributed with one goal and three assists, while Irwin found the back of the net for one goal.

Through the first seven games of the 2014-15 CWHL season, the top three leaders in the scoring race are all Inferno skaters, a franchise first. Johnston leads the way with 12 points, with Irwin following closely behind with 10 points. Esposito ranks third with six points, while leading all rookies. In addition, all three were named to the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game to be contested at the Air Canada Centre. As a side note, Bram has accumulated four points while providing solid leadership. 

As a bold new era begins in Calgary, this titanic trio is working tirelessly towards maintaining the winning traditions of women’s hockey in Calgary. A standard that was set by the WWHL’s Calgary Oval X-Treme over a decade ago and the Calgary Dinos of Canadian Interuniversity Sport.