Sunday, 20 March 2016

Sensational sophomore Valerie Lamenta captures the Brodrick Trophy

Emerging as one of the surprises of the 2015-16 hockey season, Valeria Lamenta’s fairy tale season continues with recognition as the most outstanding player in Canadian Interuniversity Sport women’s ice hockey. Only in her second year with the Guelph Gryphons, the resident of Montreal has made a significant impression.

From the outset, her nod as the Brodrick Trophy winner makes her the first recipient in Guelph program history. In addition, she is only the third goaltender honored, joining a class that includes former Canadian national team members Kim St. Pierre, who starred at McGill in 2003 when she won the trophy, and Wilfrid Laurier’s Liz Knox, who garnered the honor in 2010. As a side note, the other nominees for the honor included AUS representative Kelty Apperson of St. Thomas and a pair of former Brodrick Trophy winners, Sochi Winter Games gold medalist Melodie Daoust (2013) with RSEQ powerhouse McGill and Iya Gavrilova (2015), a superstar with Canada West’s Calgary Dinos.

Adding to the momentum of the trophy win is the fact that Lamenta not only gained a spot on the CIS First-Team All-Stars, she was also recognized as the OUA’s Most Valuable Player. Lamenta was joined on the CIS First-Team All-Stars by Gavrilova and Daoust. Julia Flinton, a blueliner with the Saskatchewan Huskies, Katelyn Gosling, who won a national title with Western in 2015 and Alexandra Vafina, a teammate of Gavrilova with Calgary were the other honored players on the group of First-Team All-Stars.

Fourth year forward Averi Nooren, who paced the Gryphons with 14 goals, along with blueliner Legih Shilton, a fifth year player who recorded a respectable 16 points, were named to the CIS Second-Team All-Stars. As a side note, head coach Rachel Flanagan was a finalist for the Coach of the Year Award.

Having competed at Le College Edouard-Montpetit, Lamenta had also stood between the pipes for Quebec’s Under-18 Provincial Team. Surprisingly, none of Montreal’s three major universities recruited Lamenta.

Opting to continue her career in Ontario, she began her career with the Guelph Gryphons third on their depth chart. Despite her role as a third-string goalie, serving in a backup capacity to senior goaltender Stephanie Nehring, Lamenta had already shown signs of brilliance, with a sparkling 1.21 goals against average and a .943 save percentage.

Gaining the opportunity to assume the starting role in 2015-16 after an injury to the projected number 1 goaltender, Lamenta was nothing short of sensational, improving on the solid numbers from her freshman season. While she logged a .957 save percentage and an .889 winning percentage, the number that stands out is her remarkable 0.99 goals against average, which led all goaltenders in CIS play.

Starting in 18 games, Lamenta would win 16 of them, while the Gryphons assembled the best record in the nation with 21 wins, compared to just two losses and a tie. Such a strong run was complemented by close to four straight months on top of the CIS national rankings, beginning on November 17, 2015, and the OUA postseason crown, the first for the program since 1998. 

Historic firsts part of championship weekend

As professional women’s hockey experienced its first season since 2010-11 (dating back to the CWHL and the now-defunct WWHL) which saw two championships contested, the result was an exceptional number of historic firsts. Adding to the sense of history was the fact that there were many unique coincidences and connections, contributing to a new chapter of six degrees of separation in women’s hockey.

The inaugural Isobel Cup was contested in Newark, New Jersey, home of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, and captured by the NWHL’s Boston Pride. With the win, Boston became the first women’s hockey city to capture women’s hockey titles in two separate leagues. The Blades captured the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup in 2013 and 2015, while the Pride became the NWHL’s first-ever champions.

Although the Pride enjoyed the jubilation of being crowned as champions, it was an event noted by compassion as the squad dedicated their Cup victory to Denna Laing, who suffered a career-ending injury at the inaugural Women’s Winter Classic. The Pride would visit Laing in the hospital, kindly bringing the Cup with them for her to hold. Of note, Laing was also part of the Blades team that won the 2015 Clarkson Cup.

Meanwhile, the Clarkson Cup was contested for the eighth time, with no shortage of historic firsts. From the outset, it was contested on NHL ice for the first time, with Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre serving as the historic backdrop.

Taking into account that Ottawa’s impact on women’s ice hockey, from the inaugural IIHF Women’s Worlds, the first game for Canada’s U18 national team, and the debut of the Canadian women’s ice sledge hockey team, it was only fitting that it was the host city for the Clarkson. As a side note, the Clarkson shall return to Ottawa in 2017, part of the city’s celebrations for Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary.

