Tuesday, 24 April 2012

CWHL a great asset for Hockey Helps the Homeless

As a volunteer at the Ottawa edition of Hockey Helps the Homeless, I had the privilege of being the score keeper and the announcer at three men’s games (featuring National Hockey League alumni), and four women’s games (which featured pros from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League [some of which played in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games] and former National Team members competing in Canadian Interuniversity Sport). In writing about women’s ice hockey, I was intrigued as to the outcome of the women’s matches, and how the CWHL pros would play with the ladies who registered.
Four women’s clubs were registered for the HHtH tournament and each team featured at least two CWHL pros. The Ottawa Mission club featured Catherine Ward and Gillian Ferrari, while the Ottawa Inner City Missions club boasted the likes of Emmanuelle Blais and Marie-Philip Poulin. Of note, Poulin was originally meant to play for Ottawa Mission, and Ferrari for Inner City Missions. The two exchanged sweaters, and created a bit of confusion for this humble volunteer during the first game.
Daybreak Housing was the third club, and its roster consisted of Caroline Ouellette and CIS Player of the Year Ann-Sophie Bettez. The fourth club had an embarrassment of riches as Stanley’s Bar and Grill had three CWHL pros (USA national hockey team member Julie Chu, Montreal Stars founder Lisa-Marie Breton Lebreux, and Clarkson Cup champion Alyssa Cecere).
The highlight of the day was Catherine Ward playing in net as a goaltender for Ottawa Mission. Against Daybreak Housing, Ward had a shutout through almost two periods. Although she lost her shutout, she helped Ottawa Mission prevail by a 2-1 tally. Ward looked extremely comfortable in the net and must have had some goaltending tips from her former McGill teammate All-World goaltender Kim St. Pierre.
In the championship game between Ottawa Mission and Stanley’s Bar and Grill (both went 3-0 in the round robin), the pros were not allowed to participate (as they would be playing the final game of the evening versus the NHL alumni). Despite the exclusion of pros, both teams played an outstanding game. The pros that competed for Stanley’s Bar and Grill (Breton Lebreux, Cecere, Chu) showed true class by standing behind the player’s bench and showing their support for their teammates. The other pros sat in the stands, observing the action on the ice.
Heading into the championship, Ottawa Mission players Stephanie Briggs and Phyllis Bergmans now had autographs from the pros all over their jersey. Seeing the autographs adorned on their jerseys restored the true spirit of hockey; which is the enjoyment of the game. In addition, two skaters from Daybreak Housing were loaned out to Ottawa Mission for the title game; Renée Thouin (who assisted on many of Caroline Ouellette’s goals during the round robin), and Jocelyne McAllister. Thouin got to wear got to wear Marie-Philip Poulin’s #25 jersey, while McAllister wore the #16 jersey from Clarkson Cup champion Gillian Merrifield.
The final score was 3-1 for the Ottawa Mission although it was a tightly played contest that could have gone either way. Down 2-0, Stanley’s scored a goal, and pressed throughout the third period, but an empty net goal in the dying seconds sealed their fates. Goaltender Marie-Jose Blanchette was the star of the day for the Ottawa Mission. During the event, she tallied three wins (including the championship game) and always maintained her composure when blocking shots from the likes of Caroline Ouellette, Emmanuelle Blais and Marie-Philip Poulin. If there was an MVP award for this event, Blanchette would win it.
Stanley’s skater Susan Wright stood out as one of the stars of the game for the losing side. A gifted skater with breakout speed, she was the defense partner of Breton Lebreux in the earlier contests. In addition, she won the Shootout Contest (which also included men) and claimed a brand new stick as first prize. If the CWHL comes back to Ottawa, Wright would deserve an opportunity to attend training camp.
There were other players who stood out as well. Wright’s teammate Katherine Miller, is another strong skater and is very good at putting the puck in play. Ottawa Mission skater Nathalie Bedard spent the entire day just accumulating point after point. She was an impact player and seemed very comfortable playing against the pros. Renée Thouin (who played the round robin with Daybreak Housing) is another skater who would deserve an opportunity to attend a CWHL training camp. Playing with Ouellette, she played as if she was Jayna Hefford.
On the topic of Ouellette, she was definitely the player of the game in the CWHL vs. NHL Alumni game. Although Laurie Boschman (the first Ottawa Senators captain) played for the CWHL team (as the CWHL team only had nine players), Ouellette just placed the CWHL team on her shoulders and played with a fire that could not be extinguished.
The CWHL team prevailed by a 7-3 tally, but it was a real treat for the spectators in the stands to see so many greats on the ice at one time. To see 1972 Stanley Cup champion Rick Smith and 1993 NHL All-Star Brad Marsh on the ice together, playing against the likes of Clarkson Cup champions Catherine Ward and Julie Chu, it showed how hockey has grown and evolved, and that women have just as much of a place on the ice, while displaying sportsmanship and mutual admiration. 
Without doubt, if the CWHL pros wanted to, they could have scored goals at will. For even the most novice of fans, it would be easy to distinguish which women were the pros. Despite their superior skills, the pros did everything to make the participants feel welcome and valued. The pros were always passing the puck, and always displayed patience (as some participants tripped and had difficulties when shooting the puck). It was clear early on that the pros mission was to ensure that the participants had fun and cherished their experience, and that mission was truly accomplished.
The entire HHtH experience had a feeling of professionalism to it. All the volunteers worked tirelessly to ensure the event was a success, while all participants and pros, had a very beautiful jersey to commemorate their experience. To accommodate twelve teams (four women’s, eight men’s), every colour of the rainbow was used, with the Ottawa skyline adorning the bottom of the jersey. Each jersey had the player’s name and a number assigned to it, giving a feeling of pride, when wearing it. 
In speaking to some of the participants, being able to play with Olympians and Clarkson Cup champions was an unforgettable experience. The one common reply that all the participants gave is that they found the pros to be very nice and friendly. Having been to past CWHL and CIS events, I know firsthand that the pros are friendly and accessible, and enjoy their fans. Truly, they are not just role models, but class acts.

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