Friday, 14 July 2017

Meghan Duggan represents women’s hockey on ESPY Awards Red Carpet

Although it was comedian, Bill Maher who called the ESPY Awards “the lamest awards show”, the reality of the event is that it goes beyond awards, and serves as a chance to celebrate sport while allowing a rare opportunity for world-class athletes from numerous sports to be gathered under one venue. Among the athletes, on-hand for this star-studded gala in Hollywood included Meghan Duggan.

As the captain of the United States women’s ice hockey team, Duggan is so much more than just the face of its team. She represents a movement that has seen women fight bravely for sporting equality, as evidenced by the national team’s courageous effort in pay equity.

Considering that the struggle of these wondrous female hockey gladiators for fairness, along with the potential boycott of the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championships in Plymouth, Michigan, making international news, the women of the US national team would have been most worthy of the ESPY’s Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in Sport. Although such an honor was not meant to be, ESPN has definitely acknowledged what such a courageous effort meant for these players, and subsequently, the game’s growth.

Not only was it an opportunity for the sporting community to catch up to Duggan and her remarkable heroics, highlighted by her historic standing as the first captain to lead an American team to gold at the IIHF Women’s Worlds on home soil, there was also the dual purpose of recognizing the athletes featured in the 2017 Body Issue. It was one that included a significant women’s hockey presence, as an unprecedented six members of the US national women’s ice hockey team were featured in its pages.

In addition to Duggan, assistant captain Kacey Bellamy, Brianna Decker, who was recognized as the Most Outstanding Player of the 2017 IIHF Women’s Worlds, Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, along with goaltender Alex Rigsby (who captured a Frozen Four title in 2011 at Wisconsin with Duggan and Decker as her teammates) redefined team spirit, providing a unique viewpoint. Donning just their skates and a captivating confidence, this “Spectacular Six” turned the world of women’s hockey on its ear, while reinforcing the message that “Strong is Beautiful”.

Traditionally, the evening before the ESPY Awards, features a Body Issue celebration, in which all featured athletes grace the red carpet flashing both a smile and the photo from the Issue. Although Duggan was the only member of the US team that was present, her presence encompassed the positive message of her teammates, extending what has proven to be an empowering year for women’s ice hockey in the United States.

Following it up with a chance to attend the ESPY Awards, the entire experience was one that shall provide Duggan with a lifetime of memories, while affirming her status as one of America’s sporting heroes. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other female sporting giants such as Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Lindsey Vonn, the feeling of achievement, encouragement and glamor all intersected on the red carpet.

Having also visited the Young Hollywood Studio and the GBK Pre-ESPY Event at Luxe on Rodeo Drive Beverly Hills, California, there was another unique facet for Duggan. The night before the ESPY Awards, Duggan ran into New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter. Although Duggan grew up in Danvers, Massachusetts, gaining the opportunity to grace the mound at Fenway Park an amazing three times in her career, the presence of Jeter may provide a very unique omen.

Leading into the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, the training camp for the US national women’s team shall take place in the non-traditional hockey market of Tampa, Florida. Taking into account that the Yankees hold their spring training camp in Tampa, where Legends Field serves as the preseason home for so many of the modern greats of Yankees lore, the Tampa connection may be the element of good luck that propels the US team to its first Winter Games gold medal since 1998, which would provide Duggan with the ultimate milestone that would help enhance the fascinating journey which also included the ESPY Awards.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Thunder leaves behind remarkable legacy in Brampton as it moves to Markham

Although the decade-long history of the CWHL has seen teams fold (the most recent were the Burlington Barracudas), there was always a sense of security surrounding the Brampton Thunder. Considering that the history of the Brampton Canadette-Thunder dates back over 50 years (it was one of the first teams Fran Rider played with when she was a teenager), the legacy of the organization was reinforced during the game’s revitalization in the 1990s.

From the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League to its occupancy in the original NWHL, the Thunder were one of the inaugural franchises in the CWHL. Undoubtedly, most would have perceived it as one of the league’s signature franchises, perhaps its backbone. Of note, the Thunder captured the league’s inaugural championship, as Molly Engstrom scored the game-winning goal in overtime against the Mississauga Warriors (another defunct team). With a championship roster that also featured former softball star Cindy Eadie, CWHL co-founder Allyson Fox, along with Winter Games heroes Lori Dupuis, Jayna Hefford and Vicky Sunohara, it truly lived up to the billing of “dream team”.

