Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Trio of Brampton Thunder rookies earn first career CWHL points on same scoring play

As the Brampton Thunder rebuild, hoping to recapture the glories of season’s past, an impressive rookie crop forms the foundation. Led by Sochi gold medalist Laura Fortino (the first overall pick in the 2014 CWHL Draft) along with 2014 Patty Kazmaier Award winner Jamie Lee Rattray at forward, a patient fan base sees only good things ahead.

Such an example was evident during the Thunder’s season opener. Facing off against the Calgary Inferno, who made significant offseason upgrades to their offense, the host team Thunder put up a valiant fight. Standing between the pipes was rookie backstop Erica Howe. Having grown up in the Ottawa area with Rattray, the two have been teammates at the PWHL, IIHF and NCAA levels, winning the NCAA Frozen Four title in 2014.

While the Inferno’s offense overwhelmed Brampton, prevailing by a 5-2 score, the rookie crop never gave up. Howe only gave up one goal in the first period (Jenna Cunningham at 9:02) while stifling four power play attempts by the Inferno. Although Calgary extended its lead by a 3-1 tally in the second stanza, three Brampton rookies engaged in a unique scoring play.

After Calgary’s Rebecca Johnston (a two-time Winter Games gold medallist) scored the first goal of the second at 4:16, Brampton regrouped and quickly got on the scoreboard. Just one minute and 40 seconds later, Brampton capitalized on its second power play opportunity of the game. With former Brampton player Bailey Bram serving a roughing penalty, rookie Carly Mercer scored on Delayne Brian, the winner of the 2014 CWHL Most Outstanding Goalie award.

Earning the assists on Mercer’s power play marker were Fortino and Rattray, marking a career milestone that will eternally link them in Brampton history. All three earned their first career CWHL points on the same scoring play. In addition, it was Brampton’s first goal of the season.

Although Calgary extended their lead to a 4-1 mark early in the third, Mercer was not finished. With Taryn Peacock serving a roughing penalty for Calgary, Mercer logged her second power play tally of the contest. Trimming Calgary’s lead to two goals, Canadian national team blueliners Courtney Birchard and Jocelyne Larocque (making her Brampton debut) earned the assists, providing Mercer with a two-goal performance in her CWHL debut.

Past the midway point of the third, Calgary put the game out of reach, extending their lead back to three goals. Although Erica Howe was pulled in favor of sophomore goalie Sonia van der Bliek, she provided a courageous performance, making 33 saves. Although Howe would have preferred to win her CWHL debut, she symbolized the determination of Brampton’s rookie crop, ensuring better days to come.

Taking into account that Brampton does not have the likes of elite scorers such as Gillian Apps, Laura McIntosh and Jayna Hefford (the CWHL’s all-time leading scorer) are not with the club, rookies such as Fortino, Rattray and Mercer have big shoes to fill. After a solid effort in her debut, Mercer would emerge with the Third Star of the Game nod. She will certainly be counted on to provide more performances similar to that during the season as Brampton looks to qualify for the postseason.   

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Brampton blueliner Tara French gets new start in Toronto as rivals engage in trade

For the crowd pouring into Waterloo’s RIM Center, it must have been a surprise for the CWHL’s hardcore fans to see Tara French wearing an opposing team’s sweater. A reliable and steady blueliner for the Brampton Thunder, Tara French now has a new home with the Toronto Furies.

Exchanged for rookie blueliners Leah Whittaker and Candice Styles, it must have been a visceral experience for French to wear the colors of a Furies team she has only known as a rival. Suiting up for the Furies as the Brampton Thunder challenged them in a neutral site game; the Furies would emerge with a hard fought 2-1 victory in the shootout.

On the surface, it would appear to be a win-win trade for both sides. Styles and Whittaker, selected 17th and 27th overall in the 2014 CWHL Draft are a pair of talented blueliners with plenty of potential. Raised in Cambridge, Ontario, Whittaker competed at the NCAA level with the now-defunct Niagara Purple Eagles program. A stay at home defender, her presence should allow Brampton’s offensive minded blueliners the chance to open their game.