The Cup final also saw the Calgary Inferno become the first team from Western Canada to capture the historic prize. On the other side, Montreal would become the first team to lose three Cup finals. Despite their status as the first dynasty in CWHL history, winning three of the first four Cup finals, they have equally become the first team labeled with the losing tag.

Of note, the first Isobel Cup also held a unique connection to the Clarkson. An astonishing 14 members of the Boston Pride’s roster enjoyed the prestige of being part of the 2015 Boston Blades championship roster. Among them was Brittany Ott, who became the first goaltender to win both the Isobel and the Clarkson Cups in a career.

Coincidentally, the players who scored the Isobel and Clarkson Cup winning goals were both alums from the Wisconsin Badgers. Brianna Decker, the CWHL’s Rookie of the Year in 2015, and Clarkson champion with the Blades, scored the Isobel-winning goal against Brianne McLaughlin. Former Badgers teammate, Blayre Turnbull scored the Inferno’s fourth goal of the game, which stood as the Clarkson winning tally.

Even more intriguing is the fact that the Buffalo Beauts, who were swept in the Isobel Cup finals by the Pride, featured a pair of Clarkson Cup champions on their roster. Kelley Steadman, who logged the Cup winning goal in 2013, along with the Beauts’ first-ever regular season and playoff goals (along with the first goal in NWHL All-Star Game history) was joined by Meghan Duggan, who served as Team USA’s captain at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

There were other unique aspects to the Beauts and their Cinderella-run to the Clarkson Cup, coming from behind to eliminate the Connecticut Whale, who spent a significant part of the NWHL season first overall in the league standings. The first Canadians to appear in an Isobel Cup final were all part of the Beauts roster. Among them were Shelby Bram, Tatiana Rafter and Devon Skeats.

Coincidentally, Bram’s sister, Bailey was a member of the Calgary Inferno’s Clarkson Cup winning roster. They would become the first pair of sisters to play for the Isobel and Clarkson Cups during the same season. Having both played at the NCAA level for Mercyhurst College, part of the CHA conference, the coincidence only continued for these sensational sisters.

Based in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, the Robert Morris Colonials are one of Mercyhurst’s biggest rivals. Both Bram sisters called a former Colonial goaltender their teammate during the weekend. Brianne McLaughlin, a two-time Winter Games silver medalist stood between the pipes for the Beauts, while Delayne Brian was recognized as the Clarkson Cup playoff MVP for the Inferno. It marked the only NCAA program to feature goaltenders appear in both Cup finals.


First Isobel Cup goal: Blake Bolden, Boston Pride, Game 1

            Of note, Bolden also became the first African-American to score an Isobel Cup goal. The second goal of the game was scored by Gigi Marvin, making her the first Caucasian to score in the Cup finals. Both were also Clarkson Cup champions for the Boston Blades in 2015.

First forward to score an Isobel Cup goal: Hilary Knight, Boston Pride, Game 1

First Isobel Cup goal scored on a penalty shot: Hilary Knight, Boston Pride, Game 1

First Canadian to score an Isobel Cup goal: Shelby Bram, Buffalo Beauts, Game 1

First player to score an Isobel Cup-clinching goal: Brianna Decker, Boston Pride, Game 2

First goaltenders to start an Isobel Cup Finals: Brittany Ott (winning goaltender), Boston Pride, Brianne McLaughlin, Buffalo Beauts

First team to appear in six Clarkson Cup Finals: Montreal (2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016)

First team to lose three Clarkson Cup Finals: Montreal (2013, 2015, 2016)

Players from first Clarkson Cup championship team to appear in 2016 finals: Leslie Oles, Caroline Ouellette, Marie-Philip Poulin, Lauriane Rougeau

First players from Japan to appear in a Clarkson Cup final: Aoki and Takeuchi, Calgary 2016

First player from Newfoundland to appear in a Clarkson Cup final: Sarah Davis, Calgary 2016

First players from Nova Scotia to appear in a Clarkson Cup final: Jillian Sauliner and Blayre Turnbull, Calgary 2016

First player from Nova Scotia to score a Clarkson Cup clinching goal: Blayre Turnbull, Calgary 2016

First coach to become part of Triple Gold Club for women: Gina Kingsbury, Calgary 2016 (she would win the IIHF Women’s Worlds for the first time as a player in 2001, while capturing Winter Games gold in 2006 and 2010)

Record number of new members in the Triple Gold Club for women: Five, 2016 Clarkson Cup – Brianne Jenner, Rebecca Johnston, Gina Kingsbury, Meaghan Mikkelson, Hayley Wickenheiser (Note: The Isobel Cup champions did not feature any new members in the Triple Gold Club)

Monday, 14 March 2016

NWHL in Canada? Why not!

