Rebecca Johnston holds the hot hand during CWHL’s opening weekend

Heading into the 2014-15 Canadian Women’s Hockey League season, the Calgary Inferno boasted the finest off-season among the five franchises. In addition to the offseason trades for Mercyhurst Lakers legend Bailey Bram and 2014 Sochi gold medalist Haley Irwin, the biggest acquisition may have been the free agent signing of Rebecca Johnston.

A former first round pick of the Toronto Furies in the 2012 CWHL Draft, Johnston has enjoyed a career filled with accolades and awards, including two gold medals at the Winter Games. During the CWHL’s opening weekend of the 2014-15 campaign, Johnston’s signing already began to pay dividends for the franchise.

RJCal

Starting the season against the defending Clarkson Cup champion Toronto Furies, Johnston recorded two goals in a 5-4 shootout loss. Despite the loss, the presence of Johnston, Bram and Irwin, certainly Calgary’s Big Three on offense, constantly added pressure on the Furies. Of note, the Inferno reached double digits in shots for each period (17 in the first, 16 in the second, 14 in the third).

While Kristy Zamora, appearing in her 172nd career game, four away from breaking the league’s all-time record for games played, opened the scoring at 2:20, Johnston led the charge to tie the score. With an assist by Jessica Wong (the first overall pick in the 2013 edition of the CWHL Draft), Johnston slipped the puck past former Canadian national team member Christina Kessler at the 7:12 mark.

Although the first period ended in a 3-3 tie, featuring power play goals from each side, Johnston provided the Inferno with its first lead of the game at the 14:42 mark of the second stanza. With assists going to Jacquie Pierri and Madison Haller, the youngest player in the CWHL, it provided the Inferno with confidence.

Despite the fact that Tessa Bonhomme would tie the game for the Furies, forcing overtime and a proceeding shootout, Johnston led all players in the game with two goals scored, earning one of the game’s Three Stars. Her presence certainly created a positive influence. Of note, the Inferno outshot the Furies by a convincing 52-29 margin. Other offensive highlights on the night included a pair of assists by Bram, a power play goal by Irwin, and the first CWHL points for rookies Sarah Davis and Louise Warren.

The following day, the Inferno travelled to Brampton to challenge the new-look Thunder. With Brampton’s rookie backstop Erica Howe making her CWHL debut, it would prove to be a baptism of fire.
Of note, Jenna Cunningham scored a hat trick, while rookie Brittany Esposito logged three assists in only her second CWHL game. Their contributions were complemented by a three point night by Johnston.

Although Howe was solid between the pipes, nullifying four Inferno power play attempts in the first period, Calgary would jump out to a 1-0 advantage. Cunningham logged the first goal of the game at 9:02 with Johnston and Esposito earning the helpers.

During the second stanza, Calgary jumped out to leads of 2-0 and then 3-1. Johnston would score at 4:16, while Haley Irwin logged a power play goal just 17 seconds into their first power play of the second, with Johnston earning her third point of the game. Ironically, Laura Fortino, the first pick overall of the 2014 CWHL Draft was serving a cross checking penalty.

As a side note, Fortino would log her first career CWHL point during Brampton’s goal at the 5:56 mark of the second. Carly Mercer would score on the power play, while Fortino and 2014 Kazmaier Award winner Jamie Lee Rattray earned the assist. Coincidentally, it was the first career CWHL point for all three of the players.

Cunningham would score two more times in the final frame while Mercer logged another tally in the 5-2 final. For the second consecutive game, the Inferno would reach double digits in shots in each of the periods. A total of 13 shots were registered in the first, followed by a game-high 15 shots in the second, while the squad peppered Howe and backup goalie Sonja van der Bliek with 14 more shots in the third.

Perhaps the most irmpessive statistic was the fact that seven different Inferno players registered at least one point (Cunningham, Esposito, Irwin, Johnston, Hayleigh Cudmore, Madison Haller and Jessica Wong). With a proud franchise looking to build on its first postseason appearance in 2014, Johnston may be the catalyst that brings them to even bigger heights in 2015, as the club looks to win its first regular season title and qualify for its first Clarkson Cup finals.

Haley Irwin westward bound as Calgary Inferno rebuilds their offense

Coming off a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Haley Irwin’s return to the CWHL shall find her with a new club. Acquired from the Montreal Stars for future considerations, Haley Irwin heads off to the Calgary Inferno, the CWHL’s most western-based franchise.

This marks the third marquee acquisition for the Inferno this off-season. The first involved Jocelyne Larocque being sent to Brampton in exchange for forward Bailey Bram. In addition, the club signed Rebecca Johnston (one of Irwin’s teammates in Sochi) as a free agent. As Irwin and Johnston played with Bram at the 2012 and 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championships, the three are very familiar with Calgary, as it is also the national headquarters for the national women’s team.

