In a landmark year filled with monumental milestones, the hockey world caught up to the prominence of Dania Simmonds. Enjoying a triumvirate of achievements, from strong leadership in the Markham Thunder’s inaugural season, exemplified by a career high in points, a spot in the CWHL’s record books, and a hard-earned Clarkson Cup championship, it signified the arrival of this dependable blueliner as one of the game’s shining stars.
Serving as alternate captain for the new-look Thunder, relocating from its long-time home in Brampton, eastwards to the York Region community of Markham, Simmonds quickly became one of the fan favorites. Sharing leadership duties with Jamie Lee Rattray, the eventual recipient of the league’s Jayna Hefford Trophy, plus Kristen Richards, it was an affirmation of Simmonds’ valued leadership.
As a side note, Rattray and Richards also won a national ball hockey championship together in 2015 as members of the Toronto Shamrocks. Taking into account that the team color for both the Shamrocks and the Markham Thunder are both green, this accomplished duo personified the power of green in hockey.
Green would help personify the positive impact that the Thunder had in the community, quickly accepted by its fan base as sporting icons. Along with veteran backstop Liz Knox, both had hockey roots in York Region. Knox grew up in the neighboring municipality of Whitchurch-Stouffville, while Simmonds hailed from Aurora, located northwards. Heading into the season, the two not only served as the longest standing members of the Thunder franchise, they represented the team’s heartbeat.
Enjoying her sixth season with the Thunder, the end of said season would see Simmonds become more than just an ambassador for the Thunder, introducing the team and professional women’s ice hockey to a new community, simultaneously transforming into an icon, with her name etched in CWHL lore. With a revered reputation for durability, one firmly entrenched at the NCAA level, having never missed a game with the Union Dutchwomen, Simmonds’ tireless efforts culminated with a notable and highly respected landmark achievement.
A weekend series on the road against the Boston Blades not only closed out the regular season for the Thunder, it served as the backdrop for this brush with history, accentuating Simmonds’ legacy. Taking to the ice, Simmonds tied the league record for most consecutive games played at 148, a record that is testament to her consistency.
Adding lustre to such an eventful weekend was that the first game of said series resulted in a multi-point effort for Simmonds. Registering an assist on the first goal of the game, which was also the first of the season for Laura Stacey, returning to the Thunder after a podium finish with Canada at the Winter Games, there was certainly a sense of destiny during this momentous weekend. Scoring the final goal of the game, it was only fitting that Stacey reciprocated, gaining an assist along with Kristen Barbara.
Considering that all 148 games took place in a Thunder uniform, it also stands as a franchise record that shall likely never be broken. In a league that has featured a remarkable collection of durable players whose constant presence was integral to their teams, such as Meagan Aarts, Mallory Johnston and Kristy Zamora, Simmonds joins this sensational sorority.
“Honestly, I had not even thought about it until someone told me I was getting close to the record. In my college career I had also played every game so I think I have this subconscious thought that I need to do everything in my power to play in each game. I am proud of myself for being able to stay healthy enough to make this happen and love that my name is joined to the title of “Iron Woman” of the CWHL.”
In addition, Simmonds’ record could not have come at a better time for the Thunder. Ending their season on a seven-game winning streak, allowing them to clinch a playoff berth by the narrowest of margins ahead of the expansion Vanke Rays, it also brought with it another profound impact.
Complementing another pair of formidable late season achievements, including free agent acquisition Karolina Urban reaching the 75-game plateau, and super scorer Jamie Lee Rattray ascended to the 100-point club (goaltender Erica Howe would attain 25 career wins earlier in the season), it was a collaborative contribution towards a remarkable run of momentum that signified a paradigm shift in the league’s balance of power.
That shift would culminate as Simmonds’ dream season reached fruition with one of the biggest prizes in both women’s ice hockey and sporting Canadiana; the coveted Clarkson Cup. Taking into account that Simmonds’ first playoff appearance took place in 2013 at Markham’s Centennial Arena, she was part of a roster filled with legendary players that would provide Simmonds with the inspiration to pursue her ambitions in the seasons that followed.
Of note, the 2013 roster was one that boasted a who’s who of women’s ice hockey. With a roster featuring a collection of iconic players, headlined by Jayna Hefford, the CWHL’s all-time leading scorer and 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, there was also Florence Schelling, one of the league’s first-ever European goaltenders, Bailey Bram, who would play for Canada at the 2018 Winter Games, along with Winter Games gold medalists Gillian Apps, Cherie Piper and Lori Dupuis.
