As one of the longest running teams in Canadian women’s ice hockey history, values such as family and loyalty helped establish the proud culture of the Thunder, one of the charter franchises in both the CWHL and the original NWHL. With 2017-18 heralding a new beginning in the city of Markham, relocating from its only home in Brampton, that feeling of family has taken on a more profound meaning, as a unified group of players, volunteers and administrative staff made the bold move eastwards.
Embodying such values is Dania Simmonds, whose work ethic, character and devotion have always been among the hallmarks in her playing career. Entering her sixth season, Simmonds is not only one of the Thunder’s most experienced players, she is also one of its most durable and reliable, simultaneously becoming one of the faces of the franchise.
Appearing in 24 games in each of her first five seasons with the Thunder, Simmonds is a portrait of consistency, an iron woman that logged over 100 games played, part of a special sorority in franchise lore. It mirrors her play at the NCAA level, where she never missed a game in four seasons while competing in the ECAC Conference. As a consummate professional, Simmonds earned a reward with the honor of serving as one of Markham’s alternate captains for this exciting season, joined by Jamie Lee Rattray and Kristen Richards.
Considering that Jocelyne Larocque, the last captain in Brampton history, is inactive this season, due to her commitments with Canada’s national team at Centralization, the essence of leadership takes on an even stronger meaning for Simmonds. Although the captaincy is respectfully reserved for Larocque’s return, Simmonds is proud to be part of a tremendous triptych of leadership. Having enjoyed the privilege of the “C” donning her jersey with her high school hockey and soccer teams, duplicating the feat on the ice with both the Toronto Jr. Aeros, and in the NCAA at Union College (which saw Julie Chu on the coaching staff), Simmonds was a logical choice to take on the mantle of leadership. Employing a tremendous maturity and acumen in this key function with Markham, it emphasizes her evolution as a leader at the professional ranks,
“I am grateful to be chosen by my teammates and coaches to fill this leadership role. I think in the absence of our national players and captain Jocelyne Larocque, a little leadership will go a long way. Being with the Thunder for six seasons now, I believe I have some good experiences with regards to other players, teams, and the league in general to share with my teammates. I find I naturally take on a leadership type of role and have worn letters for my teams in the past so it will be an easy transition.”
Prior to the opening faceoff, Simmonds, along with Rattray, Richards and goaltender Liz Knox had the opportunity to be captured behind the lens of photographer Heather Pollock. Although the original concept was a photo shoot in which the subjects would pay tribute to the likes of The Hanson Brothers and Jacques Plante, its conclusion would result in a strong team building session. Worth noting, one of the photos featuring the eventual alternate captains wearing black-rimmed glasses, adorned with black eyes and bloody scars shall be used as one of the photos in the Markham Thunder calendar for 2018.
Pollock’s creativity also took on another unique facet during said shoot. With Simmonds as her muse, a captivating yet evocative portfolio possessed a zombie-like motif. With the collaboration of imaginative make-up artists, the chilling yet powerful appearance of Simmonds represents a beguiling and original approach to photographing the heroes of hockey, merging popular culture with sport.
Considering that Pollock’s images, which also included Richards photographed with the Markham logo painted on a brick wall, are some of the first to feature players in the Thunder’s gorgeous green jerseys, her vision spawned a popularity on social media, enhancing the persona of the team to come. In reflecting on the experience, Simmonds applauds the finished product,
“First off, Heather is the most amazing photographer and I am so thankful to be apart of that photo shoot. I am ecstatic with how the pictures turned out; I do not think they could be any better. It was a lot of time spent in hockey equipment with some teammates, though that is nothing we are not used to!
It was definitely a bonding experience with my teammates (two of which turned out to be my co-alternate captains) and we were left with some incredible photos and memories. I have told Heather I cannot wait for the next series of pictures!!”
