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.

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