Those wondrous women certainly followed an amazing legacy as the competitors who have donned the Thunder colors over the decades reads like a who’s who of women’s hockey. To begin the 2011-12 CWHL season, Angela James, the first Canadian woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame also served as its head coach. A constant fixture at the Esso Women’s Nationals (the predecessor to the Clarkson Cup), the Thunder were part of some of the greatest games contested in the 2000s.

During the days of the original NWHL, goaltender Sami Jo Small (who would later be a founder of the CWHL) once scored a goal as a member of the Thunder. Even Natalie Spooner played in a game with the Thunder, wearing their jersey for a charity fundraiser against NHL alum.

Heading into the 2017-18 CWHL season, it will be very difficult for some hardcore fans to absorb, as it shall mark the first without Brampton on its schedule. Instead, the club shall compete in the York Region community of Markham. The community’s impact still resonates within league annals. Having done a superlative job as host city for three consecutive Clarkson Cup championships (2013-15), it now takes its place as a full-time member of the CWHL’s family of teams.

Of note, this is not the first time York Region has hosted CWHL hockey. Among the CWHL’s charter teams were the Vaughan Flames. In its brief history, the roster featured the likes of Karen Thatcher, Meagan Aarts and a young Jennifer Wakefield. In addition, the second Clarkson Cup was staged in Richmond Hill, Ontario, which saw the Minnesota Whitecaps defeat the Thunder to become the first American-based team to emerge victorious.

While Markham was definitely an ideal choice for an expansion site, it now becomes the site for relocation instead. This transition has resulted in Brampton’s status now part of league history, rather than part of its continuous future. Of note, Montreal has now become the only charter franchise still remaining in its original city. Burlington, Ottawa and Quebec all folded while Mississauga and Vaughan fused into the Toronto Furies.

Undoubtedly, league history is undergoing a rather rapid change as the move from Brampton took place just a few short weeks after the announcement that China’s Kunlun Red Star was granted an expansion franchise. Both unforeseen events, with an almost rancid element of secrecy, it has certainly altered the league’s complexion.

For a decimated fan base in Brampton, it now empathically understands how it felt when the Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles, the original Cleveland Browns becoming the Baltimore Ravens and the Seattle Supersonics transformed into the Oklahoma City Thunder. Also moving with the team shall be Don Simmons, the current announcer of the Thunder and a volunteer with the club for nine seasons. Having also volunteered for Hockey Canada, his dedication to the game is renowned, and his role as announcer not only makes him an institution with the team, it is reminiscent of Vin Scully following the Dodgers to Los Angeles.

Considering that the Thunder have lost the fewest number of players to Canada’s Centralization, in preparation of the Winter Games, there is a strong chance that the club may contend for a Clarkson Cup. For the last three seasons, Lori Dupuis, who moved into the General Manager’s position was very astute in the draft, shrewdly acquiring talent that emerged as gems of the draft. Having revitalized the Thunder organization, the presence of Dupuis marked a great chapter in franchise history, rebuilding a team that had fallen into the doldrums, while also connecting with the women’s ice sledge hockey community.

While the individual that shall inherit the position from Dupuis is not confirmed yet, there is no question that the assiduous efforts of Dupuis have ensured that the future of the franchise remains in good hands. Said future also holds the potential for a makeover as fans can vote online and have their say regarding which color they would like the Thunder to adopt. Choices include green, teal and red.

For all the volunteers who helped make the Thunder such a fun stop on CWHL road trips, and helped to form one of the best team cultures in the CWHL, they are all worthy of a heartfelt thank you.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Kelley Steadman's sterling career embodied the exciting potential of the NWHL

Originally published on Women Talk Sports

In the blooming history of the Buffalo Beauts, the club was blessed by an abundance of superstars, highlighted by the likes of Meghan Duggan, Brianne McLaughlin and Emily Pfalzer, among others. Complemented by the remarkable show of support for Harrison Browne, along with Corinne Buie’s heroics in the march to the Isobel Cup, such stars have enamored a highly loyal fan base.

Perhaps the most fascinating player of this brief yet captivating era was Kelley Steadman. A soft-spoken yet assiduous competitor whose amazing hockey resume included a multitude of championships on both sides of the Atlantic, along with gold at the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championships, her heart of gold and authentic appreciation of fans, teammates and the game alike truly defined the raison d’etre for the NWHL.

Scoring the first goal in Buffalo Beauts history, it was more than just a concrete moment that added to the exhilaration of the NWHL’s opening day. It sparked Steadman’s impact, one that would see her embedded within the Queen City’s sporting mythology.

With Steadman having announced her retirement, that epic goal only enhances her mystique, quantifying a truly magnificent legacy. Joining the likes of recently retired teammates McLauhglin, Browne and Devon Skeats, all still in the primes of their careers, riding off into a sunset far too soon for a jubilant fan base, all that remains is to ponder what if this remarkable collection of talent would have remained for a third season.

