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.

Triple Gold Club for Mikk and Wick among others

While there is a tremendous element of prestige that comes with winning a Clarkson Cup, it is also part of a bigger picture in which the remarkable accomplishments of women in hockey deserve to be celebrated on a grander scale. Less than 20 women have enjoyed the achievement of winning Winter Games Gold, IIHF World Gold and either the Clarkson or Isobel Cup. Although it is not yet recognized by the IIHF, the “Triple Gold Club for Women” is one that deserves to be honored, regardless of its status.

In the aftermath of the Calgary Inferno defeating Les Canadiennes de Montreal in an exhilarating 8-3 final at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, five jubilant women enjoyed more than just the glory of the 2016 Clarkson Cup, the first contested on NHL ice. They earned the chance to join the Triple Gold Club for Women and add another significant accomplishment to their distinguished hockey resumes.

Photo credit: Justin Tang, The Canadian Press

Photo credit: Justin Tang, The Canadian Press

Among the most notable new entrants into said Club were Meaghan Mikkelson and living legend Hayley Wickenheiser. Having gained celebrity status with her appearance on The Amazing Race Canada, Mikkelson has enjoyed three major championships in five seasons. Starting with IIHF World Gold in 2012, she would follow it up with a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Canada’s Miracle on Ice, and the 2016 Clarkson, which saw her log an assist in the Finals.

Perhaps more impressive was the fact that Mikkelson had the opportunity to share in the glory of the Cup with a very special member of her family. With infant son Calder Reid was among the young spectators in attendance at the Finals, she skated around the ice with him during the postgame celebrations. Although he was far too young to absorb what had transpired, it was definitely a heartwarming moment when he was part of a group picture with his mom’s Inferno teammates and the coveted Cup.

Although most fans may not know that Wickenheiser is also a mom, having adopted a son named Noah approximately 14 years ago, her son’s personal growth has run parallel to her growing legacy as an icon in hockey. Undoubtedly a future Hall of Famer, Wickenheiser’s accomplishments in hockey are Gretzky-like. Throughout all these sensational seasons, the one achievement that eluded her was a Clarkson Cup.

Having once skated for the Calgary Oval X-Treme in the former WWHL, Wickenheiser would join the University of Calgary Dinos squad following the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. While she would lead the Dinos to a CIS national championship, Calgary fans were left to wonder if Wickenheiser had enough left in the tank following the Sochi Winter Games to try and play for a Clarkson Cup. Not only would she please said fans by registering in the 2015 CWHL Draft, conquering a frontier that had yet to be challenged, her presence provided the Inferno with the perfect blend of offensive depth and leadership needed to propel the club into the title conversation.

Rebecca Johnston, established her legend with the Inferno by achieving several historic firsts. She would end 2014 by scoring the first All-Star Game winning goal. In February 2015, Johnston would become the first member of the Inferno to capture the Angela James Bowl. Fast forward one year later and Johnston would make history again by scoring the first goal for the Inferno in a Clarkson Cup final.

Such efforts yielded positive results as Johnston gained Triple Gold glory. Having played alongside Mikkelson and Wickenheiser at both the 2010 Vancouver and 2014 Sochi Winter Games, career milestones intertwine with two of the most prominent hockey figures from Western Canada.

Having made her Winter Games debut at Sochi 2014, Brianne Jenner represents the future for the Canadian national women’s team. Just like Mikkelson, she experienced the same glorious run, consisting of IIHF Gold in 2012, the miraculous run to gold at Sochi 2014, and the thrill of receiving the coveted Clarkson at centre ice in a memorable first season in the CWHL.

Selected by the Inferno in the first round of the 2015 CWHL Draft (Wickenheiser would be nabbed in the third round), her arrival definitely signified a turning point in franchise history, as a Clarkson Cup title became possible. With Jillian Saulnier, who played alongside Jenner at the NCAA level with Cornell, selected in the second round, she may one day be part of the Triple Gold Club as well. Definitely on Hockey Canada’s radar for the 2018 Winter Games, Saulnier will be looking to capture her first IIHF gold in 2016.