Hailing from Orangeville, Ontario, Styles had a distinguished career with CIS national power Wilfrid Laurier University. Considering that she played her senior season at WLU with Laura McIntosh as a member of the coaching staff, it may be a move that benefits Brampton. As McIntosh spent the last two seasons playing for Brampton, while juggling a season of coaching at WLU, she obviously knew Styles’ merits.

Named WLU’s Female Athlete of the Year in 2014, Styles was also the recipient of CIS All-Canadian honors. In addition, Styles also played for the Canadian contingent that captured the gold medal at the 2011 Winter Universiade.   

Taking into account that Brampton already features three blueliners with experience on the Canadian national team (Courtney Bichard, Laura Fortino and Jocelyne Larocque), they should be able to help groom Larocque and Whittaker into two dependable blueliners. As a side note, Brampton had acquired Furies 2013 draft pick Sasha Nanji last season. A promising blueliner who had a sterling career at Dartmouth, Nanji did not return to the club this season. With Brampton currently in last place in the standings, the club can afford to think for the long-term and hope that Styles and Whittaker can provide a presence for the franchise, while compensating for the loss of Nanji.

Although French struggled with only one point registered during a difficult 2013-14 campaign with Brampton, her importance is measured in the fact that she brings a veteran leadership that will make the franchise even stronger. While the club boasts a significant number of veterans on the team, French has experience that shall add significant depth to the blueline. Later in the season, it is that kind of depth which may prove crucial in attempting to repeat as Clarkson Cup champions.

With blueliner Megan Bozek, the second overall pick in the 2014 CWHL Draft, temporarily leaving to Colorado to practice with the US National Team, French helps to fill that void. Of note, she brings a fundamentally sound game and team-first approach that made her the 2007 ECAC Hockey Student-Athlete of the Year and four-time All-ECAC selection. For a competitor such as French, a change of scenery may bring an added benefit. The chance to skate for the Furies may supply her with the best chance at winning the Clarkson Cup. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Montreal Stars drafted a gem in Vanessa Gagnon but real world takes precedence

As the last two CWHL drafts have seen the Montreal Stars build towards the future, hoping a new generation of players such as first-round picks Lauriane Rougeau and Kim Deschenes can emulate the Clarkson Cup glories of years past, one of its building blocks should have come in Vanessa Gagnon.

Selected in the second round by the Stars, she was one of four members of the Clarkson Golden Knights to declare for the draft. Clarkson’s other three players were all selected by the Brampton Thunder, in an effort to renew their status as a championship contender. 

Unfortunately, the realities of economy and employment temporarily put a hold on Gagnon's hockey ambitions. Of note, Clarkson fans cannot help but feel disappointment as Montreal’s first game against Brampton takes place on November 15 at Century Gardens. Had Gagnon suited up, it would have likely been an emotional game for all Clarkson alumnae involved.  

Part of Clarkson’s historic Class of 2014 (which included Shelby Nisbet, Vanessa Plante, Brittany Styner, along with Brampton picks Erica Howe, Carly Mercer and Jamie Lee Rattray), Vanessa Gagnon ended her NCAA career in storybook fashion, winning the NCAA Frozen Four over national powerhouse Minnesota, tallying eight points in the tourney.

Complementing this landmark win for Clarkson was the fact that Gagnon was bestowed the honor of the Elite 89 Award at the tourney. Of note, it is an annual honor presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average competing in the finals. As the objective of the award is to honor an individual that has reached the pinnacle of competition at a national championship level while managing to reach high academic standards, it was an award most worthy of Gagnon.

As a side note, Clarkson’s senior class accumulated a sparkling win percentage of .674 during their four years, complemented by a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances.  

Named an assistant captain for her senior season, Gagnon was an invaluable member for the green and gold. She was definitely one of those players whose efforts were crucial in brining a winning attitude to the proud Clarkson program. The hardware she would accumulate by the end of her senior season was testament to such efforts.

Having graduated from Clarkson during her junior season with an undergraduate degree in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, she would work on a master’s degree during her senior season. With a 3.95 GPA, she was one of only two student-athletes in Clarkson’s MBA program to have a GPA so high.

