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.

Brittany Ott continues New England women’s hockey legacy with Boston Pride

As the free agent freezy continues for the incipient NWHL, a key element involves which player shall stand between the pipes for the inaugural puck drop. While the Buffalo Beauts won the Brianne McLaughlin sweepstakes, the Boston Pride may have found a dark horse in accomplished backstop Brittany Ott.

Ott’s first brush with women’s hockey in New England involved four stellar seasons with the Maine Black Bears in Hockey East conference play. Not only would she set a new program record for most saves in a regular season game (accomplished in 2010), she would break her own record in 2013 with a sterling 72 save performance against Boston College in a 2-1 overtime loss.

Although her final season at Maine did not translate in a lot of wins, that was attributed to a rebuilding year for the program. Had Ott not been between the pipes for the Black Bears, the potential for a disastrous season was highly possible, testament to her superlative skills.

Selected in the fifth round, 25th overall, in the 2013 CWHL Draft, Ott would prove to be one of the steals of the draft. No other goalie drafted past the fifth round in draft history enjoyed as many wins, let alone play in the Clarkson Cup championship game.

With Genevieve Lacasse placed on reserves that season, due to her commitments with the Canadian national team at the Winter Games in Sochi, Ott proved to be a blessing in disguise, allowing the club to maintain its great standard of superlative goaltending. Taking to the ice in her powder blue goalie pads, it was not only endearing, but a fitting reminder of what made her an elite goaltender in Hockey East play.

Heading into the final month of the 2013-14 CWHL season, Lacasse returned to the Blades but Ott has established herself as one of the league’s finest goaltenders. Her 10 wins ranked second in league play to rival Catherine Herron of the Montreal Stars, while her .921 save percentage and 475 saves were tops in the league.

In the aftermath of the golden outcome at the Sochi Winter Games, Lacasse earned some playing time with the Blades, but Ott had proven that she belonged among the elites of the game. Such effort was reflected in the fact that Ott became only the fourth rookie goalie to get the start in the Clarkson Cup championship game. The decision was a show of gratitude, testament to her dedication and perseverance during the season.

Despite the Furies by a narrow 1-0 margin in overtime, Ott provided a valiant performance with three solid periods of shutout hockey, stopping 23 shots. The following season, Ott contributed a 10-6-0 mark, establishing herself as the finest backup goaltender in CWHL play. Complemented by a Blades’ Clarkson Cup victory, it represented redemption.

Such solid numbers are what the Pride is hoping that Ott can provide for the inaugural season. With the aim of winning the first-ever Isobel Cup, it would only solidify Ott’s standing as one of the finest American-born goaltenders in hockey today. It would also make her the first goaltender to have won both the Clarkson and Isobel Cups.

There will certainly be some familiar faces surrounding Ott in this quest for history. Joining her on the Pride include several former Blades teammates that were part of the run for the 2015 Clarkson Cup. Players such as Jillian Dempsey, Alyssa Gagliardi and Jordan Smelker (the first player from Alaska to win the Clarkson) are joined by three other Blades that have represented historic signings.

From Blake Bolden becoming the first African-American player to sign with the NWHL, to Kaleigh Fratkin becoming the first Canadian-born player to join the league, there is another exciting acquisition. Jessica Koizumi, the first player to register 50 points with the Blades (she also scored the first power play goal in Blades history), has become the first signee to have played in the former Western Women’s Hockey League. Such familiarity should enable the Pride to have the strongest on-ice chemistry of all NWHL clubs while Ott’s presence between the pipes maintains the high standard of goaltending that she has established during her stellar hockey career in New England.

Upon the Pride’s first faceoff, Ott should retain her powder blue pads from Maine. Taking into account how goaltenders are some of the game’s most unique characters, identified by the creative artwork on their masks, or the style of their equipment, Ott’s powder blues make her instantly identifiable, an element that should establish her as a fan favorite in Boston and throughout the NWHL.

Hockey hero Cherie Hendrickson continues to inspire with sixth Boston Marathon

Although the 2014-15 season saw the absence of Cherie Hendrickson from elite women’s hockey competition, she did not stop being an influential member of the sporting community. An exceptionally well-conditioned athlete, Hendrickson has played hockey in the United States, Canada and Russia, simultaneously serving as an ambassador for the game, in addition to being a valued teammate.