Despite her rookie status, Jenner would have the honor of the captaincy bestowed upon her. Like Johnston, she would score twice on Canadiennes goaltender (and Sochi teammate) Charline Labonte in the 8-3 final. Having also led all CWHL rookies in scoring, Jenner’s debut season has been nothing short of remarkable

The fifth member of this remarkable group of women gains entry into the Club in a rather historic manner. Gina Kingsbury, who served as an assistant coach on Shannon Miller’s coaching staff at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2014-15 (which also featured fellow Cup champion Brigitte Lacquette in her senior season at UMD) became the first member of the Triple Gold Club for Women to gain entry as a coach.

Having joined the Inferno’s coaching staff in the autumn of 2015, she would prove to be an integral component to the success to follow. With a pair of Winter Games gold medals to her credit, and multiple IIHF World Championships, her experience as a player made her a member of the coaching staff that players could relate to. Making her mark on women’s hockey history, Kingsbury’s feat represents the potential for so many more historic accomplishments in the game’s future.

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.

Wickenheiser logs first career CWHL points as Inferno sweep defending Clarkson Cup champs

In the opening weeks of the 2015-16 CWHL season, anticipation built as living legend Hayley Wickenheiser was prepared to make her debut for the Calgary Inferno. Having played for the Calgary Oval X-Treme in the now defunct WWHL and with the Calgary Dinos in Canadian Interuniversity Sport play, the CWHL’s Inferno remained the final Calgary-based team for Wickenheiser to suit up for.

Despite being 36 years of age, Wickenheiser is still among the world’s finest competitors, able to provide a superior level of play against competitors half her age. No one is expecting Wickenheiser to be the player that she was 10 years ago. On talent alone, she can cause potential nightmares for opposing defenses. Her presence alone is enough to generate confidence in her teammates while her vast knowledge can only help improve the quality of her teammate’s play.

With the Inferno’s season opener taking place on October 24, 2015, it would prove to be a test for the club. Facing off against the defending champion Boston Blades, a victory would make a significant statement.
Taking into account that it was also Wickenheiser’s CWHL debut, the fact that the contest took place on home ice at the Winsport Arena only added to expectation. As highly touted draft picks Brianne Jenner and Jillian Saulnier, also members of Canada’s national making their CWHL debuts in the contest, opening game would prove to be an indicator of what fans could expect.

It was an outcome where Wickenheiser would deliver on all accounts. Like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, Wickenheiser has the gift of making others around her better, increasing their confidence. It would not take long for her to make an impact in the season opener.

At the 12:14 mark of the first period, Wickenheiser and Kristen Hagg would earn an assist on the first goal of the Inferno season. Scored by Jillian Saulnier, it also signified the first goal in her CWHL career. After goals by Elena Lovell (just 19 seconds after Saulnier’s goal) and Jessica Campbell, who gained the distinction of being the first-ever rookie to serve as captain at the CWHL All-Star Game, another first followed. Less than four minutes after Saulnier’s goal, Brianne Jenner would log the first goal of her CWHL career, resulting in four Inferno goals in a time span of just three minutes and 37 seconds.

With Jenna Cunnigham, a link to the Inferno’s former Team Alberta days, and Campbell scoring in the second period, the game was out of reach for the beleaguered Boston Blades. Although Blades’ forward Megan Myers would break Delayne Brian’s bid for a shutout in the third period, the 7-1 final proved to be the largest margin of victory on opening day in franchise history. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that the Inferno peppered Blades goalie Genevieve Lacasse with an astounding 56 shots.

Following the convincing opening day win, Wickenheiser also added her name to the stat sheet in the second half of the two-game set. Logging another assist, she was one of nine different Inferno players to register a point in a 4-1 victory.

Similar to the opening day win, the Inferno came out strong and did not relent. Brianne Jenner would open the scoring with her first career power play goal as Hayleigh Cudmore and Brittany Esposito earned the assists. Sarah Davis, the first Newfoundland-born player to compete on the national team, scored the second goal of the first period, which would prove to be the game-winning tally.

