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Clarkson Cup championship rings a fitting closure to Markham Thunder’s CWHL odyssey

In the wake of the CWHL’s closure, one final act brings a preservation to this highly empowering era of hockey. A common staple among other championship teams, the reverence of a championship ring served as the exclamation point to a prior season ended in glory. Although such an honor, through no one’s particular fault, had eluded teams that captured the Clarkson Cup championship in other years, the assiduous efforts of Chelsea Purcell ensured that the Markham Thunder gained such an honor, adding a tremendous sense of commemoration to the franchise’s only Cup triumph in CWHL play.

Having captured the 2018 edition of the Clarkson Cup, also the Thunder’s first season in Markham, Laura Stacey left her mark in franchise lore, recording the Cup-winning goal, scoring against Noora Raty of the expansion Kunlun Red Star. Of note, it marked only the second time that the Thunder had won a championship in CWHL play. During the league’s inaugural season, Brampton, the original city the franchise called home, advanced to the inaugural league finals versus the Mississauga Chiefs. Akin to Markham’s victory, this contest also required overtime to determine a champion, as All-World blueliner Molly Engstrom scored the game-winning goal, propelling the Thunder to a prized summit.

Considering that the 2018 edition of the Thunder were also the first Clarkson Cup champions in CWHL history to gain an audience with the Prime Minister, the chance to be the first to also earn championship rings was fitting. Certainly, the revelation of the championship rings generated tremendous reaction, stirring positive emotions in the jubilant players.

Nicole Brown, the Second Star of the Game at the 2018 Clarkson Cup finals, also experienced a 2016 ECAC championship with the Quinnipiac Bobcats, as both rosters featured Nicole Kosta. Also part of another amazing legacy, one that has seen women in hockey become full-time firefighters, Brown felt a strong sense of joy at the thought of the Cup win gaining a major league touch with the chance to adorn her finger with the ring. Grateful at the devotion of Purcell in making such concept a reality, it quickly emerged as a theme among other ecstatic teammates.

“My reaction was ‘this is gonna be so cool‘, it is a tangible piece of that memory of winning the Clarkson Cup with all of my friends. Chelsea, our GM, did such an amazing job getting us these rings, her hard work and dedication does not go unnoticed.”

Designs for the Markham Thunder’s Clarkson Cup championship ring (Image obtained from Twitter)

During 20th Century sport in North America, the first championship ring awarded to a team was the New York Giants (baseball), commemorating their 1922 World Series victory over Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees. Worth noting, throughout the early decades of that Century, instead of rings, many title-winning teams, including some from baseball, had received other kinds of commemorative items, such as cufflinks, pins, pocket watches, or silverware.

The New York Yankees, one of the greatest sports dynasties in 20th Century sport, started giving out championship rings in 1927. Coincidentally, the first Stanley Cup rings from that Century were from that same year, awarded to the Ottawa Senators. Fittingly, two members of the Thunder’s Cup-winning team hold a special linkage to Canada’s capital region. Erica Howe and Jamie Lee Rattray, both played for the PWHL’s Ottawa Lady Senators during their junior hockey years, the first of four occasions that they would be on the same roster.

Remembered as the winning goaltender in the championship match against the Red Star, providing tremendous poise between the pipes against an ambitious Red Star roster, the chance to acquire a Clarkson Cup ring actually added to an already impressive ring collection for Howe. Along with Rattray, both earned rings from Hockey Canada, as members of Canada’s first-ever gold medal winning team at the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championships in 2010.

Additionally, both were part of the Clarkson Golden Knights’ NCAA Frozen Four championship winning team in 2014, which was their senior season. Although Clarkson’s championship ring ceremony took place the following autumn, while Howe and Rattray were preparing for their rookie seasons with the Brampton Thunder, this distinguishing duo would not be absent to receive their Clarkson Cup rings. Rekindling fond memories from a memorable time in Howe’s fantastic hockey career, the attainment of a title shall always stand out to her as a team effort,

“The year we won the Clarkson cup was one of my favorite years of hockey. Being able to get most of the team back together and reminisce about the memories we made in that incredible year was a great night. One of the things that came up that made us laugh was the rough start we had that year but in the end it was all part journey.

No matter where life takes each of us we will always be connected by the memories we made that year and that Clarkson Cup championship. I am so proud to have played alongside all of the Markham Thunder.

The rings will always be a reminder of that season and what we overcame to win the Clarkson cup. I am so thankful for everyone involved in making it happen. Thank you to every single player, staff members, sponsor, fan and volunteer.”

While the rings added another layer to the fascinating narrative of Howe and Rattray, the magic of the championship run, which made such a prized accoutrement possible, was the fact that it unified rivals from post-secondary years into professional teammates. Melissa Wronzberg, who starred alongside Jessica Hartwick at Ryerson University, were part of many on-ice wars with their cross-town rivals, the York University Lions.

