Among the members of the Isobel Cup champion Toronto Six, the magnitude of the milestone held tremendous context for Courtney Gardiner. Winning a championship in her rookie season, the theme of redemption and feeling of local heroine were subplots in a rich narrative.
When Gardiner joined the York University Lions in 2017, the only notable U Sports player in the PHF (known as NWHL at the time) was former Canada West Player of the Year Tatiana Rafter. Signing with the Toronto Six in May 2022, the landscape had significantly changed for Gardiner.
From the outset, Gardiner was not even the first Lions alum to have signed with the franchise, testament to the talent developed by the program. During the 21-22 campaign, Taylor Davison, a former OUA First Team All-Star, skated for the Six. Worth noting, another celebrated Lion, Erin Locke, was selected by the Six during the league’s Draft in 2020.
Fittingly, the path to the Isobel Cup saw Gardiner and Davison, having been friends since their years as Lions, reach the vaunted summit as teammates. Representing one of the most heartwarming storylines among the roster, redemption emerged as a significant theme for both. Undeniably, home ice advantage always held a highly special meaning for this distinguished duo. Of note, Six home games were contested at Canlan Ice Sports arena, also the home venue for the York Lions.
Playing in highly familiar surroundings, a place filled with residual warmth, rekindling memories of a special time in their careers, growing into cornerstones for the Lions, another key facet provided motivation. Both members of the Lions roster in 2019-20, perhaps the greatest team in program lore, each played pivotal roles in reaching the McCaw Cup Finals.
Having also qualified for the U Sports Nationals, their first round match never took place. With pandemic fears resulting in a heartbreaking cancellation, the dream of playing for a national championship was taken away. Coincidentally, the Lions first scheduled opponents were the McGill Martlets, featuring Jade Downie Landry. Worth noting, she was among several Martlets alumnae that played in the PHF this season, skating for the expansion Montreal Force.
“Taylor and I played four years together at York University. We have become really great friends over the last several years and now to be able to play with her at the professional level has been a lot of fun.
In our 2019-20 season at York, we qualified for USPORTS Nationals in PEI. Due to COVID the tournament never took place. So to be able to reunite this year and win the Isobel Cup together almost felt like our second chance at finally winning a championship. She is a friend and a teammate that I really appreciate having around.”
Making her professional debut on November 5, 2022 versus the Minnesota Whitecaps, the same team that would reach the Isobel Cup Finals, Gardiner enjoyed the opportunity to achieve the milestone at Canlan Ice Sports. The venue providing a sense of homecoming for the highly promising rookie forward.
Before the month expired, Gardiner enjoyed her first point with the franchise. Assisting on the third period goal of fellow rookie Lexi Templeman, the Six enjoyed a 7-3 road win versus the Boston Pride on the 27th. Worth noting, the collaboration between the two rookies held an element of serendipity, as it marked Templeman’s first goal.
Waiting until February 18, 2023 for her first professional goal, Gardiner found the back of the net on Connecticut Whale goaltender, and PHF All-Star, Abbie Ives. Assisted by Dominika Laksova, a participant in the 2023 All-Star Game, it marked the first goal of the game in a 5-3 road win.
As Toronto’s Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC), located inside the historic Maple Leaf Gardens, served as host venue for the 2023 All-Star Game, the major league feeling continued into the postseason. With the Six and Whale gracing Gardens ice in a best-of-three semifinal, the series rekindled memories for Gardiner.
Having grown up as a Maple Leafs fan in Goderich, Ontario, known affectionately as the Prettiest Little Town in Canada, enjoyed the opportunity to play at the MAC during her years with the Lions. Having become home for numerous varsity athletics programs with Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson), a rivalry with the Lions developed, known as the Subway Series.
Defeating the Whale in three games to reach the Isobel Cup Finals, another special occasion to play on NHL ice followed. Marking the first Isobel Cup championship held in an NHL venue, Tempe, Arizona’s Mullett Arena hosted the Six and the Whitecaps.
“Being able to play for the Isobel Cup in Arizona was definitely a special moment and a highlight of my hockey career. Mullett Arena is a phenomenal facility and it was pretty cool getting to spend the week there enjoying it.
Being a Leafs fan myself, getting to play out of Maple Leaf Gardens (now Mattamy Athletic Center) is always special for me. I got to play there quite a few times throughout my University career and it was definitely one of my favourite rinks to play out of. To be able to come back as a professional and play some of the biggest games of the year in that rink will always be memorable for me.”
Equally memorable for Gardiner involved the championship rally on April 2. Held at Canlan Ice Sports, it provided a proud feeling of full circle. From her earliest years with the Lions, to making an impactful first impression as an assiduous practice player with the Six, Canlan became a second home for Gardiner, growing into a valued teammate.
Jubilant at the chance to join Davison as the first York alumnae to win the Isobel Cup, the rally provided plenty of emotion, elevating the prominence of the program, simultaneously strengthening a sisterly bond between the two. Fittingly, the aftermath of the rally allowed for two more seminal moments. Decked out in their home jerseys, the Six were invited by the Blue Jays for a pregame celebration at Rogers Centre on April 16. Providing a lifetime of memories for the champions, including Breanne Wilson-Bennett throwing the ceremonial first pitch, the chance for Davison and Gardiner to be photographed on the field with the Isobel Cup, that major league feeling took on tremendous sheen.
Accentuating the feeling of full circle, a local significance enhanced the championship afterglow for a gracious Gardiner. Returning to her hometown for an audience with Goderich Mayor Myles Murdock, proudly bringing the Isobel Cup, the opportunity marked a fitting welcome for the local heroine and outstanding community role model.
“For the last seven or so years, Canlan Sports-York has been my home base. I have had countless practices, games, coaching sessions, and training sessions there. Having the championship celebration held there was a pretty surreal day for me. It is crazy to look back to my first year of University to now. I never really imagined I would be playing professional women’s hockey on the same ice I played on through college.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated“
Featured image by Lori Bolliger @loribolliger