Inducted into the highest of Clarkson’s business school honor societies, Gagnon also became the first Clarkson female hockey player to gain CoSIDA Academic honors. In 2013, Gagnon was named to the first-team of the 2013 CoSIDA/Capital One Women's At-Large Academic All-Region team.

Also the recipient of the Booster Club’s Unsung Hero Award in 2013 and 2014, this team award recognizes the player who puts the team first while serving as a role model for teammates and community alike.

She helped organize the Lil’ Knights Club outings, while also helping to organize a partnership with Helping Hands in the Community.
She has also partnered with members of Clarkson’s faculty to help develop the micro-financing of projects in Uganda, Africa, where Gagnon visited in May 2014, as part of an initiative for screening and training support.

Such efforts also resulted in winning the Mandi Schwartz Student-Athlete of the Year Award, which honors the life of the former Yale Bulldogs player who sadly lost her battle with cancer.

Another award which pays tribute to a fallen hockey hero is presented jointly between ECAC Hockey and Hockey East, making all players from both conferences eligible. The Sarah Devens Award, whose criterion includes the "demonstration of leadership and commitment both on and off the ice.”, also includes a postgraduate scholarship of $10,000, which Gagnon earned in 2014.

ECAC Hockey also recognized Gagnon as the winner of the Best Defensive Forward award. Her +43 plus/minus rating was complemented by 33 points, on the strength of 18 goals, of which five were game winning tallies. Her value to the team was even more important in the face-off circle, as she won 64% of her draws. In addition, she was ECAC Hockey’s representative for the 2014 NCAA Woman of the Year.

Her devotion to community service and helping the less fortunate would have definitely reminded hardcore Montreal fans of another remarkable Stars player whose contributions as a hockey humanitarian are well-known; Caroline Ouellette. It was that kind of maturity and off-ice leadership that should have made Gagnon an integral part of the Stars’ long-term plans.

As the game still grows, one of its biggest challenges is ensuring that its players can make a living from the game. For Montreal, Gagnon would have been a perfect fit. From strong skills as a sniper, who could have definitely complemented the likes of Emmanuelle Blais and Dangerous Dominique Thibault, Gagnon could have brought value to the squad as a penalty-killer.

Although there is always a chance that Gagnon may return next fall, there is no question that her articulate and inspiring demeanor certainly made an impression on the Stars franchise. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Erin O'Neill part of new wave of backstops for proud BU Terriers program

As the Boston University Terriers look to capture their fourth straight Hockey East title, the program shall attempt to do so without legendary backstop Kerrin Sperry. Having rewritten the Terriers record books, Sperry leaves behind some big shoes to fill. Hoping to be able to extend her legacy is freshman goaltender Erin O’Neil.
Hailing from Minnetonka, Minnesota, O’Neill has already compiled some impressive hardware as a high school athlete. Having attended Hopkins high school, her graduation was complemented by three impressive honors.
The first of which consisted of the 2014 Athena Award. Given to the best overall athlete of her high school, it is voted on by all the varsity head coaches. As a side note, she did not win the award only on hockey accomplishments alone. A prominent softball player, O’Neill earned recognition for excelling at the catcher position, while serving as team captain. In addition, she was also awarded the captaincy on the hockey team.
Also a leader off the ice, she was recognized for her volunteer work with Special Olympics, winning the Minnesota Distinguished Family Service Award. Earlier in 2014, she was a member of the Under-18 USA hockey team and was honored as the recipient of the Let’s Play Hockey Senior Goalie of The Year award, recognizing the best goaltender in Minnesota high school hockey.
Playing for head coach Vin Paolucci at Hopkins, she compiled a 17-5-0 record, a sparkling save percentage of .948 (fourth in the state), complemented by seven shutouts and a miniscule 1.25 goals against average (fifth in the state). She would prove to be a key factor in Hopkins earning a number 4 ranking in Class AA.
Suiting up for Hockey East powerhouse Boston University, O’Neil’s NCAA debut was a baptism of fire. Competing against the defending NCAA tournament runner-up Minnesota Golden Gophers, a true Welcome to the NCAA moment if there ever was one, O’Neill made 23 saves on 28 shots.
Statistically, she logged a save percentage of .821, 57:50 minutes of ice time and a goals against average of 5.19 in the loss. Coincidentally, Sperry’s final game was also against Minnesota (during the 2014 NCAA tournament). Although O’Neil’s debut may have been a difficult one, it may serve as a defining moment, motivating her to work harder and become the backstop that may one day challenge Sperry’s records while maintaining the Terriers’ standing as one of the nation’s best programs. 