While the weekend of March 12-13 was defined by a historic time that saw two women’s hockey championships contested in the same weekend, the inaugural Isobel Cup and the eighth annual Clarkson Cup, it may also be defined as a turning point in the game’s professional history in North America. In the aftermath of the weekend, an image showed up on social media with a map displaying where the NWHL currently has teams. Although this image was not sent by the NWHL, there was something unique in the fact that two Canadian flags in geographic proximity to hockey hotbeds Toronto and Montreal were also part of said image.
Although it is just speculation, the idea that those flags may foreshadow expansion into Canada is one of tremendous excitement. While there is no question that such an image on social media was highly strategic, it has made a powerful statement as media outlets have speculated on the future. It is one that captivated the interest of those with authority in the Canadian league.
The gist of their statement was one where the goal is one league. Well the reality is that one league would enhance marketing strategies and pool resources, possibly bringing about a living wage much sooner, but such a league does not need to exist via merger. Considering that one league is socialist in its approach, while the other is capitalist, wisely building its brand and establishing strong relationships with media, it is very possible that one league may simply eradicate the other.
Considering that the Canadian league has existed for nine years, it had ample opportunities to expand and create a brand that could have been the basis for an empire. Instead, there are some who look at it with a sad history of conceited individuals whose delusional grandeurs of glory tarnished the league’s image by burning bridges, fostering a country club mentality and displaying an independent arrogance. Having been founded as a player-run league, practice and theory are quite different as one could argue that a small group of gatekeepers are not looking at the bigger picture and stroking egos by making claims as the greatest run league in the world.
Despite their ability to gain support from big league hockey, one could argue that the Canadian league has not lived up to expectation. Said support does not even add up to the minimum salary of a big league player, hardly the basis to build a league upon. Taking into account that the IIHF does not recognize the Canadian league as a true professional league, it is another aspect that takes away from its supposed prestige. While several Canadian national team players have shown their support by remaining north of the border this season, their loyalty shall truly be tested should there is true expansion this autumn.
Even if such players remain loyal to the Canadian brand, the league should not be fooled as these players occupy nothing more than a dinosaur mentality. When the first women’s ice hockey tournament in the Winter Games was organized in 1998, the Canadian roster was composed of players who had competed at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport level. By 2006, the vast majority has been players with experience in the NCAA.

History is repeating itself again. Just as a generation of elite Canadian talent became part of a new movement where their first goal in post-secondary hockey was the NCAA, there will be a new generation of Canadian talent willing listen to the overtures of the NWHL before making any decision, even if the Canadian league engages in compensation.
The lesson learned from that experience was that Hockey Canada did not interfere in this generational change, respecting the wishes of its elite players to compete south of the border at the NCAA level. The harsh reality is that this will also be the case if expansion teams emerge in Toronto and Montreal. Hockey Canada’s only priority is to recruit the greatest talent available in order to win gold medals, not engage in petty disputes. Should that talent come from a league other than the existing Canadian league, then so be it. 
One could argue that the establishment of an American league was truly an “I told you so” moment in modern women’s hockey history. Even if one could make a valid argument that the Canadian league was too cautious concerning their own expansion ambitions, the reality is that an American league would have eventually started up, even if the Canadian league had multiple teams in the United States.
Over the last few seasons, players such as Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan have become household names and role models, only increasing the awareness of women’s ice hockey in the United States. As a new generation features Alex Carpenter and Kendall Coyne, they bring the potential to carve similar legacies. Should the United States capture the gold medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, there is no question that it will only lead to an increased interest in the game, which would have not included plans to be part of a Canadian league.  
With due deference to the Canadian league, it may weather the storm and survive, but it needs to acknowledge the fact that it may exist in the same way that the CFL exists in comparison to the NFL. While the Clarkson Cup is an important part of sporting Canadiana, one that deserves to be contested in Canada, it may find itself evolving into the Grey Cup rather than the Stanley Cup, while the Isobel Cup could become the prime challenge cup in professional women’s hockey.
Although competition creates a better product, competition can also expose weaknesses, giving another the advantage to dominate the market. In a world where borders are disappearing and business becomes more sophisticated, just appealing to fans on patriotism will not allow a league to thrive. Just like on the ice, the cream rises to the top, and that shall be the case in the board room of the growing women’s hockey business.