Monday, 12 May 2014

Documentary on Montreal Stars helps preserve special moment in growth of female game

Debuting on June 5, 2014, the women’s hockey documentary Les Stars is more than just a chronicling of the Montreal Stars on-ice accomplishments. It serves as an intimate portrait of a remarkable group of pioneering women, looking to change the cultural norm. As one of the signature franchises of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the Stars were not only the first to claim back-to-back Clarkson Cups, but the first to capture three overall titles, respectively.

Directed by Jess Desjardins (who pulls double duty as the sound recordist), she is an individual with many diverse interests. Having directed and produced several short films this year alone, Desjardins, an avid musician, has also been a sports fan since her youth. The love of sport has helped to serve as a backdrop for another of her great passions; photography.

Highly talented and accomplished behind the lens as a photographer, Desjardins has used her keen visual talents to snap the action at the 2013 and 2014 editions of the Clarkson Cup, the championship event in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). As a side note, a photo that Desjardins snapped of Caroline Ouellette and “Dangerous” Dominqiue Thibault made the cover of the 2013 Clarkson Cup program.

Not since The Game of Her Life, a documentary produced in 1998 by the National Film Board of Canada, has such an effort been made to preserve a time frame which seizes the drive and dedication that encompasses life as a female hockey player. Desjardins would be quick to point out that Domenico Ciarallo and his firm Rocket Sport (manufacturers of the Rocket Equipment Dryer) has been a key sponsor in helping preserve a unique time in Canadian female sporting history on film.

Capturing their moments through good times and bad, Desjardins works tirelessly to provide the viewer with a window into their motivation and competitive edge while capturing a soft, human side. Desjardins is able to display a very optimistic and hopeful outlook on the game and its bright future. With the Stars helping set the table for tomorrow’s generation of female athletes, they are the centerpieces of Desjardins’ documentary.
Founded by Lisa-Marie Breton Lebreux in 2007, the Stars rose from the ashes of the defunct Montreal Axion (pronounced Action). While the club is truly an extension of her love for the game, it is also her leadership that unifies the team in its desire to succeed. She has opened the door for women to enter the franchise and feel like part of a unique family where hockey is helping to empower women.

Like any gathering of individuals, whether it is sporting, social or professional, there is no question that the Stars comprise a unique collection of diverse personalities, all entailing distinct backgrounds. Over the years, competitors in both the Summer and Winter Olympics have not been the only notable individuals to entail the Stars rosters. Police officers, reality TV stars, school teachers and competitors in the Red Bull Crashed Ice circuit have comprised some of the unique off-ice careers that players have engaged in.

Although not every player’s personal story could make it past the cutting room floor, a common ground is established. A love of the game, complemented by the ability to balance other aspects of life is a defining feature in every player’s career, beautifully chronicled in the work of Desjardins.

These hockey-playing women, a group of dedicated, frozen gladiators have endured countless struggles in order to make their competitive dreams come true. Desjardins, like the women she immortalizes in her documentary, participate in what they do as a labor of love. The battle for sporting equality and the fight to pursue one’s dreams should make this documentary not only serves as inspiration for future generations of players but serve as mandatory sports viewing.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Canada’s captain Caroline Ouellette continues to give back to the community

For a world-class athlete such as Caroline Ouellette, the word off-season is not in her vocabulary. After cementing her athletic legacy at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games by becoming one of only three Canadian female athletes to claim gold in four consecutive Winter Games, Ouellette was back with the Montreal Stars upon her return to Canada.

During her late-season tenure with the Stars, she continued to engage in her love of giving back to the community. Proudly participating in the Stars fund-raiser for Breast Cancer, it is one of her favorite events on the CWHL calendar, enhanced by the fact that Stars players are adorned in pink jerseys for the first period. After her aunt Claire survived the disease in 2010 (while Ouellette was preparing for a gold-medal run at the Vancouver Winter Games), it is a cause close to her heart.

Even after the CWHL season came to a close, Ouellette was not finished with hockey or her charitable endeavors. During the 2012-13 Canadian Interuniversity Sport season, Ouellette also found time to serve as a member of Les Lawton’s coaching staff with the Concordia Stingers. While she was not able to assume such tasks in 2013-14, she still managed to help participate in fund raising for the club.

Ed Meagher Arena, the home rink for the Stingers program, featured a charitable match. In an effort to help raise funds for the Stingers, eight Stars members and five Stingers were teammates for one day. Playing against a group of male hockey players, Ouellette contributed a six point output (on the strength of four goals) including the game-winning tally in a 7-6 final.

Following the momentum of the Stingers contest, Ouellette also took part in an event that she has partaken in for several years. Once again, she donated her time to participate in Hockey Helps the Homeless. In 2014, HHtH hosted an event at Sportsplex Pierrefonds. With the goal of raising $300,000, HHtH raised over $350,000, benefiting outreach partners such as Dans La Rue, St. James Mission and others.

