Saturday, 30 June 2012

CWHL finds its roots in 2006 Winter Games Hall of Fame team

While the idea of the CWHL had not even been conceived, the players that would help to build it and shape it had left their mark on the frozen surface of Palasport Olimpico, the site of the gold medal game of the women’s ice hockey tournament at the 2006 Torino Winter Games. It is their mark that has now earned these fearless, frozen females their opportunity to be glorified with a place in the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame.

Meghan Agosta’s Coming Out Party

From the outset, the Torino Winter Games will always be defined as the Winter Games in which Canada discovered Meghan Agosta. The foundation was laid in Torino to signify what would be the beginning of a superlative career in international hockey. Labeled as the female Sidney Crosby, Agosta has stepped out of his shadow and staked her own claim in the game. While Crosby and Agosta cemented their legacies at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, Agosta had set the stage in Torino for what would be her coming out party.

On her nineteenth birthday (February 12, 2006), Agosta scored a hat trick in a 12-0 victory over the Russian squad. That would serve as the defining moment of her young career, and set the stage for many greater moments in the future. On a larger scale, Agosta’s performance not only helped to build a legend, but it sent a message to the rest of the world that Canada had a new generation of superstars that were not ready to relinquish their status as the world’s finest.

To fans of the CWHL, Agosta is a once in a lifetime player that shattered the CWHL scoring record (set by Caroline Ouellette) in her rookie campaign. The first pick overall in the 2011 CWHL Draft, Agosta would finish the season as a Clarkson Cup champion, ensuring her membership in the Triple Gold Club for Women (a player that wins Olympic Gold, IIHF World Championship Gold, and the Clarkson Cup). More importantly, what Agosta achieved in Torino is exactly what she has accomplished as a rookie in the CWHL: she is proving that women’s hockey has a bright, talented future.

The Dartmouth Three

While the Ivy League has been supplying ice hockey players to the United States National Team for close to two decades, three Canadians emerged from the same institution of higher learning to help Canada claim its second consecutive gold medal. Gillian Apps (granddaughter of former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Syl Apps), Cherie Piper and Katie Weatherston represented the Dartmouth Big Green at the Torino Games.

Piper would finish second in overall scoring in Torino with 15 points (seven goals, eight assists), while Apps would rank third with 14 points, respectively. Both Piper and Apps led all skaters in Torino with seven goals scored. In addition, the two would score goals in the gold medal game versus Sweden. Piper also scored a hat trick in the same game that Agosta accomplished the feat (the 12-0 victory over Russia). Not to be outdone, Apps would notch a hat trick in an 8-1 Valentine’s Day win over Sweden.

Not only would the Dartmouth Three enjoy gold medal glory, but all three would eventually be the building blocks of the CWHL. Apps and Piper played together with the Brampton Thunder and competed for the Clarkson Cup (Apps participated in the 2010 and 2012 championship game, while Piper notched a goal in the 2012 championship game). Although Weatherston would enjoy only one Winter Games appearance for Canada, Weatherston was one of the franchise players for the Ottawa Capital Canucks. During the 2007-08 CWHL season, she would be transferred to the Montreal Stars, and earn the opportunity to play with future Winter Games medalist Marie-Philip Poulin, and future McGill Martlets star Leslie Oles.

Legend in the Making

She competed in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association under the guidance of Shannon Miller. Caroline Ouellette would be the first Canadian woman to achieve a rare grand slam in women’s hockey. Ouellette would earn an NCAA Frozen Four title, World Championship Gold, Olympic Gold, and a Clarkson Cup triumph.
Playing at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (with US rival Jenny Potter as one of her teammates), Ouellette would benefit greatly from the tutelage of Shannon Miller, the coach of Canada’s initial women’s hockey entry, at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games. Ironically, Ouellette’s teammate at Minnesota-Duluth, Jenny Potter would be the first American woman to achieve the grand slam.