Originally penciled in as a practice player, such plans were quickly shattered as Steadman was called into action with a sense of urgency, attributed to unforeseen issues with player visas. Such a move would prove to be a significant element in building the mythology of women’s ice hockey in Buffalo.

Unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight, Steadman shone brilliantly, combining grace and a smooth scoring touch in a performance that reached legendary proportion, as the NWHL quickly gained a place of relevance on the sporting map.

As the season progressed, Steadman’s continued heroics at Harbor Centre became a vessel where fans could pour their emotions. No game would prove to be more prevalent there as the inaugural NWHL All-Star Game. The amalgamation of history, home ice advantage and sportsmanship resulted in a perfect storm. Emerging with MVP honors, it only affirmed Steadman’s role as a shining star and a fan favorite.

For Steadman, the NWHL All-Star Game would truly emerge as her lasting legacy. In the 2017 edition of the event, there was a tremendous sense of gravitas. Named as one of the team captains, this heartwarming moment and sense of appreciation was reciprocated with a proud fan base in Pittsburgh, site of the first neutral site event in league history, and the first professional women’s hockey game in the Keystone State.

After a difficult holiday break which resulted in an unfortunate alteration in the salary structure, there were many cynics that saw the league clinging to survival, before slipping into obliteration. With a player of Steadman’s magnitude remaining on the stage, it was a crucial element in a renewed vitality and focus, as the 2017 All-Star Game signified a relevant turning point.

Considering that Steadman, who juggled her playing career with an executive role as part of the Robert Morris Colonials leadership group, along with McLaughlin, a Colonials alum, the coordinates for the All-Star Game provided ample motivation. Both gaining the loudest ovations among the sold-out crowd, it was their finest hour as professionals.

While super rookie Amanda Kessel stole the show, scoring the first hat trick in NWHL All-Star Game history, it was an accompanying plot line to a much more profound narrative which starred Steadman and McLaughlin. This pair of remarkable leaders, trusted with the burden, easing the load and renewing the relevance of a league working to rebuild trust and set things right, their goals were fused, companions of a unified cause.

In the aftermath of this remarkable career milestone, Steadman and McLaughlin continued to set the tone for the Beauts. Their leadership was crucial in helping the club reach the jubilation of the Isobel Cup, gaining redemption after a heartbreaking finals loss in 2016. Providing the Queen City with its first hockey championship since the Buffalo Bisons captured the AHL’s Calder Cup in 1969, it was also part of a unique personal parallel for Steadman.

With a career that has included etching her name on the Clarkson Cup, capturing the College Hockey America (CHA) Player of the Year Award with the Mercyhurst Lakers, and a championship competing in Russia with fellow Clarkson Cup champion Cherie Hendrickson, the Isobel Cup was part of a remarkable feat in 2017. With the Colonials capturing the CHA postseason championship, qualifying for its first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament, Steadman became the first person to win both the Isobel Cup and a CHA title in the same season.

The season to come shall see Steadman take on a full-time coaching capacity in the CHA. Returning to her roots, where she called the likes of Meghan Agosta, Bailey Bram, Jesse Scanzano and fellow American Pamela Zgoda as teammates on a dominant Mercyhurst Lakers team, there is an emotional sense of homecoming. Taking on the role of an assistant coach with the Lakers, her enthusiasm for the game and comforting presence shall foster and encourage an exciting new generation of talent.

While there may be an element of sadness and mourning among the Beauts fan base, aware that Steadman shall no longer don their colors, it should not be approached as a time of sorrow. Instead, it deserves to be celebrated as an amazing time which enriched the experience for all involved.

Steadman was a gifted player, and the opportunity to share those gifts was a blessing, one that truly helped to alter the portentous perception of the Buffalo Sports Curse.

The Beauts may have built the stage, but it was Steadman that wrote the role. An eminent competitor whose legend in Buffalo sports history is destined to go untarnished with the passage of time, she truly mirrored the ambitions of the NWHL to bring an exciting and empowering new chapter for professional women’s ice hockey in the United States.

While she remains part of the game, looking to restore the glory days that she helped establish at Mercyhurst, while developing the next generation of stars that may one day emulate her heroics, the greatest legacy of her career will forever be embedded in Buffalo’s sporting culture.

For a legion of fans in Buffalo, her efforts will always remain in their hearts, forever grateful for the impact of this soft-spoken and stoic superstar, always reflecting on her meaningful Beauts career with a warm sense of nostalgia.