Ouellette was among several female hockey legends, including the likes of fellow gold medalists Catherine Ward and Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored the overtime winner to win the gold in Sochi, which participated. The day includes a women’s tournament in which each team plays at least three games and has two female stars as teammates.

While her hockey skates are temporarily put aside, she is still keeping fit and active. Along with Genevieve Lacasse, one of only three goaltenders to have won the Clarkson Cup, IIHF Gold and Winter Games Gold, this dynamic duo are off to the Arctic region of Canada as part of the True Patriot Love Expedition Team.

It is a group of 24 remarkable individuals from all walks of life joined by 12 injured soldiers testing their skiing and outdoor camping abilities for a noble cause. The goal is to raise awareness of physical and mental injuries that have had an impact on Canadian soldiers during the Afghanistan mission by engaging in an expedition to the North Pole.

A “training camp” was held in Alcove, Quebec, in preparation for said expedition. From learning to prepare with issues such as snowshoeing, skiing with sleds, communication, other topics at the camp included hygiene, sleeping conditions, wildlife and communication. As a side note, a gesture of support was shown by fellow Olympian Caroline Calve, who provided Ouellette with a pair of UVEX Glasses that she used in competition.

Prior to the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championships held in Ottawa, Ontario, Ouellette and her teammates held their training camp in Petawawa. With a Canadian Forces Base located in the vicinity, it was an opportunity to gain an even greater appreciation for Canada’s military personnel.

The foundation funds programs for veterans, whether they are in Canada or abroad while serving as a channel for everyday Canadians to show their appreciation and patriotism.
As Shaun Francis, the founder and chair of True Patriot Love Foundation stated, the expedition is integral to advancing TPL’s mission to bridging the disconnect between Canada’s military and civilian worlds. For Ouellette, the expedition is a remarkable way for this Canadian hero to appreciate the sacrifices of Canada’s soldiers, another group of Canadian heroes, while helping raise awareness for their operational stress injuries.

During the Easter weekend, Ouellette and Lacasse made their way north to Resolute Bay. Their journey also involved the chance to meet star struck fans at Cadet Hall in Iqaluit. It is all part of a humanitarian effort in which the two hockey heroes shall ski to the North Pole with the TPL Foundation to support Canada’s military veterans. 

Having also visited Africa several years ago as an ambassador for Right to Play, Ouellette is a worldly yet remarkable person who is providing a powerful impact. Her journey to the North Pole represents a different set of extremes, but it is one where fans and friends alike are confident that Ouellette will once again emerge with a series of positive experiences that help to inspire. 

Karolina Urban’s westward journey pays positive dividends for Calgary Inferno

At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, the Calgary Inferno faced a significant loss of leadership. Considering that Jocelyne Larocque, Meaghan Mikkelson and Tara Watchorn were part of Canada’s centralization camp (in anticipation of the Sochi Winter Games); the impact was compounded by the retirement of former captain Bobbi-Jo Slusar.

Heading to Western Canada to pursue her Master’s Degree, the arrival of Karolina Urban could not have happened at a better time. Considering that Urban is articulate, very coachable and brings a team-first mentality, she would prove to be an essential component for a squad pursuing its first-ever postseason berth.

While the Inferno still featured reliable veterans such as Laura Dostaler, Chelsea Purcell and Kelsey Webster, Urban helped to relieve the burden of leadership from their shoulders. On a team that consisted of close to a dozen rookies, Urban’s experiences in the game helped provide a presence.

During the 2012-13 campaign, Urban was a rookie with the Toronto Furies, helping the squad reach the postseason. Ironically, the only points she earned in her inaugural season of CWHL play came in contests against Calgary (known that season as Team Alberta). Surrounded on the blue and white by strong women such as Sommer West (who was in her first year as head coach) and goaltender Sami Jo Small, she could not have asked for a better introduction to CWHL hockey.

Incorporating many of the values learned from that first season, she has developed into a jill-of-all-trades on the ice. From willing to play on a checking line, show some grit in the corners and contribute as a defensive-minded forward, Urban does many of the little things that do not always get recognized on the stats sheet.

Urban showed a very disciplined game during the Inferno’s 12 wins over the past season. Of note, she was only penalized in three of the squad’s wins. In addition, only three of those wins resulted in Urban having a negative plus/minus rating.

Another aspect to Urban’s respect for the game can be attributed to the high quality of coaching that she received while playing with the famed University of Toronto Varsity Blues program. During her tenure there, she had the opportunity to be coached by three Blues alumnae that also made their mark on the Canadian national team; Lori Dupuis, Jayna Hefford and Vicky Sunohara. Ironically, Dupuis and Hefford were Urban’s opponents on the Brampton Thunder during her first season in the CWHL.

The trend of quality coaching would continue into her stint with the Inferno. Playing for head coach Tim Bothwell, a former NHL player and member of Melody Davidson’s coaching staff at the 2006 Torino Winter Games; it would only help improve an already fundamentally sound game for Urban.