Raised north of Toronto in the community of Aurora, the newest chapter in the history of the Thunder supplies a strong sense of homecoming for Simmonds. Considering that both Aurora and Markham are part of York Region, Simmonds is proud to be part of such an historic time for professional women’s ice hockey, feeling a sense of privilege in the chance to find many recognizable individuals in the crowd, while gaining a residual warmth at the chance to reconnect with her proud history,
“It's great to be closer to my roots and I feel privileged to be able to play so close to where I grew up. It is amazing to see familiar faces in the stands as well as young players of nearby clubs that I have grown up playing with, against, and more recently coached. The closer commute is an added bonus!”
Taking to centre ice for the ceremonial faceoff in Markham’s home opener on October 21, 2017 at the Thornhill Community Centre, the sense of roots took on another special meaning for Simmonds. Considering that her CWHL debut took place on October 20, 2012, there was a personal sense of achievement with this anniversary.
With the Thunder hosting the Kunlun Red Star, one of two expansion teams from China, in their CWHL debut, it accentuated the emotion of a new beginning for both clubs. As a significant number of dignitaries participated in the pre-game festivities, there was a prestigious presence. One of the most admired at centre ice was Fran Rider, a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame and President of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association.
Generating a tremendous roar of applause from the fans was Phil Esposito. Most famous for his tremendous role as a member of Team Canada 1972, the two-time Stanley Cup champion also serves on the Board for the Red Star organization, adding a major league importance.
Graciously acknowledging the attendance of Rider, one of the luminaries in women’s ice hockey, Simmonds also enjoyed the opportunity to hear Esposito speak at an event the evening prior. Reputed as a great orator and a fascinating storyteller, Esposito shared his experiences in the game, making them sound just as fresh and remarkable as if they had just occurred. As a side note, the Red Star and the signing of Manon Rheaume to the Tampa Bay Lightning are not his only unique connections to the women’s game. While Esposito served as General Manager of the New York Rangers in the latter half of 1980s, he drafted Tony Granato, whose sister Cammi, would become the first American-born woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“I love seeing Fran Rider out at any female hockey events as she plays such an important role in the development of the women's hockey game. I actually had the chance to meet Phil Esposito the night before at a CWHL event to promote our games against Kunlun.
Hearing his stories of playing with guys like Guy Lapointe and Bobby Orr, playing in the Summit Series, co-founding the Tampa Bay Lightning, and many of his other life experiences in general was just amazing. Seeing Phil after the game was almost like seeing an old friend and he had lots to tell me about how he enjoyed the women's game and that it wasn't what he expected (we love to hear that!).”
With the home opener resulting in victory for the Thunder, Simmonds was not the only York Region raised competitor that was visible on this day. Liz Knox, who honed her goaltending skills in the nearby community of Stouffville, gained the start between the pipes. Along with Rattray, the victorious backstop were named the First and Third Stars of the Game, respectively.
The strong goaltending presence was evident the following day in a rematch with Red Star. With goaltenders Erica Howe and Noora Raty participating in the ceremonial faceoff (along with Howe’s mother, a member of Canada’s Armed Forces), it was an opportunity for the Thunder to give back to the community with a fundraiser for cancer.
Such an uplifting event was further enhanced by the quality of superlative play on the ice, which resulted in Simmonds getting her first point of the season. With Jamie Lee Rattray scoring twice in the contest, a 3-0 final, as Howe recorded her second shutout of the season, all of the Thunder’s alternate captains had their names on the scoresheet. Of note, Richards gained the assist on Rattray’s first period goal, which was also her first point on home ice this season. Simmonds would log the assist as Rattray scored just 36 seconds into the second period.
“It was incredible to not only be a part of history with Kunlun's first game in the CWHL, but to win both games that weekend was riveting. I could not have asked for more from my team; our goalies stood on their heads, the girls left it all out on the ice and battled until we came out with four points in two monumental games. You can see the league turning in a new direction and I love that I am able to not only witness it, but contribute to it as well.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Jess Bazal, Heather Pollock