International rivals achieve historic milestones as teammates in Clarkson Cup victory

Having appeared in three Winter Games for Finland’s national women’s ice hockey team, Venla Hovi has also enjoyed a USPORTS national championship. As the first goaltender to compete at all three levels of the United States women’s hockey programs (U18, U22, Senior), Alex Rigsby added to her growing legacy with a gold medal at the most recent Winter Games.

While both of their careers have taken on a new sheen, it would have been understandably unforeseen for two world-class players to become teammates in the unlikeliest of places. Both members of the Calgary Inferno’s 2018 draft class, the two gathered in one of Western Canada’s premier markets for hockey, providing their new club team with an opportunity to remain firmly entrenched among the upper echelon of the CWHL.

Already bringing an element of familiarity to Western Canadian hockey fans, Hovi had previously starred with the University of Manitoba Bisons. Leading the program to its first-ever national championship in Canadian university women’s hockey last spring, she was rewarded for her efforts with the honor of the Bisons Female Athlete of the Year, a crowning touch to a brilliant run. Such an honor was also part of a monumental time that had seen Hovi capture a bronze medal with Finland at the 2018 Winter Games.

In the aftermath of her first season of CWHL hockey, Rigsby already left her mark, honored as the Goaltender of the Year. Also gaining a spot in the CWHL All-Star Game, suiting up for Team Purple alongside rival goalie Emerance Maschmeyer, the two would renew rivalries at the 2019 Clarkson Cup Finals.

With the first place Calgary Inferno disposing of the Toronto Furies in the semi-finals, while Les Canadiennes de Montreal avenged their postseason elimination from 2018, defeating the defending Cup champion Markham Thunder, the 2019 Finals would extend the growing rivalry between Rigsby and Maschmeyer, involving their NCAA days and their epic overtime confrontation at the IIHF Women’s Worlds in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Making 25 saves in a convincing 5-2 victory, highlighted by keeping Montreal off the scoresheet in the first period, Rigsby displayed a tremendous composure, instilling confidence in her teammates that the Cup was within reach. Fellow American Zoe Hickel scored twice for First Star of the Game honors, while fellow gold medalists Kacey Bellamy assisted on Brianna Decker’s Cup clinching goal, affirming the American invasion of Calgary, the result was the second Clarkson Cup championship in franchise history.

With the Cup win, all of the aforementioned added a unique element to the lore of their careers. Bellamy and Decker are among a rare group of women (including fellow American Julie Chu) to have won a Clarkson Cup with both an American and Canadian team. Hickel is now part of a rapidly expanding club of women who have both Clarkson and Isobel Cup wins on their hockey resumes.

For Rigsby, the victory took on an even more monumental meaning. Becoming the first-ever American goaltender to gain entry into the Triple Gold Club for Women, she is one of only five goalies to have achieved the trifecta of a Clarkson Cup, an IIHF World Championship and a Gold Medal at the Winter Games. The others include Kim St. Pierre, Charline Labonte, Sami Jo Small and Genevieve Lacasse.

In addition, Rigsby is the first goaltender to have Triple Gold honors plus an NCAA Frozen Four title, giving her a Grand Slam. As a side note, position players to have achieved the Grand Slam include Jenny Potter, Caroline Ouellette, Hilary Knight (who played for Les Canadiennes in the 2019 Finals), Brianna Decker and Meghan Duggan.

Worth noting, Rigsby also holds a special connection to Lacasse, duplicating the unique achievement that defined her inaugural season of CWHL hockey in 2012-13. Lacasse added to her own legend by capturing the 2013 CWHL Goaltender of the Year Award, while leading the Boston Blades to an emotional victory over the Montreal Stars in the Clarkson Cup Finals, the first in Blades franchise history.

Appearing in 25 regular season games for the Inferno, Hovi managed a respectable 14 points, on the strength of 10 assists, placing second among rookies with her new team. With only four penalty minutes all season, and a very respectable +13 ranking, she also managed a four-game scoring streak.

