Monday, 25 January 2016

Notable weekend filled with pair of exciting women's All-Star Games

For all the speculation about a supposed animosity between the CWHL and the NWHL, both leagues participated in a spectacular showcase of elite women’s ice hockey. The weekend of January 23-24, 2016, shall be remembered as a time that featured two women’s hockey All-Star Games.

Hosted at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, the second CWHL All-Star Game was played on January 23 and broadcast on Rogers Sportsnet, a prominent Canadian sports network. The following day, the NWHL staged their midseason classic at Harbor Centre, home of the Buffalo Beauts. Taking into account that Buffalo is merely a two-hour drive from Toronto, hardcore women’s hockey fans could easily catch both games live over an unforgettable weekend.

Although the NWHL’s All-Star Game was its first, making it a historic event, the reality was that history was a key theme for both games. Toronto Furies blueliner Sena Suzuki, whose experience also involves competing with the Japanese national women’s team, became the first international player (in this case, international means not from Canada or the US) to compete in the CWHL All-Star Game.

Fellow Japanese team member Nana Fujimoto emulated Suzuki’s historic appearance with one of her own. Having played in the first-ever NWHL game as a member of the New York Riveters, Fujimoto became the first Japanese-born player to compete in the NWHL All-Star Game, while Riveters teammate Janine Weber became the first European player to participate in such an event.

With no shortage of star power, four remarkable women had the prestige of serving as team captains during an empowering All-Star weekend. The CWHL featured Natalie Spooner serving as the captain for Team White, the first Furies player to gain the honor, while Julie Chu of Les Canadiennes de Montreal was Team Black’s leader the first visible minority to serve as an All-Star Game captain. As a side note, the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game featured Team White and Team Red, rather than black for this version. 

Unlike the NWHL, which held its All-Star Fantasy Draft on December 10, the day after the All-Star Game captains were announced, the CWHL employed a different approach. Holding its draft the night before the All-Star Game, Spooner and Chu participated in a draft that saw tickets available to the public.

Brianne Jenner, the first round pick of the Calgary Inferno in the 2015 CWHL Draft, was the first pick overall in the CWHL’s All-Star Fantasy Draft, claimed by Team White’s captain, Natalie Spooner. The biggest surprise of the Draft involved a unique goaltending selection.

Team Black captain Julie Chu surprised many by selecting Toronto Furies goaltender Christina Kessler, although Charline Labonte, her teammates on Les Canadiennes de Montreal was still available. Spooner added to the intrigue by selecting Labonte with her next pick.

Of note, Kessler was a teammate of Chu when the two played together at the collegiate level at Harvard University. During the inaugural All-Star Game in 2014, Kessler had played on Team White, while Chu was with Team Red. Therefore, this edition of the CWHL All-Star Game provided the two with the rare chance to become teammates once again.

On the contrary, the NWHL opted to name their respective All-Star teams after their captains, a trend that has also existed in the NHL and with the NFL Pro Bowl. Hilary Knight, who actually competed in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game in 2014, served as the captain for the visiting team. Dubbed Team Knight, the squad was adorned in very sharp white colored jerseys, with yellow and blue trim as their respective team logos were prominently featured on the right shoulder of the jersey, while the left displayed the All-Star Game logo.

Buffalo Beauts captain Emily Pfalzer gained the privilege of leading her own All-Star team at her home rink. Employing color in their jerseys, Team Pfalzer, which was classified as the home team, had a very attractive navy blue while the trim featured powder blue and the same yellow found on Team Knight’s jersey. In addition, names were found on the bottom of the jersey, duplicating the tradition that is consistent with all NWHL jerseys in regular season play.

Both jerseys employed a buffalo head for their respective team logos, adorned with a crown on top, paying homage to Buffalo’s nickname as the Queen City. An extra touch was the letter K in the middle of the buffalo head logo for Team Knight, while a navy blue colored P was predominant in Team Pfalzer’s logo.

Each game featured dominant performances as Team Black captured the CWHL All-Star Game by a 5-1 mark. The game began in fitting fashion as all five of the league's general managers graced center ice for the ceremonial faceoff. In addition, the participating Boston Blades players had the number 24 on their helmets, in recognition of Denna Laing. 

Marie-Philip Poulin proved to be the difference maker for Team Black. Not only did she score the first goal of the game, she would provide a two-goal performance to be named Game MVP. 


Of note, Jillian Saulnier stripped Dru Burns of the puck, scoring on Team White goaltender Charline Labonte, for the play of the game. Team Black would jump out to a 3-0 lead before Jessica Campbell of Team White scored on Delayne Brian, preventing the first shutout in All-Star Game history.

Goals by Hayley Wickenheiser and Kim Deschenes in the third periods provided Team Black with an insurmountable 5-1 lead, which would be the final score. Julie Chu was the winning captain, signifying the second straight time that the winning team in the CWHL All-Star Game featured a member of Les Canadiennes as team captain.

Home ice advantage proved to be beneficial for Emily Pfalzer. Playing in front of the Buffalo Beauts fans at Harbor Center, Team Pfalzer prevailed by a convincing 9-1 tally over Team Knight. By the game’s final outcome, several other Beauts factored into a historic showcase of NWHL talent.

Four of the nine points came via Team Pfalzer winning the All-Star Skills Competition before the game. The highlight of the Skills Competition was supplied by Beauts’ blueliner Megan Bozek, who set a record in the hardest shot competition with a blistering speed of 88 mph.

Beauts teammate Hayley Williams, one of four participants voted in by fans would also make her presence felt in front of the hometown faithful, scoring Team Knight’s only goal, while fellow Beaut Devon Skeats scored for Team Pfalzer.

Of all the Beauts participants in the NWHL All-Star Game, Kelley Steadman continued to add to her growing legend in Buffalo sports. Having also scored the first goal in Beauts history, her fairy tale season in the NWHL continued as she scored twice in the All-Star Game, garnering Game MVP honors. a fitting end to a historic weekend.
CWHL photo credit: Jess Bazal, NWHL image obtained from NWHL.co

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