Showing great physical and emotional endurance by successfully competing in the world-famous Boston Marathon, the 2015 edition resulted in Hendrickson’s participation for the sixth time. With many Bostonians still healing from the somber and sad tragedy that occurred in 2013, Hendrickson was among many whose efforts provided comfort, raising and strengthening many spirits.

While Hendrickson always runs with fund-raising in mind, a special gift was given to her. With the darkened skies releasing rains upon the courageous runners, a unique surprise resulted in which Hendrickson shared on social media. With a three-time champion standing by, providing encouragement and support, it helped Hendrickson dig a little deeper as she was looking to finish with a personal record time. Sharing her jubilation on social media, it garnered an empathy and support from friends and fans alike,

“This year as I passed through Kenmore Square and was half a mile from the finish line, I heard a female voice cheering for Dana Farber from the right side of the road. I looked and to my astonishment, there stood Uta Pippig, three-time women’s champion of the Boston Marathon, standing in the freezing rain and wind by the side of the road in a soaking wet black windbreaker.

Even though I was running a PR time (for me), I was still hours behind any of the elite runners…but she had stayed out in the cold rain to cheer on and give hugs to us slower runners. ‘You got this sweetie! It’s easy!!’ She told me as she gave me a big hug…I laughed. Easy, right. But in that moment she embodied everything that is great about running Boston and running for Dana Farber.”

Collage from experiences at the 2015 Boston Marathon (Image obtained from Facebook)

Collage from experiences at the 2015 Boston Marathon (Image obtained from Facebook)

For this purposeful young woman, she crossed the final line, approaching it with a heroic grace. Although she was not on the ice, the site of many memorable moments in her career, such as a 2013 Clarkson Cup win dedicated to her father, the talent and determination that she always brought to the ice was evident on this day.

Unlike hockey, the personal aspect of the marathon can be a lonely existence. The longing of participation and joy of competition resulted in a spiritual journey for Hendrickson, where the greatest reward was running to raise funds, looking to help others. She shared the names of those she ran for on social media, testament to her status as a charming personality with a heart of gold. In the aftermath of the marathon, Hendrickson is the type of individual that anyone would want on their team.

“This year I ran for a lot of special people, several of which I’m lucky to call friends. Clockwise from the top left: Eileen Wallace breast cancer survivor, Sandra Cohan Dubuc who lost her son Matty to liver cancer, Hilary Hall two-time cancer survivor (leukemia and breast cancer), and everyone I carried on my singlet this year. Thank you to all who have donated – together over the past six years we’ve raised over $25,000 for cancer research! The link is still open in case you procrastinated (or wanted to see if I’d run in the rain). Thank you!!!”

Whirlwind time culminates with heroic accolades for Charline Labonte

Despite the heartbreak of an overtime loss in the Clarkson Cup championship game against archrival Boston, All-World goaltender Charline Labonte earned the admiration of teammates and opponents alike. In the opening round of the Clarkson Cup playoffs, Labonte recorded back-to-back shutouts against a highly potent Calgary Inferno offensive unit.

Facing 27 shots from the Boston Blades in the Clarkson Cup championship game, her efforts were essential in providing the Stars with an opportunity to force overtime. With seven shutouts of postseason play, the Blades would eventually figure out Labonte.

Despite the overtime loss, Labonte allowed one of the most historic goals in CWHL history, as Janine Weber became the first European to score a Clarkson Cup winning goal. For her heroic efforts in a very strong postseason, Labonte was recognized as the Clarkson Cup’s MVP. Statistically, her postseason was the finest, having made a tournament best 87 saves and .967 save percentage, while also registering a Goals Against Average of just 0.99.

Momentum was certainly high for Labonte heading into the postseason. Of note, she was recognized as the recipient of the CWHL’s Goaltender of the Year Award. Her 1.89 GAA, 380 saves and .927 save percentage reprsented a great season that was outdone only by Boston’s Genevieve Lacasse, who clinched the regular season goaltending title with a 1.68 GAA.

All smiles at the Press Conference where the Montreal Canadiens announce their support of the CWHL's Montreal Stars (Photo credit: Jess Desjardins)

All smiles at the Press Conference where the Montreal Canadiens announce their support of the CWHL’s Montreal Stars (Photo credit: Jess Desjardins)

Emotions were definitely high for Labonte heading into the Clarkson Cup title game. Not only was it the final game of CWHL co-founder Lisa Marie Breton-Lebreux’s career, but Labonte had a chance at history. A Clarkson Cup win would have made her the 14th woman to earn Triple Gold Club for Women status (a prestige that includes IIHF World Gold and a Winter Games Gold Medal).