Throughout this sojourn into professional hockey, ties to Hovi’s homeland were always prevalent. Scoring the first CWHL goal of her career against China’s Shenzhen KRS Rays, the opposing goaltender was Noora Raty, who has called Hovi a teammate at three Winter Games (2010, 2014, 2018). As a side note, Hovi’s final regular season series took place in China, opposing Raty once again. Although Raty did not find the back of the net, she gained an assist on a third period goal by Zoe Hickel, in her last regular season appearance.

In 2018, Raty made her own mark on Clarkson Cup lore, becoming the first European goaltender to start a Finals (and the first European to win Goalie of the Year honors), as she and American icon Kelli Stack, the first American to win the Angela James Bowl, propelled the expansion Kunlun Red Star into the Clarkson Cup. Although Laura Stacey, who gained a silver medal at the 2018 Winter Games, scored the overtime winning goal, Hovi built on Raty’s legacy one year later.

Despite going pointless in the postseason, Hovi enjoyed an unprecedented honor, as she became the first player from Finland to win the Clarkson Cup. Taking into account that she also captured the Golden Path Trophy in 2018, awarded to the USPORTS National Championships, she is likely the first Finnish player to win two major championships in back-to-back seasons with Canadian-based teams.

The international connection extended beyond the presence of Rigsby and Hovi. For a franchise that once drafted Claudia Tellez, a Mexican-born player, Of note, Aina Mizukami, who competed with the Japanese national team at two different Winter Games competitions suited up for the Inferno in 2018-19. While Mizukami’s future competing in North America is a source of speculation, her possibly final game with the Inferno is one that saw her became the third player from Japan to have hoisted the Clarkson Cup. Coincidentally, the first two Japanese players, Kanae Aoki and Aina Takeuchi also contributed towards a Cup victory for Calgary, achieving the feat back in 2016, also the first Cup Finals contested in an NHL arena.

ESPN Body Issue commemorates meaningful year for superstars of American women’s hockey

Although Julie Chu (2011) and Hilary Knight (2014) were the first women’s ice hockey players to grace the pages of ESPN’s Body Issue, the 2017 edition brought with it an unprecedented number of players, and an even wider scope of interest via social media. With six players taking to the ice wearing only their skates, the only element that may have outshone their beauty was their confidence.

Considering that six players grace the ice for a hockey team, there is an element of irony yet coincidence. Ironic as six players compose a hockey team, and each of the six players represented a position. Goaltender Alex Rigsby was joined by blueliners Kacey Bellamy and Monique Lamoureux-Morando, while the forwards were composed of Brianna Decker, Meghan Duggan and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson. Yet, there is coincidence based on the notion that the team’s culture is built on unity.

While Brent Burns and Joe Thornton of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks also appeared in the Body Issue, compared to their competitors from the fairer sex, they were certainly not the main draw. While that may represent an anomaly in the world of hockey, the men of the game forced to be complicit, the reality is that the appearance of these wondrous women also represented a cultural crossover.

Heading into the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championships, the innocence of the game was tarnished by the complexities of real life. With players facing severe economic strain, compounded by salary reductions in America’s only professional league for women, the members of the national team made the courageous statement that they wanted a living wage, needing sufficient stability to see the game grow.

As Duggan reveals in an interview with ESPN, she received a text from tennis legend Billie Jean King showing her support for the cause. The impact of such an incredible figure in female sport only validated the brave and justified fight for pay equity.

In spite of USA Hockey threatening to bring replacement players, the support in the media from substantial groups, such as the NFL Players Association, helped right the path, bringing the women a long overdue compensatory plan. Symbolically, the presence of six women from the national team is definitely an extension of such a strong unified front, embodying what makes this team so special.

Undoubtedly, the most confident photo among the portfolio visible online is one where all six players display their posteriors. While there is no question that such a photo reveals an empowering beauty, it is open to interpretation if there is a dual meaning. Perhaps unintentional, but the photo may be perceived as a symbolic protest of the fight endured for pay equity, a type of “Kiss my ***” message projected in a truly captivating photo.