Both Piper and Dupuis both announced their retirement from the team prior to the first puck drop of the 2013 postseason. Undoubtedly, Dupuis would have a tremendous influence in Simmonds’ flourishing career, serving as the club’s General Manager following her retirement, helping to shape the foundation of a championship team.
Fast forward five years, Simmonds has not only joined Hefford in the league’s record books, there were other astounding similarities in this year’s postseason run. From the outset, the Thunder’s opposition in the 2018 Finals, the Kunlun Red Star, featured another European star goaltender, Noora Raty.
Jocelyne Larocque, who grew up in Ste. Anne, Manitoba, the same community where Bram was raised, only added to the theme of similarity. Having both played for Canada’s contingent at the 2018 Winter Games, Larocque ‘s return to the Thunder definitely entailed an emotional component. From the opening faceoff this season, the team captaincy was reserved in her honor.
Representing the Thunder in the ceremonial face-off that marked the first home game of the regular season, it was Simmonds, with the A emblazoned on her jersey, honoring her teammate while respecting her legacy.
Along with the aforementioned Rattray and Richards, their generosity towards respecting Larocque’s captaincy exemplified the spirit of teamwork, mutual respect and sportsmanship, setting an important tone in an exceptional team culture that willed the team towards the championship pinnacle.
“First, I appreciate the kind words as being a leader is something I take great pride in. I had a fantastic leadership group to work with as well which helped tremendously throughout the year.
Of course, Jocelyne returning was a huge moment this season. I look up to Jocelyne as a teammate and leader and to have her return and adopt her captaincy at the end of the season definitely gave myself and the team an extra boost. It showed she believed in us and what we were trying to accomplish, and I really think the team felt her positivity and excitement.”
Taking on the Red Star in the Cup finals definitely brought the sense of Markham’s inaugural season coming full circle. Of note, the club’s first home game took place against the same Red Star, one which saw the Thunder prevail. Defeating the Red Star in a tightly contested overtime game, it supplied serendipitous feelings, bringing glorious closure to a season that shall stand in franchise legend as one of its most treasured.
“Having seen the skill and talent of the players in this league and the previous winners of the Clarkson Cup, it is incredible to think we have prevailed over all others this season to capture the title. I am very thankful to have contributed to the success of our team this season and will definitely cherish this memory.”
Reflecting on the Cup victory, there was another element for Simmonds that contributed towards the concept of coming full circle. The elation of victory was truly a shared one, as numerous Thunder alums, including Dupuis were on-hand.
Although Dupuis would relinquish her revered role as General Manager, replaced by the esteemed Chelsea Purcell, her presence was most welcomed by Simmonds and other Brampton alum who had skated under her leadership.
In addition to Dupuis, other legendary Thunder luminaries included Allyson Fox, also a co-founder of the CWHL. Vicky Sunohara, who served as captain for the Thunder during the inaugural CWHL season, one that finished with Molly Engstrom scoring the game-winning goal versus Mississauga in the league’s first-ever championship game, also showed her support for this new generation of Thunder skaters.
Worth noting, Sunohara’s acumen for the game also proved invaluable for one of Simmonds’ teammates. Karolina Urban, played at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport level for the University of Toronto Lady Blues, as Sunohara served as head coach. Dupuis and Hefford would also serve on Sunohara’s coaching staff, a trinity of Thunder legends tutoring an apt group of competitors looking to rekindle the Lady Blues’ glory days.
Following the on-ice Cup celebration, the distinguished alumnae of Dupuis, Fox and Sunohara proudly hoisted the Cup, embodying the feeling of family that encompasses playing for the Thunder. Akin to their legacies, Simmonds definitely gained a place in the hearts and minds of the fan base as the Iron Woman of the CWHL, adding to her lustre with championship glory. That sense of consistency was evident off the ice, attributed to her leadership presence and genuine appreciation for the game, teammates and fans alike. Every team should have a player like Simmonds, and she is destined to one day take on the same lustre as the Thunder alums who were a great source of inspiration at this year’s championship game.
“Yes of course! While I never had the chance to play with Vicky, she has been extremely supportive and played a significant part in the progress and success of the Thunder. I did have a chance to play with Lori and also played while she was GM so we have become good friends.
Seeing Lori’s excitement after our win was a pretty big moment, we hugged and Lori just said to me “we did it”. She’s been there as a friend and mentor since day one and I’ve taken a lot of pointers throughout the years. I’m so happy to be able to share this victory with our alumni, who have helped get the team to where it is today.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Clarkson Cup with Fielding Montgomery, Liz Knox and Melissa Wronzberg: Jess Bazal
Game action by Jess Bazal
In boxing attire: Heather Pollock
Other images obtained from: https://www.facebook.com/ThunderCWHL/