Wickenheiser and Jacquie Pierri would add to the Inferno’s 2-0 lead as they logged the assists on a goal scored by Boston University alum Louise Warren. As a side note, Warren would finish the game with a stellar three-point performance. Just 10 seconds after Warren’s goal, Blayre Turnbull, a former captain with the Wisconsin Badgers, scored her first career CWHL goal, placing the game out of reach for the Blades.

Tara Watchorn, in her first season as the Blades captain, scored the last goal of the second period, which would prove to be the final goal of the game. With Elena Lovell serving a penalty for too many men, Watchorn snapped another shutout effort for the Inferno.

Despite three power play opportunities in the third period for the Blades, Kathy Desjardins nullified all of them, preserving the win for the Inferno. Having not played during the 2014-15 season, as she temporarily relocated to British Columbia, she would be among the other feel-good stories of the game. Earning her first CWHL win since March 2, 2014, coincidentally that win also came against the Boston Blades, part of a 29 save effort in a 4-2 final.

For the Calgary Inferno, a weekend sweep of the defending Clarkson Cup champions made a remarkable statement. The addition of Wickenheiser has helped to add a new dimension to an already explosive offensive attack for the Inferno, ambitiously seeking their first-ever Clarkson Cup. Should the Inferno’s Clarkson Cup dreams come true, it will allow two of their members, Wickenheiser and Brianne Jenner the rare privilege of having won the IIHF Women’s Worlds, Winter Games Gold, and the Clarkson Cup, a symbolic crossroads for a pair of elite scorers simultaneously representing the heritage and the future of women’s hockey in Canada.

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.

New era begins in CWHL as Team Alberta is rechristened Calgary Inferno

A bold statement was made on September 23, 2013 as Team Alberta and blue and gold sweaters were retired. Prior to the exhibition game between the Calgary Flames and the New York Rangers, the new name and jerseys were unveiled. Going by the name of the Calgary Inferno, it marks a tremendous shift for the third year franchise.

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With the franchise’s four defensive stalwarts, Jocelyne Larocque, Meaghan Mikkelson, Tara Watchorn and Kelsey Webster, at centre ice for the ceremonial puck drop, it started a bold and exciting chapter. Although Larocque, Mikkelson and Watchorn will forego the season as they are part of Canada’s Centralization Camp (in order to gain a spot for the Sochi Winter Games), Webster shall have a much bigger leadership role this season.
Appointed as a representative for the CWHL Players Association in the upcoming season, it is a fitting tribute for such a dedicated athlete.

Appropriately, this new-look uniform borrows from the Calgary Flames jersey design. Incorporating the colors of red, white, yellow and black, it also uses the striping pattern from the Flames jerseys. The new Inferno logo shall adorn the shoulder. As the Flames (along with the Toronto Maple Leafs) have been onboard as CWHL sponsors since November 2012, it has brought a sense of vitality and sustainability to the budding league.

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Including an offseason that began with the acquisition of Jessica Wong as the first pick overall in the CWHL Draft, the franchise continues to gain momentum. In addition, the Inferno made some more history in the draft by selecting an Australian-born player (Georgia Moore) for the first time, along with a member of the Canadian national women’s tackle football team (Julie Paetsch).

The sharp new look and exciting direction of the franchise certainly points to brighter days. As Team Alberta (also known as the Alberta Honeybadgers) finished their first two seasons with the worst record in the league, this is an effort to inject new life in the promising franchise.

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With the Inferno’s home opener on November 29 versus the Toronto Furies, the franchise has a group of exciting draft picks and solid veterans. Led by head coach and former NHLer Tim Bothwell, he is also the head coach of the Canadian women’s Under-22/Development Team. A strong foundation with Kathy Desjardins and DeLayne Brian between the pipes, along with Webster leading the blueline corps should bring the Inferno its strongest season yet.

While the next goal for the Inferno is to earn their first berth in the Clarkson Cup playoffs, the new look is a reminder that the Team Alberta days are now part of the past. This year’s theme is moving forward and the path towards the future brings with it a renewed optimism.