On February 11, 2006, Ouellette would log a hat trick in a 16-0 whitewash of host country Italy. She was the first of four Canadian players to score hat tricks in Torino. In the gold medal game, Ouellette scored what would stand as the game winning goal in a 4-1 triumph over Sweden. Ouellette’s nine points tied her for fourth place in overall scoring at the Torino Games. Tied with Ouellette was Maria Rooth of Sweden, one of Ouellette’s teammates at Minnesota-Duluth.
Before claiming three of the first four Clarkson Cup championships, Ouellette would return to the University of Minnesota-Duluth to serve as an assistant coach under Shannon Miller. Julie Chu, who would make her debut for the US Olympic Team at the 2006 Games, would also serve on the coaching staff. Eventually, Chu would win multiple Clarkson Cups in Montreal, playing alongside Ouellette, Agosta, and several other Canadian stars. After joining the CWHL for good, Ouellette set the CWHL scoring record (since broken) in the 2010-11 campaign.

French Connection between the pipes

The Torino Games would solidify Kim St. Pierre’s legacy as the greatest women’s goaltender in the history of Canadian hockey. Statistically, St. Pierre and Charline Labonte allowed a combined two goals in five games played. Labonte logged 180 minutes of ice time and led all goaltenders with a goals against average of 0.33% and a save percentage of .976, respectively. St. Pierre had 120 minutes of ice time, while her goals against was second overall among all Torino goalies with 0.50%. Her save percentage ranked fifth overall with .923.

The accolades would only continue for St. Pierre after her gold medal win in Torino. Not only would St. Pierre claim her third gold at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, but St. Pierre would make hockey history in two different ways. She would follow in the footsteps of Manon Rheaume, as she would enter the realm of the National Hockey League. On October 23, 2008, Montreal Canadiens General Manager Bob Gainey would invite St. Pierre to take part in a practice with the club, as Carey Price was out with the flu. A year later, St. Pierre would occupy the crease for the Montreal Stars as the team won the first ever Clarkson Cup. In the nascent years of the CWHL, St. Pierre would take root as the premier goaltender, winning two Clarkson Cups.

Charline Labonte was the second half of the French Connection that proved to be impenetrable between the pipes at the Torino Games. In many ways, Labonte has followed in St. Pierre’s footsteps as she has also found her own frozen glory. Like St. Pierre, Labonte is accustomed to tending goal against male hockey players. Labonte tended goal for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. Her play for the QMJHL club was featured on a hockey card issued by Upper Deck in their 1999-2000 UD Prospects set (card #54).

After the superlative career that St. Pierre had with the McGill Martlets of the CIS, Labonte took over the goaltending duties and the Martlets never missed a beat. Labonte’s impact with McGill is legendary as she led them to five appearances in the CIS National tournament. One of the prospects in the 2012 CWHL Draft, Labonte is one of two goaltenders from the Torino Games looking to establish a great career between the pipes of the CWHL net. Switzerland goaltender Florence Schelling made her Olympic debut for Switzerland in 2006, and like Labonte, she looks to be an anchor for a team’s crease for several seasons to come.

The Builders

A co-founder of the CWHL, Jennifer Botterill will one day find herself enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. While her exploits as an Olympic ice hockey player are known, her contributions to the early years of the CWHL are just as important. Playing for the Mississauga Aeros in the inaugural CWHL season, Botterill claimed the Angela James Bowl (given to the highest scoring player in the CWHL). In 2010, Botterill would play in the Toronto Furies inaugural season. Her leadership and presence were key factors in the Furies qualifying for the 2011 Clarkson Cup finals.
The heartbeat of the Burlington Barracudas (now defunct), Becky Kellar is a stoic, quiet, and admirable hero that has appeared in four Winter Games competitions. A CWHL All-Star selection in the league’s inaugural season, Kellar was an anchor on defense for Canada during the Torino Games.