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Tessa Bonhomme earns induction into Ohio State Athletics Hall of fame

In a year that has seen Tessa Bonhomme gain entry into the Triple Gold Club by winning the 2014 Clarkson Cup with the Toronto Furies, another accolade recognizes her impact as an elite women’s hockey player. Having played NCAA hockey for the Ohio State Buckeyes, she gained the university’s ultimate recognition for a student-athlete.

She gained induction into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame. Among the 13 members that comprised the Class of 2014, she was introduced to Buckeyes fans during the halftime of the Buckeyes football game against the Cincinnati Bearcats on September 27. Of note, Bonhomme was one of four women that were part of this year’s Hall of Fame Class. She was joined by Nancy Darsch (women’s basketball coach), Becky Kim (synchronized swimming) and Tami Smith (women’s track and field).

Although the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame first opened in 1977, it did not induct its first women until 1993. Since then, 106 women have gained the honor. Of note, Bonhomme is the second women’s hockey player inducted into the Hall. Emma Laaksonen (who competed with the Finnish national women’s team), was part of the 2009 Class.

Bonhomme joined the Buckeyes in the autumn of 2003 and would compete on the program with future CWHL teammates such as Amber Bowman and Erika Vander Veer. She would redshirt for the 2005-06 season in order to attend Canada’s Centralization Camp (in preparation for the 2006 Sochi Winter Games). Although she was not named to the Sochi roster, she would return to Ohio State with a remarkable character and determination that defined her career at all levels she played at.

Her first season back (2006-07) saw Bonhomme log 36 points on the strength of 22 assists, while earning Second Team All-America honors and finishing as a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award. Such would repeat such honors in her senior season, although the All-America recognition was for the first team, complemented by the winning of 2008 WCHA Player of the Year Honors.

By the time she graduated from Ohio State, she did so as the program’s all-time scoring leader among blueliners with 128 points, along with the single season scoring record for most points by a blueliner with 45 (accomplished in her senior season). She would ride such momentum with a chance to compete on the Canadian national team, earning a gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, one of the great pinnacles of her career.

Her presence with the Buckeyes led to an unprecedented period of success for the proud Buckeyes program, which also involved the recruiting of some remarkable future stars. Players such as Hokey Langan, all-time leading goal scorer (and 2014 Sochi Gold Medalist) Natalie Spooner, and all-time scoring leader Laura MacIntosh proudly carried on Bonhomme’s legacy, and each is worthy of her own spot in the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame. 

Monday, 6 October 2014

Clarkson Golden Knights raise championship banner in winning style

After Clarkson began its 12th season in defense of its Frozen Four title with a visceral 5-3 road loss to archrival St. Lawrence, the season’s second game would yield a better result. Playing on home ice against St. Lawrence, the game began with a banner raising ceremony, honoring the program’s 2014 NCAA Frozen Four. Seniors from that team returned for the ceremony, as all members were honored with championship rings.

A record attendance of over 2,500 saw the rivals engage in a tight defensive struggle that saw only one goal scored in each period. Clarkson would open the scoring at the 11:17 mark of the first period, as freshman Amanda Titus would score her first NCAA goal on home ice.

The first 18 minutes of the second stanza was a defensive stalemate as Clarkson struggled to add to their lead. Clarkson freshman goalie Shea Tiley and St. Lawrence junior goalie Carmen MacDonald both kept their teams in contention. As a side note, both goalies have won gold for Canada at the IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds.

Despite Clarkson outshooting St. Lawrence by a 15-5 mark in the second, it was St. Lawrence that made an impact on the scoreboard. With 1:15 remaining in the second, St. Lawrence forward Brooke Webster slipped the puck past the freshman backstop to even the score, her third goal of the two-game series.