Of note, the Calgary Inferno becomes the third CWHL team to obtain Irwin’s playing rights. Selected in the first round by the Brampton Thunder in the historic 2012 CWHL Draft, she would join the Montreal Stars in the preseason. During that rookie campaign of 2012-13, Irwin would accumulate 21 points in 20 games played.

Her best performances included a four point output on the road against Team Alberta (now known as the Inferno) on February 10, 2013, including two goals and two assists. Her first career CWHL hat trick would be scored on March 2, 2013, as part of a 6-2 home victory against the Toronto Furies. The season would finish with Irwin appearing in the Clarkson Cup finals.

For the Stars, it could not have been an easy decision to part ways with Irwin. Last season, the franchise lost Carolyne Prevost to free agency, and she would help lead the Toronto Furies to the Clarkson Cup. Should history repeat itself with Irwin, it would be a devastating outcome for a franchise eagerly attempting to capture its fourth title.

The one consolation may be the fact that the franchise has blueline sensation Lauriane Rougeau suiting up for the Stars. Having played with Irwin at Sochi, Rougeau will be expected to anchor the defense for years to come. Complemented by bright, young talent at the forward position such as Sophie Brault, Fannie Desforges, Kim Deschenes and Vanessa Gagnon, the Stars may have a gem to replace the offensive firepower that Irwin brought to the bleu, blanc et rouge. Of note, both teams shall face off against each other on October 24, 2014, the home opener for the Inferno.

As the Inferno look to build on the momentum of their first postseason appearance in 2014, the addition of Irwin only improves their chances of competing for the Clarkson Cup title. Should it happen, Irwin will become the newest member of the Triple Gold Club for Women, which recognizes players that have earned Olympic Gold, IIHF World Gold and the Clarkson Cup. In addition, she won the gold medal at the 2003 Canada Winter Games, playing alongside Meghan Agosta, who was also a teammate on the Stars.

Becoming the second high profile player from Canada’s national program to join the Inferno’s new-look offense, Irwin’s experience adds a feeling of confidence to the ambitious Inferno. A former captain at the NCAA level with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, she brings the maturity and leadership necessary to bring the Inferno’s offense to the next level. Her first test shall come on October 18, as the Inferno challenge the defending Clarkson Cup champion Toronto Furies.

Off-season CWHL trade a win-win for Brampton and Calgary

As the Brampton Thunder and Calgary Inferno look to brighter futures ahead, a significant trade defined their mutual ambitions. In need of scoring help, the Inferno acquired Bailey Bram (one of the final players released from Canada’s Centralization Camp for Sochi) from the Thunder. Coming the other way is blueliner Jocelyn Larocque. Ironically, Bram and Larocque both grew up in the community of Ste. Anne, Manitoba.

Taking into account that Calgary features a solid defensive unit featuring Meaghan Mikkelson, Tara Watchorn and Kelsey Webster, Larocque was sent eastbound. There is further irony in the fact that Watchorn grew up in Newcastle, Ontario, east of Toronto. Therefore, Watchorn would have seemed as the most logical choice to be traded as Larocque is of Western Canadian heritage.

For both clubs, the trade is a win-win situation as it addresses key needs, while possibly bringing more parity to CWHL play. Defensively, Brampton has endured its struggles since the departures of Allyson Fox (CWHL co-founder) and Molly Engstrom (a two-time Winter Games participant). While Courtney Birchard and Tara French have supplied great leadership on the blueline, Larocque’s presence burdens their load.

Complemented by Brampton selecting Laura Fortino with the first pick overall in the 2014 CWHL Draft, the blueline situation has emerged as one of significant improvement. Of note, Fortino and Larocque played together for Canada’s gold medal winning squad at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. The two should be able to establish some strong chemistry on defense.

Strong defense will certainly be important for Brampton. In the autumn of 2013, the club lost goaltenders Liz Knox and Florence Schelling. While the club has selected backstop Erica Howe in the 2014 CWHL Draft, there will definitely be a rookie adjustment.

Larocque will be counted upon to improve a Brampton club that missed its first CWHL playoffs in franchise history in March 2014. For the last two seasons, Brampton’s goals against and their penalty minutes have increased. During the 2012-13 campaign, the club allowed 83 goals while compiling a league-worst 352 penalty minutes. In the aftermath of 2013-14, those numbers inflated to a dismal 99 goals allowed and 368 penalty minutes, both worst in the league. Disciplined play shall be the only way Brampton can expect a return to the postseason next spring.