Long time members of the Brampton Thunder, Jayna Hefford and Vicky Sunohara (in her Olympic swan song) brought heart, leadership, and experience to a Canadian squad. Those qualities would benefit Brampton greatly in their transition to the CWHL in 2007-08. Hefford, Sunohara, and Lori Dupuis (member of the 1998 and 2002 Canadian Olympic teams) would help Brampton claim the first championship in CWHL history.

The first female to captain back to back gold medal teams in the Winter Games, Cassie Campbell was in the twilight of her career as the CWHL broke ground. As a former member of the Beatrice Aeros in the NWHL and the Calgary Oval X-Treme, Campbell would contribute to the CWHL in an administrative capacity. When Adrienne Clarkson unveiled the Clarkson Cup on July 10, 2006, Campbell was at her side. Her contributions to the CWHL and the Clarkson Cup are part of a bigger body of work that made Campbell the first woman to receive the Order of Hockey in Canada.

Final Links to the Calgary Oval X-Treme

While the following never played in the CWHL (Danielle Goyette, Colleen Sostorics, Hayley Wickenheiser: who led all skaters at Torino with twelve assists and seventeen points), their contributions to the Calgary Oval X-Treme would one day lay the groundwork for the CWHL to expand to Calgary. As a side note, one of the assistant coaches of the Oval X-Treme was Bart Doan, cousin of Shane Doan (a gold medalist at the 2010 Winter Games), and husband of Catriona LeMay Doan (multiple Winter Games medalist).

Proving that women’s ice hockey was an important part of Calgary’s sporting landscape, the philanthropic contribution by Joan Snyder would help fund a new arena and training facility for the Calgary Dinos of the CIS, while making it possible for Calgary to enter the CWHL. Team Alberta (as the CWHL expansion team from Calgary would be known) featured Samantha Holmes as its General Manager. As a child, Holmes letter writing campaigns to Juan Antonio Samaranch, and various Canadian dignitaries, was one of the catalysts towards making women’s ice hockey a reality at the Winter Games. Holmes efforts would finally reach full circle. Meanwhile, the contributions of Goyette and Wickenheiser as leaders and mentors with the Calgary Dinos will bear fruit that the CWHL shall reap the benefit from.

American Influence

Ironically, one of the players that were instrumental in helping the CWHL take flight was United States player Kathleen Kauth. Having played on the bronze medal United States team, Kauth had spent several seasons with the Brampton Thunder in the later years of the National Women's Hockey League. Along with Jennifer Botterill, 2002 Winter Games medalist Sami Jo Small, CIS player Allyson Fox, and Dartmouth Big Green skater Kim McCullough, Kauth was one of the architects behind the formation of the CWHL. In emulating the National Lacrosse League, the CWHL would assume responsibility for various aspects, such as travel, ice rental and uniform costs.

Kauth had qualified for the 2002 US Winter Games team, but did not participate. Tragically, she lost her father in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. In a gesture of goodwill, the Canadian team sent a letter of condolence to Kauth. It was a real world tragedy that forced many to place the bitter rivalry in perspective. If any consolation can emanate from Kauth’s personal tragedy, it is the fact that it softened the tension between Canada and the US.

Along with Julie Chu, there was another player from the 2006 United States Olympic team that has a profound impact on the CWHL. Wisconsin Badgers legend Molly Engstrom would play for the Brampton Thunder of the CWHL during the league’s inaugural 2007-08 season. A participant with Brampton in the 2010 and 2012 Clarkson Cup final, Engstrom was another American that was essential in the building of mutual respect between Canadian and American players. Being the first American player in the CWHL, Engstrom was recognized as a league all-star in her first season, and is an important reason that many Americans now compete in the league.

As the women’s game continues to evolve, future events shall undoubtedly clash with unforeseen elements to create resilient roots upon which to strengthen the game. The 2006 Winter Games created an was a perfect storm in which an unexpected foundation was crafted that would help women’s ice hockey develop, while creating new stars such as Meghan Agosta, Julie Chu and Florence Schelling. Its participants were building blocks that constituted intricate, yet interdependent events that would one day lead to the progression that is Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

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