Captured behind the lens of photographer Joe Pugliese, his portfolio certainly affirms that these wondrous women are breathtaking. While their strength equally reveals an amazing inner beauty, a raw confidence emanates from these timeless photos. Considering that the ages of the players featured are between ages 24 and 30, these photos have immortalized their physiques, preserving their peak, while presenting them as pillars of strength for their sport.

Photo credit: Joe Pugliese (No copyright infringement intended)

Calling the Minnesota Whitecaps her club team, Alex Rigsby was the youngest player among the six who were photographed, only 24 years old. She makes history as the first goaltender to grace the pages of the Body Issue. Whitecaps teammates Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux share in Rigsby’s sense of history, becoming the first twins to pose in the Body Issue.

Of note, the Body Issue holds a connection to the game beyond players appearing in its pages. Harrison Browne, who was Duggan’s teammate during the Buffalo Beauts inaugural season, found the courage to reveal a transgender status after seeing Chris Mosier appear in its pages.

Meghan Duggan, the captain of the US national team experienced a pair of unique milestones in 2017. With the IIHF Women’s Worlds contested in Plymouth, Michigan, the coordinates were a source of seemingly endless motivation, culminating with the first gold medal won by the US on home soil. Coincidentally, fellow Body Issue model Hilary Knight scored the gold medal clinching goal in overtime.

From a professional standpoint, 2017 also saw another significant milestone in Duggan’s playing career. Along with Corinne Buie, they became the first (and only) women to appear in the first two Isobel Cup finals with different teams.

Photo credit: Joe Pugliese (No copyright infringement intended)

While Duggan was also featured on Cosompolitan’s website, her courageous battle in overcoming concussion was one of the most heartwarming stories of Sochi. She would also make national news in 2014 with a polite display of levity, mimicking Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda in her second trip to the dugout at hallowed Fenway Park.

Such humor also defined part of the interview that the six players took part in with ESPN. With Duggan known for her strong commitment to a healthy diet, reference was made to the fact that a teammate had jokingly seen her eat one Cheeto in five years. The interview also revealed that Duggan had once made the friendly wager that if her team could capture both the Frozen Four and the World Championships in 2011, she would eat a burger from McDonald’s.

Rigsby joked that they videotaped Duggan not only consuming said burger, but removing it from the McDonald’s bag and unwrapping it. Of note, Rigsby and Decker were Duggan’s teammates on the Wisconsin Frozen Four champion of 2011, the same year that saw Duggan bestowed the honor of the prestigious Patty Kazmaier Award.

A teammate of Duggan’s at four different levels (NCAA, IIHF, CWHL, NWHL), Brianna Decker is also part of the sorority of players that have won the Patty Kazmaier Award. Recognized as the Most Outstanding Player of the 2017 IIHF Worlds, such a distinction was part of a much bigger reward.

Heading into the fight for pay equity, there were several rookies on Team USA who were afraid that there chance at competing for the national team would be dissolved. Decker stood guard over them, a sentinel with a reassuring presence, offering the promise of better days. Not only did those better days come, but the gold medal celebration saw Duggan admirably talk to the concerned rookies, testament to her amazing leadership.

The sixth player from this group is another of Team USA’s most admired leaders. An All-Star at both the CWHL and NWHL levels, Kacey Bellamy is one of the alternate captains for the national team. Gracious and amicable, Bellamy is truly the women’s hockey superstar reimagined. Although she may be the oldest player in this group, having turned 30 earlier this year, Bellamy brings a wisdom that symbolizes her remarkable strength, signifying an amazing perfection as an athlete and as a woman, providing an ideal yet captivating appeal.

Although the fascinating reality of the Body Issue would indicate that these photos fantasize an amazing magic which takes place outside of the game’s lines, mythologizing these amazing warriors of the rink, while cultivating a female epiphany, Bellamy experienced another magical element, one that truly signifies the feeling of collaboration for the national team.