Although such an outcome eluded Labonte, the last 13 months has represented a series of many smaller victories that culminate in an impressive body of work, making her a role model in ways that extend beyond the game. In the aftermath of an emotional gold medal win at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Labonte went public, declaring a same-sex preference. It would prove to be a very proud moment, as her courage was met with praise.

Having engaged in a relationship with Canadian speed skater Anastasia Bucsis, it was an ideal rebuttal to the anti-gay legislation that caused controversy in Sochi. With so many other athletes upset about the legislation, it was only fitting that Labonte’s relationship strengthened in Sochi.

Since then, the two have supported each other in many ways. When Labonte made history by serving as a captain in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game, Bucsis was in the stands showing her support. By season’s end, the CWHL experienced another milestone as the Montreal Canadiens announced a financial commitment to the Stars. Among the members of the Stars at the press conference, Labonte was on-hand, fielding questions from the media.

In March 2015, Bucsis and Labonte would speak at Cornell University. Two months later, Cornell hockey player would be among the architects of the university’s “We Don’t Say” campaign, certainly gaining inspiration from their visit. There is no question that as the seasons progress, many more Canadian athletes, plus young women from other walks of life, shall continue to draw inspiration from Bucsis and Labonte’s remarkable year.

Montreal Stars make long-term investment in selection of Cornell legend Lauriane Rougeau

After suffering a heartbreaking loss at the 2013 Clarkson Cup finals, the Montreal Stars goal of becoming the first franchise to win three titles in a row was foiled by the ambitious Boston Blades. While looking to avenge that loss in the upcoming season with the acquisitions of stars such as Camille Dumais, Fannie Desforges and Casandra Dupuis, the Stars have also made a remarkable investment in their future.

Lauriane Rougeau, a star defender with the Cornell Big Red was selected fourth overall by the bleu, blanc et rouge. Before departing for Cornell and starring for Montreal’s famed Dawson College program (where she led the Blues to a league title in 2009), she was a teenaged phenom who had the opportunity to compete for the preceding Montreal Axion, part of the former National Women’s Hockey League.

Donning the commemorative Livestrong jerseys, Rougeau tries to score on Jessie Vetter (Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen)

Donning the commemorative Livestrong jerseys, Rougeau tries to score on Jessie Vetter (Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen)

Part of Team Canada’s centralization camp, Rougeau hopes to be named to the final roster that shall compete for gold at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. As part of the Canadian contingent that competed at the 2012 and 2013 IIHF Women’s Worlds (where Rougeau earned a gold and silver medal), she should be a mainstay on the Stars blueline for at least a decade.

Once Rougeau joins the Stars, it shall signify her second tour of duty with pro hockey in Montreal. This is an even more mature and more polished player. While at Cornell, Rougeau also had stints with the Canadian Under-22/Development and Senior national teams, respectively.

Rougeau (left) and Laura Fortino, the most decorate pair of collegiate defenders in NCAA history (Image by Simon Wheeler)

Rougeau (left) and Laura Fortino, the most decorate pair of collegiate defenders in NCAA history (Image by Simon Wheeler)

In 133 career games at Cornell, Rougeau accumulated 116 points and a program-best career plus/minus rating of +150. Every year with the Big Red, she was a First-Team All-ECAC selection, a nominee for the Patty Kazmaier Award and a Second-Team All-American. She would also gain three consecutive ECAC Best Defensive Defender awards.

Playing with Laura Fortino at Cornell, the dynamic duo comprised the most distinguished pair of defenders in NCAA history. Overall, Rougeau would earn 22 major awards and honors while Fortino grabbed 20. Fortino has also joined Rougeau at Canada’s centralization.

Although Montreal has enough star power in players such as Ann-Sophie Bettez, Emmanuelle Blais, Cathy Chartrand and Vinny Davidson to weather the storm of losing nine players to Centralization Camps, Rougeau was such a talented prospect that she was worth waiting an extra season for.

Her eventual presence shall help to bolster a blueline that already features the likes of the aforementioned Chartrand, team founder Lisa-Marie
Breton-Lebreux, Alyssa Cecere, Carly Dupont-Hill and current national teammate Catherine Ward. Although the game has changed quite a bit since her tenure in the NWHL, the veteran presence of the Stars defense will allow her the needed time to adjust and elevate an already remarkable game.