Headlining a crop of superlative rookie talent for the Calgary Inferno, the prodigious Sophie Shirley is poised for greatness. Committing to the Wisconsin Badgers for the autumn of 2018, the Inferno is hardly a stop on the road. Rather, it is the extension of a highly promising career that has already seen Shirley grace the ice in Calgary as a member of Canada’s Under-18 national women’s team.
Having competed at the Okanagan Hockey Academy, Shirley captured a bronze medal at the 2015 Esso Cup, capturing tournament MVP and top scorer honors. In that same year, she also played for Team Saskatchewan at both the Canada Winter Games and the U18 Women’s Nationals in Huntsville, Ontario.
Donning the Maple Leaf at the 2016 and 2017 editions of the IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds, Shirley had the chance to play for a group of notable coaches, including Lisa Haley in 2016, where the Worlds were contested on home in St. Catharines, Ontario. With a hockey resume that includes gold as a member of Canada’s coaching staff at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, along with building the program at Toronto’s Ryerson University, Haley was an influential mentor for Shirley, who hopes to achieve her own heroics at the Winter Games.
Selected in the third round of the 2017 CWHL Draft, 19th overall, she is part of a solid draft class that includes Taryn Baumgardt, Kelly Murray, Lindsey Post and Kayla Gardner. Finding her offensive stride during her inaugural season of CWHL hockey, such a seamless transition for Shirley includes finding another gathering of significant coaches. In addition to head coach Tomas Pacina, a former head coach for the Calgary Oval X-Treme, the staff features Kelly Bechard and Gina Kingsbury.
Akin to Haley, this dazzling duo of Bechard and Kingsbury has gold medals from the Winter Games on their hockey resumes. Bechard was part of Canada’s roster at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, the first Canadian team to capture gold. Kingsbury skated for Canada at Vancouver 2010, which was the first time that a host country captured women’s hockey gold. For a highly skilled player of Shirley’s caliber, she enjoys the privilege of playing for a tremendous group of positive influences, inspiring her to raise the quality of an already impressive repertoire of skills.
“One of my dreams as a young girl was to play in the Olympics one day. Being able to have two coaches who have accomplished that has been very motivational for me and kept me developing to continue to push for my goal. To be able to learn from these coaches for a year is an amazing opportunity!”
The combination of Bechard and Kingsbury are not the only unique elements of Shirley’s time wearing the Inferno colors. Born in Saskatchewan, Shirley joins the likes of Jessica Campbell and Hayley Wickenheiser among the greats from the prairie province that have competed for the franchise.
Undoubtedly, the place that Wickenheiser and Campbell hold in team lore is also made much more relevant by the fact that both are also Hockey Canada alums. In addition, fellow rookie Kelly Murray also played for Canada’s U18 national team, while Katelyn Gosling competed at the Winter Universiade.
Worth noting, Delayne Brian, the 2016 Clarkson Cup MVP was part of Canada’s inaugural entry at the IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds. This common ground not only enriches the team’s culture, contributing to a growing legacy for the Inferno, it represents a significant point of pride for Shirley, as she becomes part of a sensational group of Hockey Canada alums that have worn the Inferno’s colors.
“Yes, it is exciting to be playing for the inferno this year and knowing that many other Team Canada girls have played on this team makes it even more special.”
With her CWHL debut taking place in an October 21 road contest against the two-time Clarkson Cup champion Boston Blades, the performance to come would herald Shirley’s arrival as one of the league’s brightest young stars. Just as important for Shirley was the privilege of wearing the jersey, testament to her team-first approach,
“It was a special feeling to get to wear the jersey for the first time because it was my first game in the CWHL. I think our jerseys have one of the best logos in the league!”
Scoring twice in her debut, it was the kind of magical performance that enhanced Shirley’s profile, sparking the potential for greatness. Of note, Shirley’s first CWHL goal would come in the second period against Blades backstop Lauren Dahm, which was also the Inferno’s first goal of season. Brittany Esposito, who played her collegiate hockey in Boston, would gain the assist on the landmark goal.
Fittingly, Shirley would also score the last goal of the game, scoring at the 19:22 mark of the third, as Iya Gavrilova, a member of Russia’s national women’s team logged the assist. Adding luster to such a dazzling debut was the fact that Shirley was named first star of the game.
“You never know when you are going to score your first goal and I knew I wanted to contribute to my team as soon as I could. Being able to score in my first game was an incredible feeling!”
Such a performance was the catalyst to the offensive brilliance that would follow. Through the first four weeks of the season, Shirley ranks third in scoring behind Jamie Lee Rattray and fellow rookie Cayley Mercer. As Shirley is currently second overall in scoring race, she only trails Mercer by a pair of points for the overall lead. Worth noting, four rookies rank in the top five in league scoring scoring, which includes Ashleigh Brykaliuk and Hanna Bunton
So far this season, Shirley has already accumulated three terrific multi-point performances. On October 28, she recorded a pair of assists in a gusty performance versus the Kunlun Red Star, enhanced by the fact that it was her home debut.
With the visiting club holding a 3-0 lead, Shirley gained her first assist of the season on a first period goal by Gavrilova. In the third period, Gavrilova and Shirley would collaborate with assists on a goal by Elana Lovell, 2015 CWHL Rookie of the Year, trimming the Red Star lead to one goal. Rhianna Kurio would score later in the third to force overtime, part of an admirable effort.
As a side note, Shirley’s first goal on home ice would take place the following day against the Red Star, as she scored on All-World Goaltender Noora Raty.
Hosting the Markham Thunder in a November 5 affair, it may have been the most exciting multi-point performance in Shirley’s young season. With alternate captain Kristen Richards scoring first for Markham, Shirley and Kelly Murray would gain the assists on Kurio’s goal at the 5:10 mark.
For Murray, it was her first point in CWHL play. Like Shirley, Murray has also worn the Canadian jersey, competing in the 2017 Winter Universiade. Heading into the third period, the lead had already changed hands three times. A four-goal period would squash any hopes of a comeback for Markham.
With a 4-2 lead, Shirley would play another key role in Murray’s peerless performance. Along with Dakota Woodworth, they would each gain their foruth assists of the season, as Murray scored her first CWHL goal on the power play. Before the period would expire, Murray would gain an assist on a short-handed goal by Kayla Gardner, her first of the season, as both Hockey Canada alums enjoyed a multi-point game.
In a season where parity is the theme, the emergence of a brilliant superstar such as Shirley, who is in the conversation for both an All-Star appearance and a finalist for Rookie of the Year honors, may be the key for the Inferno to return to its third straight Clarkson Cup final.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Dave Holland, Game photos obtained from: http://www.bdzsports.com/2017/10/25/blades-vs-inferno/