With 10 members of the gold medal winning national team raised in New England, the Boston Red Sox showed a touch of class by inviting them to participate in a pregame ceremony at Fenway Park. Although Duggan was given the honor of taking the first pitch (something she had already done in 2014), she affably gave the ball to Bellamy. Launching the magical orb across home plate, it signified more than just a unique birthday gift for Bellamy, it was the embodiment of the amazing gift of friendship between her and Duggan.

Whether the attention that emanates from the Body Issue shall actually increase the interest in women’s ice hockey at numerous levels, especially as the professional game continues to try and find its footing, is difficult to anticipate. As anticipated, these players have been serenaded online with effusive praise for their appearance in the Body Issue, many fans falling head-over-heels over a group of women whose brave efforts for equality is destined to make them icons with the next generation, bringing about a brighter future.

As a side note, some athletes have reached new popularity following their Body Issue appearance. Among them is archer Khatuna Lorig, who appeared in the 2015 edition. The following year, she would be featured on a trading card in Upper Deck’s annual “Goodwin Champions” release. In addition, she would gain a commercial endorsement.

Undoubtedly, one could imagine that Duggan should expect some kind of increase in
popularity. Based on her brave battle with concussions, and her discipline regarding diet, she would be an ideal athlete to have a book deal, and she certainly stands as one of the most notable ambassadors for the national team.

Of note, the Body Issue pictorial holds the potential for another unique coincidence, resulting in a strong link between the women of soccer and hockey. Just weeks prior to the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Brandi Chastain appeared in a complete state of undress in Gear Magazine. With a photo that made international news, gaining equal parts acclaim and criticism, it was a cascading event that helped launch women’s soccer into popular culture.

It was a very unique coincidence that Chastain would score the Cup-clinching goal in the shootout against China, generating cultural currency. Although her goal is remembered more than her photo in Gear, seemingly faded with the passage of time, there is no question that her goal placed her in the pantheon of sporting immortals.

Undoubtedly, this year’s edition of the ESPN Body Issue has established more common ground between the stars of women’s soccer and women’s hockey. Not only have players such as Rigsby and the Lamoureux twins excelled in soccer during their high school years, they stand shoulder to shoulder with the giants of the US national soccer team.

Of note, there are two other aspects. Both US national teams have shown great courage in the fight for pay equity. Four years before the glory of the 2015 FIFA World Cup, the US experienced a heartbreaking loss in the 2011 Finals. Considering the tragic outcome of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, the women of hockey are hoping to duplicate the efforts of their soccer sisters, gaining an elusive gold medal four years later, working towards redemption in Pyeongchang.

Such ambition mirrors the heartbreak of the US soccer team. While the program boasted of dominance in the Summer Games, frequently holding a vice-like grip on the gold medal, it experienced numerous frustrations in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which is considered the crown jewel of the sport.

After suffering an emotional loss in the 2011 FIFA World Cup final to Japan, a sentimental favorite after its nation was decimated by flooding, the road back to glory was a long one. Rewarded for their patience with the chance to emerge victorious in 2015, the victory also brought with it a paradigm shift, raising the case for pay equity in sport, foreshadowing the admirable fight of the women of hockey.

Even though these photos will likely be the subject of attention leading into Pyeongchang, imagine if a similar winning scenario took place with the women featured in the Body Issue. What if an offensive superstar such as Decker, or perhaps one of the Lamoureux sisters scored the gold-medal clinching goal? Maybe Rigsby shall be the starting goaltender in such a game, triumphant in the biggest game of her career. While these six astounding women simply hope to emulate their soccer sisters with a Winter Games gold medal after a four year heartbreak, if one of them played the key role in this dramatic finish, it would only make the Body Issue photo shoot more culturally relevant.

While such a victorious achievement would place Bellamy, Duggan, Decker and Monique Lamoureux (along with former Body Issue model Knight) into the Triple Gold Club for Women, immortalizing their legacies, it would place them in a heroic place worthy of their presence as both world-class athletes and world-class people.