Aurora Games adds new element to international competition

In the midst of a tumultuous time for women’s ice hockey, an opportunity to celebrate the game, rather than mourn what has been lost emerged as a key theme at the Aurora Games, a premier event which helped launch the 2019-20 Women’s Ice Hockey season with a feeling of empowerment, standing as a focal point towards an exciting new future.

Hosted in Albany, New York, the raison d’etre for the Games is to recognize and celebrate women in sport. Built with the similar bravura of the Goodwill Games from the 1990s, the statement about sportsmanship was a rather powerful one. Featuring an Athletic Advisory Board consisting of a who’s who in women’s sport, there was also a proud ice hockey influence, as Digit Murphy and Kelli Stack both left an indelible mark on the game.

Murphy, whose hockey resume includes 300 wins at the NCAA level with the Ivy League’s Brown Bears, along with a pair of Clarkson Cup championship wins, also took on the head coaching duties at the Games. Stack, a two-time silver medalist in the Winter Games and one of the greatest players in Boston College Eagles history, played for Murphy twice at the CWHL level.

With the Boston Blades, capturing a Clarkson Cup title, Murphy and Stack were also part of the Kunlun Red Star’s expansion season, where Stack enjoyed the feat of becoming the first American-born player to be recognized as the CWHL’s Most Valuable Player.

Although Stack would not play at the Games, a handful of Red Star alumnae, including Zoe Hickel, Jessica Wong and Madison (Maddie) Woo were on-hand. Worth noting, Hickel, would be part of a rare sorority in CWHL history, appearing in consecutive Clarkson Cup Finals with different teams.

Part of the Red Star squad that qualified for the 2018 edition of the Finals, Hickel would sign with the Calgary Inferno in the following off-season. On a roster, which featured former Boston Pride teammates Kacey Bellamy and Brianna Decker, Hickel enjoyed the chance to win a second championship alongside them. Having won the Isobel Cup in 2016 with the Pride, this trio would hoist the Clarkson Cup in 2019, marking a notable first for Hickel.

Adding the prestige of the Aurora Games to her celebrated career, Hickel was competing for Team Americas. As the competition consisting of six events, athletes were divided into Team Americas and Team World, the assembly of world-class talent saw an astounding 15 countries represented. Competing for the Babe Didrickson Zaharias Trophy, as each event represented a number of points, Team Americas would enjoy the first Trophy win.

From a hockey perspective, in addition to the talent from Canada and the United States, players from Czech Republic, Finland, Japan and Russia also participated, although the feeling of home ice advantage for one particular player.

Raised in New York State, where she starred between the pipes for the Clarkson Golden Knights in the Upstate community of Potsdam, the privilege of competing in Albany for Lauren Dahm rekindled fond feelings of her formative years in the game.

Having also enjoyed three professional seasons with the Boston/Worcester Blades of the CWHL, where fans were enamoured with her remarkable work ethic, constantly among the league leaders in saves made and shots faced, the Games served as a validation of Dahm’s tireless efforts.

For a Finnish team that captured the silver medal at the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Ice Hockey Championships, becoming the first European nation to attain this pinnacle, the Games allowed an extension of this euphoric run for a handful of its players.

Among them was Venla Hovi, whose collection of hockey hardware includes a Canadian university championship with the Manitoba Bisons, plus a Clarkson Cup title with the Calgary Inferno. Having also played collegiately with the Niagara Purple Eagles in the United States, Hovi is definitely a well-travelled hockey citizen.

With the prospect of the Games becoming a bi-annual event, with plans underway for 2021 and 2023, the inaugural edition of the Games enjoyed significant coverage as EspnW provided a highly important credibility.

Zoe Hickel

The evolution of the Aurora Games…

“Digit and I worked together a lot since it was in the making a few years ago… we stayed in touch and when the time came we worked together to get a unique group of amazing women to be apart of this inaugural event! I was honored she wanted me involved and to see how it all came together was pretty special.”

Reflecting on the impact of the Games …

“Looking back on the Games, I would have to say my favorite part was being on the ice with so many of my teammates I have shared so many different memories with from over the years.

It seemed like the group really jelled and with such a range of backgrounds, it was amazing to see how much fun everyone had together. It was like being back at hockey camp with all you’re buddies, but this time making a difference for women in a powerful environment”

Venla Hovi

Taking on a leadership role for Team World at the Aurora Games…

“I embraced that role and was really humbled to captain team World. I knew I was one of the older and more experienced players on the team. It makes it really special knowing the amount of talent and good people on the team,and they’re all leaders on their national teams,which made my role very easy.”

The unique first in her career of calling players from Japan, Russia and Czech Republic as teammates…

“This was the most exciting part in my opinion; Having played against those girls for so many years, it was so much fun getting to know them a little bit more and the skill coming from Europe and Japan as well is undeniable. Such a great experience having players on the same team from so many different countries.”

Maddie Woo

Discussing the reaction of being given an opportunity to participate…

“I was certainly excited when approached about the Aurora Games – it was a unique opportunity to take part in something that had never been done before in the women’s sports space. It was a great opportunity to add to the conversation of women in sports, and be at the vanguard of competition and celebration and positive change.

Being able to act as an accessible role model alongside the rest of the athletes involved to empower the younger generation and inspire them is certainly something else to come out of the experience, and something I was very honored to take part in.”

On the thrill of playing for Team World alongside numerous other international stars…

“It was really fun to represent Team World and to play alongside elite, international hockey players. Not only were the players really competitive on ice, they were also just genuine, kind people off-ice. Despite being from all corners of the world and some language barriers at times, we definitely had some laughs and and made memories.”

Lauren Dahm

Reflecting on the privilege to play with numerous Olympians on Team Americas…

“Getting to play with everyone on Team Americas was incredible. Going into the week I knew who mostly everyone was, but only from playing against them. It was really cool how by the end of the week we knew each other so much better and were sad to be saying goodbye after such a short but amazing week together.

That was a special group since it was the inaugural Aurora Games and the energy the entire week was incredible in that we knew what was taking place that week in Albany had such huge meaning.”

On playing for iconic coach Digit Murphy for the first time,

“Digit was really fun to play for, especially in this type of event. She had us laughing in the locker room, made so much of it about the kids who we were interacting with every day, but still made sure we knew it was about us and female athletes too.

She has been an absolute trailblazer for women’s sports and has dedicated so much to progress our sport and others. We owe it to her and the other legendary women who were at the Aurora Games (Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Donna De Varona,etc) to keep fighting and paving the way for a better future for female athletes.”

Discussing the fact that the Aurora Games took place in her home state….

“I loved that the Games took place in my home state! It was closer to home than anywhere I’ve played in the last couple years so some friends and family were able to come watch. It is actually very cool and significant that this all-female, multisport festival took place in Albany.

If we think back to the women’s suffrage movement, those women wanted women to get the right to vote nationwide, but they knew their first step would be to get NYS to pass the law and hopefully that would lead to a nationwide change. Not too far off is the mission of the Aurora Games and time will tell if it spreads like the movement in the 1800s did.

Give women the platform and treat them as true professionals, and watch what happens! We are seeing it constantly with women’s soccer, ncaa softball, and even the PWHPA. Showcase our sports in ways that are worthy of the talent that is out on the field and you’d be amazed at what can happen.

Overall, it was beyond incredible and meant so much to me to be part of the first Aurora Games and it is awesome to see it will be back in Albany for at least the next 2 cycles. The city wanted us female athletes and the Games to come to Albany and the way they treated us showed us they were honored we chose Albany!”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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.