Once again, the third period resulted in the same defensive struggle as neither team scored during the first 18 minutes. Clarkson’s veteran leadership would rise to the occasion. With St. Lawrence serving a penalty, it would prove to be costly.

At the 18:16 mark, Erin Ambrose scored on the power play for the 2-1 advantage. Headed towards the right circle, she would release a shot that found its way in the top corner. Assists were logged by Shannon MacAulay and Cayley Mercer, all prominent veterans for the green and gold.

It would prove to be the game winning tally as Ambrose logged the 21st goal of her NCAA career. Amrbose and Mercer would lead all skaters with 7 shots on the game. Of note, Ambrose and St. Lawrence backstop MacDonald were teammates on Canada’s 2010 IIHF U18 gold medal winning roster.
This season, the Golden Knights shall compete in another two games against St. Lawrence, part of a 22-game scheduled against ECAC Hockey opponents. In addition, eight games this season shall take place against squads from last year's NCAA Tournament.

On January 3, 2015, Clarkson shall compete in an exhibition against McGill University. Melodie Daoust, a member of Canada’s gold medal winning contingent at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games is a member of McGill’s roster.

In addition, Clarkson shall also take part in its first-ever tournament to take place during the regular season. The Nutmeg Classic, hosted by the University of Connecticut Huskies program, takes place on Thanksgiving Weekend and will also include Quinnipiac or Yale.

Shannon MacAulay, who scored one of the most important goals in NCAA women's hockey (the game winning goal that beat Minnesota and made Clarkson the first non-WCHA program to win the Frozen Four) was bestowed the honor of the captaincy. All-America defender Erin Ambrose, plus Renata Fast and Olivia Howe have been recognized as Assistant Captains. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Sue Deacon Cup a remarkable celebration of life and hockey humanitarian gesture

Having lost her battle with ovarian cancer on June 3, 2013, Sue Deacon left behind more than a loving family, but a group of individuals from Toronto’s Bill Bolton hockey league. The league members would become like a second family to Deacon providing friendship and support during a challenging time. Considering that she did not begin league play until after her diagnosis, her spirit for the game, and for life in general, was inspiring.

Initially diagnosed during March 2002, she was only given a 40% percent chance of surviving another two years. Just 39 years old at the time, she exceeded those two years and positively impacted a lot of others lives. Forging on for another 11 years, hockey became its own form of therapy.

As the sound of skates sliced up the clean ice surface and the roar of the sirens echoed throughout the arena, it would prove to be a pleasant distraction from the constant checkups that took place every three weeks. Planning her treatments around her hockey schedule was testament to her love of the game, resisting the stresses that cancer caused.

While she logged over 400 hospital visits, endured 28 rounds of chemo and lost her hair more times than anyone should, her life was like the red light that flashed when a goal was scored. Every time Deacon arrived at Bill Bolton, it was like the red light came on, signifying another day of hockey to cherish. Those who played with her would be the first to say that on the ice, Deacon was a player, and not a patient.  

Through this inspiration, the league was determined to find a way to honor her life, memory and love of the game. Deciding to hold a memorial tournament which would raise funds for ovarian cancer research, the Sue Deacon Memorial Cup came to fruition. Fittingly, it would be held at Bill Bolton Arena in her memory.

Media contacts for the event included players Georgina Watts and Christine Deacon, who pulled double duty. Karen Cinq-Mars from Ovarian Cancer Canada, the only charity in Canada dedicated to fighting the disease, while providing education and awareness, was involved in a show of solidarity. 

Four female teams would take part in the event, including the Red Rockets, the Maple Leafs, the White Squirrels and the Billy B Blues. Of note, Watts and Deacon played together for the Red Rockets, with Watts proudly serving as team captain. Deirdre Norman, a key fixture at Bill Bolton Area, who also provides her time for the Toronto Furies as a game day manager suited up for the Blues. In addition, there was also a men's tournament with four teams lacing up their skates in a noble cause. 

In its aftermath, a remarkable celebration of life took place when the Sue Deacon Cup was hosted. A special time for a group of women whose lives were not only positively touched by hockey, but by Deacon's courage and perseverance, all involved were true hockey humanitarians.