After a 2013-14 season that saw the new-look Calgary Inferno experience several franchise firsts (first winning season, first third-place finish, first postseason berth, first award winner), the rapidly improving franchise is hoping for its first Clarkson Cup in 2015. Of all the significant accomplishments over the previous season, the strengthening of its offensive game may have been the greatest.

Rookie sensations Danielle (Danny) Stone and Julie Paetsch registered seasons of 25 and 22 points, ranking sixth and ninth in the CWHL scoring race, respectively. The result was a club that scored 62 goals, a 32-goal improvement on the 2012-13 campaign. In addition, Stone rewrote the club’s scoring records, establishing herself as a franchise player. Despite such a solid performance, Calgary did not have much depth past their first line and it showed in the Clarkson Cup playoffs.

With only one solid scoring line, the acquisition of Bailey Bram adds the potential to provide much needed scoring depth. Reputed as a loyal teammate and friendly with fans, Bram is a proven scorer that earned a gold medal at the 2013 IIHF Women’s Worlds. In her rookie campaign with the Brampton Thunder (2012-13), she registered 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) to finish among the league’s Top 20 scorers, while finishing fourth in scoring for Brampton.

Accompanied by the selection of Boston University scoring star Louise Warren (who was recently invited to Canada’s Under-22 talent evaluation camp), Brittany Esposito and Frozen Four champion Sarah Davis in this year’s draft, all three may also pay positive dividends for the Inferno offense. The concept of Bram anchoring a line with a combination of the aforementioned players is possible. As the club looks to reach the 70-goal plateau as a team for the first time, Bram has the potential to provide that extra element to the club’s offensive attack.

European detour leads Jess Jones to first round of 2013 CWHL Draft

Having bypassed the 2012 CWHL Draft and opting for Europe, Jess Jones’ decision was a surprise to many fans. After graduating from the Mercyhurst Lakers, she competed for Pantera Minsk in Belarus during the 2012-13 campaign. After a historic performance with her new club, the window to play for the CWHL was still wide open at season’s end.

Playing against Wisconsin's Brianna Decker in her final NCAA Game (Photo credit: M.P. King, Wisconsin State Journal)

Playing against Wisconsin’s Brianna Decker in her final NCAA Game (Photo credit: M.P. King, Wisconsin State Journal)

Obtained by the Brampton Thunder in the first round (third overall) of the 2013 CWHL Draft, it was the most logocal option for new General Manager Lori Dupuis. Facing the loss of Jayna Hefford (the CWHL’s all-time leading scorer), third-generation star Gillian Apps, Vicki Bendus and Bailey Bram (another Mercyhurst alumnae) to Canada’s centralization camp, Brampton faced a decimated offense heading into the season.

Compounded by the retirement of Cherie Piper, Jones becomes a key piece to Brampton’s rebuilding puzzle. After four coaches in two seasons, penalty problems and a heartbreaking loss to the Toronto Furies in the Clarkson Cup playoffs, Jones is a breath of fresh air for the beleaguered franchise.
With the selection of Jess Jones third overall in the 2013 CWHL Draft, it marks the third consecutive year that a Mercyhurst Lakers player is selected in the first round. In 2011, Meghan Agosta (drafted first overall by Montreal), Vicki Bendus and Jesse Scanzano were first round picks. The following year, goaltender Hillary Pattenden followed in Agosta’s footsteps and was drafted first overall by the Alberta Hockey Club.

In 138 career games with the Mercyhurst Lakers, she would log 154 career points. Complemented by four College Hockey American regular season titles and four NCAA tournament appearances, Jones is a proven winner that can help restore the pride in Brampton.

Her scoring flair continued last season with Pantera Minsk. Having played in just 19 games, she recorded 28 goals and 25 assists for a sterling 53 point output. As the only Canadian on the team, she would emerge as the leading scorer for the European Women’s Hockey League club.

Participating in the 2013 EWHL Supercup, Jones contributed eight points as she helped Pantera Minsk grab their first-ever championship. In dramatic fashion, Jones would score twice in the title game, a 6-1 triumph over defending champion Sabres Vienna. Her sparkling performance was complemented by a nod to the Tournament All-Star team.

It is that type of performance that Brampton fans will hope Jones can provide in the near future as the beleaguered Thunder continue to chase that elusive Clarkson Cup championship.

With Brampton in a rebuilding year, Jones certainly stands a key building block for a brighter future ahead. The eventual return of former Mercyhurst teammates and current Thunder superstars Bailey Bram and Vicki Bendus from the Canadian centralization camp will create a remarkable scoring line, reuniting the Lakers legends of seasons past.

Next to Jessica Wong, Jones may be the only other first round pick that will be expected to carry the lion’s share of the offensive load. Although Jones’ leadership skills and offensive play making abilities make her a strong Rookie of the Year candidate, her inaugural season in the CWHL will certainly be a baptism of fire.