Calgary Inferno clinch spot in Clarkson Cup finals

As the 2016 Clarkson Cup shall be contested on NHL ice for the very first time, it is only fitting that a club is making its debut in the big game. With a semi-final postseason victory against the upstart Brampton Thuder, the Calgary Inferno have punched their ticket for the Cup for the first time ever in franchise history. Of all the current teams in the CWHL, the Inferno were the only team heading into this season that had not yet appeared in a Cup final.

Photo credit: Dave Holland

Photo credit: Dave Holland

Since its founding in 2011 as Team Alberta, with its navy blue and gold colors, the evolution of a franchise into a championship contender has been a true fairy tale. Of note, three members from that inaugural season shall be competing in the 2016 edition of the Clarkson Cup. Jenna Cunningham, who became the first member of the franchise to reach 100 career games and 60 career points (all with Team Alberta/Calgary), is accompanied by blueliners Meaghan Mikkelson-Reid and Kelsey Webster.

The first postseason game saw Calgary double up against Brampton, the first-ever champions in league history, by a 4-2 tally. In the first frame, Hayley Wickenheiser and Jillian Saulnier would both score their first CWHL playoff goals on the power play. This trend would continue as Blayre Turnbull logged her first playoff goal, which would also stand as the game-winning tally. Superstar forward Rebecca Johnston would ice the game with an empty net score.

Attempting to regroup in the second game, Brampton played aggressively. Outshooting the Inferno by a 33-31 margin, goaltender Delayne Brian nullified seven Brampton power plays, including four in the second stanza. Three goals in the first period (scored by Meaghan Mikkelson-Reid, Bailey Bram and a power play marker by rookie Brigitte Lacquette) provided the Inferno with a comfortable 3-1 lead.

Goals by Courtney Birchard and Rookie of the Year finalist Rebecca Vint chipped away at the lead, as the score was tied midway through the third period. A combination of Team Canada members would provide the Inferno with the go-ahead goal. Saulnier and Jennier would earn the assists as Johnston scored on Brampton backstop Erica Howe at the 12:27 mark of the third, earning the game-winning tally.

The pieces to this puzzle were assembled over several seasons but the journey has been nothing short of enjoyable. After Hillary Pattenden, the first pick overall in the 2012 CWHL Draft, opted not to play in the league (pursuing her education in Southern Ontario), the club found its franchise goaltender with Delayne Brian in 2013. Her goaltending proved crucial towards Calgary earning its first trip to the postseason in 2014. Rewarded for her exemplary play with the 2014 CWHL Goaltender of the Year Award, the first member of the Inferno to capture a major award, Brian has also competed with the Canadian national women’s ball hockey team, capturing a gold at the 2015 ISBHF Worlds.

Having scored the first outdoor goal in NCAA women’s hockey, Brittany Esposito was another piece that paid remarkable dividends for the Inferno. While free agent Rebecca Johnston would win the 2015 Angela James Bowl, complemented by league MVP honors, Esposito would tie Danny Stone’s franchise record for most points in one season by a rookie. Esposito and Johnston also earned the distinction of playing in the first two CWHL All-Star Games.

Although Stone currently plays in Europe, she was one of three Saskatchewan Huskies alum (including Chelsea Purcell and Julie Paetsch, a former Saskatoon Valkyries running back) that helped instill confidence in the franchise, representing a turning point towards winning. After a 2013-14 season that saw Stone and Paetsch ignite the offensive spark for the Inferno, Johnston proved to be nothing short of electrifying.

With a strong team culture that included the likes of Bailey Bram, Jessica Campbell and Jessica Wong, the first visible minority selected first overall in the history of the CWHL Draft, a trio of popular players who bring strong enthusiasm for the game, there was a feeling that a championship was within reach. Campbell would make her impact felt on two empowering occasions. At the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game, Campbell became the first rookie to serve as All-Star captain. In addition, Johnston took home Game MVP honors. During the 2015-16 season, Campbell helped organize a fundraiser for Do It for Daron, which saw the team decked out in sharp purple jerseys, while raising funds for mental health, a cause that only strengthened the existing team spirit.

This season, a solid rookie class involved the likes of Brianne Jenner, Elana Lovell, Jillian Saulnier and Hayley Wickenheiser. Of note, Wickenheiser did play for the former Calgary Oval X-Treme in the now defunct Western Women’s Hockey League, but this is her first season in CWHL play. Such a remarkable group shined in the second CWHL All-Star Game, as Saulnier and Wickenheiser scored goals, held in January at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.

Considering that Lovell was the only member of the Inferno nominated for a major league award, it also serves as an extra form of motivation. Ranking in the top ten of the scoring race for the Angela James Bowl, Lovell ranked third in scoring among league rookies, trailing Brampton’s Rebecca Vint and teammate Brianne Jenner, who paced all first-year players. Having played alongside Wickenheiser with the University of Calgary Dinos, where the two captured a Canadian Interuniversity Sport national championship, the first in program history, a Clarkson Cup would add another unique first to their careers.

In addition, a Cup win would place Wickenheiser in the Triple Gold Club for Women. Not officially recognized by the IIHF, the Club consists of women that have won Winter Games Gold, IIHF World Gold and the Cup. Taking into account the NWHL’s Isobel Cup shall be contested this season, criteria may need to be reconsidered in future. For now, Wickenheiser would join fellow Inferno teammates Haley Irwin (on injured reserve), Brianne Jenner and Meaghan Mikkelson in such special status.

Returning to NHL ice for the Cup finals, the game shall be held at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre. Taking into account that Calgary, Montreal and Toronto are also league sponsors, it is surprising that the finals are not being held in one of those arenas. The last time that CWHL hockey was contested in Ottawa was during the 2009-10 season, when the Lady Senators were contracted. Although the IIHF Women’s World Championships were held in Ottawa in 2013, there has never been any mention of a possible return to league play for Canada’s capital.

Considering that Ottawa has been a significant part of women’s hockey history, with exciting firsts such as the inaugural IIHF Women’s Worlds, the debut match for Canada’s U18 program, along with the formation of Canada’s ice sledge women’s hockey team, complemented by a proud ball hockey legacy and Jayna Hefford’s 200th appearance for Team Canada, it would only be fitting if the Inferno added to such history. Capturing its first-ever Clarkson Cup would not only raise the sporting morale of Western Canadian hockey fans, it would certainly augment discussion about possible westward expansion, while bringing added importance to the proud role of Alberta’s role in the Canadian identity of women’s hockey.