While Urban has not scored as much in the CWHL as she did at the university level, she holds one unique stat during her two seasons in the league. Every game in which she has registered a point, her team goes on to win the game. Considering that the stars were perfectly aligned for the Inferno in the second half of the season, it would prove to be a memorable time for Urban as she helped the club make history by finishing with its first-ever winning season and postseason appearance.

Although she heads back east in the autumn to pursue her Ph.D, Urban’s role in the return of winning women’s hockey in Western Canada is unforgettable. Through the new friendships made and the magical season in which a young but enthusiastic Inferno franchise learned how to win, Urban emerges with an even greater sense of confidence. While one day she will be known as Dr. Urban, there shall always be a part of her that loves the camaraderie and competitiveness that comes from gracing the ice. 

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Weyburn Gold Wings soar towards gold medal at 2014 Esso Cup

Heading into the 2014 Esso Cup, Canada’s female midget-level hockey championship, the Weyburn Gold Wings did not have the high profile that other competing clubs carried. A 2-1 upset win over the Edmonton Thunder, who were looking for their first title in six attempts, certainly made the fans at at Gateway Ice Centre in Stoney Creek, Ontario notice.

Of note, the Thunder was not the only club looking to prove it belonged among Canada’s elite female midget teams. The Stoney Creek Sabres (who also have a parent team in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League) were the host team, and were looking to show skeptics that they were worthy of belonging.

Last year’s host team, the Fraser Valley Phantoms had qualified for the 2014 edition of the Esso Cup. The Moncton Rockets were aiming for Atlantic Canada’s first victory in the event, while the Sudbury Wolves were the other Ontario-based team looking to stake their claim with a championship victory.

The Western Canadian match-up in the gold medal game between the Gold Wings and Thunder told two different tales. The Gold Wings marched to the best record in the round robin, suffering their only loss on April 23, a 3-2 defeat against host Stoney Creek. With a losing record in the tournament (finishing fourth in the round robin), the Thunder managed to sneak past Stoney Creek in the semi-final. As a side note, the Wolves would defeat Stoney Creek for the bronze medal.

Through the first 16 minutes of competition, the final would result in a defensive stalemate. Early on, the Thunder were the aggressors, putting five shots on net in the first four minutes of play. Despite a minor penalty to Gold Wings skater Madison Colbow at 7:41, goaltender Jane Kish successfully nullified the Thunder power play.

Tessa Wilson would break the deadlock at 16:01 as her even-strength marker provided Weyburn with the 1-0 advantage. Her booming shot bounced off of Thunder goaltender Tracie Kikuchi’s glove and into the net. Assisted by Caitlin Dempsey, the Gold Wings would finish the period with an 11-10 advantage in shots.

Heading into the second stanza, the Gold Wings added to their lead. Bailee Bourassa would add another even-strength goal as she beat Kikuchi at the 1:50 mark. Jenica Whitrow earned the assist as Weyburn enjoyed the two-goal cushion.

The next five minutes of the game would be defined by penalty problems. At 2:29, Amy Boucher of Edmonton along with Whitney Thorp from Weyburn were both penalized on interference calls. Slightly over a minute later, Colbow was called on a minor penalty, giving the Thunder an extra skater.

While Kish successfully prevented the Thunder from scoring on the power play, she would be unable to duplicate her success. A cross-checking call to Kassidy Sjostrand at 6:21 put the Gold Wings on the penalty kill.

Forty seconds later, Edmonton’s Brett Campbell logged a power play tally to reduce the Gold Wings lead to just one. With a mad scramble in front of the Gold Wings crease, the net came off its pegs right after the timely goal. Alexandra Poznikoff, one of the tournament’s leading scorers with 10 points, was credited with the assist as the Thunder were hoping to tie the game.

Penalties would continue to be problematic in the third period as the Gold Wings were forced to protect their lead. Outshooting the Gold Wings by a 10-6 mark in the third, the Thunder were hoping to take advantage of a 5-on-3 power play opportunity in the first half of the frame.

A head contact call on Sjostrand at 6:24 placed the Gold Wings back on penalty kill. Merely 36 seconds later, Wilson was called for tripping. With the Thunder desperate to tie the game, goals were at a premium. Despite their best efforts, a sense of urgency defined the power play as Brett Campbell was called for slashing at 8:20.

The Thunder’s hopes were dashed at the 17:41 mark. Campbell, who scored the lone goal for the Thunder, was called for tripping. Facing a disadvantage, any chance for a comeback became difficult for the beleaguered Thunder. Despite the pressure, Kish continued to remain a calm and steady presence in net for the Gold Wings. For her efforts, she was recognized as the tournament’s top goaltender. Bailee Bourassa and Jenica Whitrow were the leading scorers for the Gold Wings in the tournament, finishing with nine points each.