Both based in the Greater Toronto Area, along with the iconic, University of Toronto Lady Blues, Kristen Barbara, who served as the Lions captain in her senior season, was named to the OUA and CIS All-Rookie Teams, only the second player in program history to receive All-OUA and All-CIS honors in the same season. Following her graduation, the Ryerson rivals were quickly linked in her professional sojourn. Along with Hartwick and Wronzberg, she was part of the Thunder’s 2016 Draft Class, which also included Laura Stacey, Nicole Brown and Taylor Woods, all members of the Cup championship team.

“I was pretty excited especially everything that has happened (with the CWHL folding one year later) looking at that hardware is nostalgic and it means a lot to know I was a Clarkson Cup champion.”

Past and present collide with Thunder and PWHPA jerseys (Image obtained from Twitter)

The path to the championship held a unique aspect of foreshadowing as the Thunder’s first-ever home game representing Markham took place versus the Red Star. Said game would allow Wronzberg a unique milestone as she earned an assist, along with Becca King, on Markham’s first goal of the game, scored by Rattray.

With the defeat of the Red Star in the Cup finals, it added a feeling of full circle for Markham, one that took on a more profound meaning for Wronzberg. Along with Hartwick, they were part of a group, which included Fielding Montgomery and Karolina Urban announcing their retirements from professional hockey. While Wronzberg remains part of the game in a coaching capacity, while also working with Athletic Knit, the opportunity to earn a ring was a delightful reminder of what she enjoyed most about her professional experience,

“It felt amazing to get the ring after all this time. I am super thankful for the time and effort Chels put in to make sure we got the rings. It was nice to do a dinner with people from the team and see each other again to catch up. Unfortunately, not everyone was able to be there that evening, but I am sure everyone will be happy with their ring when they get them.

They look amazing and it is an honour to own one and a reminder of how special it was to be on that team the year we won and what went into the winning season.”

Opposite Wronzberg’s journey from the OUA to the CWHL, Candice Moxley, an assistant coach during the Thunder’s Cup-winning season (after four seasons with Buffalo State College) made the transition to head coach with the OUA’s University of Western Ontario Mustangs. Replacing Kelly Paton, who departed to become the Laurier Golden Hawks head coach, it resulted in a unique instance of six degrees of hockey separation. Thunder forward Laura McIntosh, who experienced the unfortunate loss of a family member prior to the Cup finals, served as an assistant coach at Laurier, capturing the 2013-14 OUA title.

Moxley, who competed in the original NWHL with the Durham Lightning, also played in the inaugural CWHL season as a member of the Vaughan Flames, racking up an impressive 21 points in 27 games played. A native of Markham, her return to the CWHL in the autumn of 2017 as coach with the Thunder meant that home ice advantage took on a much more profound meaning. The chance to be part of the Cup triumph representing her home town stood as one of her most cherished highlights. Serving as a constant reminder of this revered summit, the ring became a treasured relic for Moxley,

“Absolutely. With the league folding, the ring became extra special. I played in the league, coming back and being able to coach, and to make that (championship) happen. It was more special being able to come back and do this in my home town. Also, Chelsea, our fantastic GM, went above and beyond the call. We did not know if (the rings) would come to fruition. She even got sponsors to make sure that we got the memento after winning.”

Undoubtedly, championship rings are starting to hold a very valued place in women’s ice hockey. Starting the trend was Hockey Canada, recognizing winning teams from the IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds, IIHF Women’s World Championships and the Winter Games with rings. Their most famous ring ceremony took place in the summer of 2010, when three gold medal-winning teams (two from the Winter Games, plus the U18 team, which featured Howe and Rattray) were honored at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on a memorable Canada Day.

Following the 2018-19 season, the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps, who captured a Clarkson Cup title back in 2010, earned championship rings for their Isobel Cup victory in 2019. In NCAA women’s ice hockey, Frozen Four champions are not the only ones honored with rings. Also awarded to conference champions, akin to college football teams who earn rings after winning Bowl Games, it is becoming a prized accoutrement.

Adding to the theme of treasured reward is the fact that the Windsor, Ontario-based Baron Ring Company, who produced the Thunder’s 2018 championship rings, also produced rings for the Seattle Storm, who captured the WNBA title in the same year. Worth noting, another pair of notable creations by Baron involved the National Basketball Association (NBA). Producing the 2016 championship rings for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, along with the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 championship rings, which are also the biggest in NBA history. Coincidentally, both teams defeated the Golden State Warriors for their first-ever championship.

Proud to have been able to be the catalyst in providing the opportunity to honor members of the Thunder, the project was truly a labour of love for general manager Chelsea Purcell. Despite the fact that financial constraints had caused an unfortunate obstacle, even raising the possibility of players paying for said rings, the challenge posed became much more difficult with the devastating revelation of the CWHL ceasing operations.

Although the off-season meant there would be no draft or free agency to prepare for, Purcell never deviated from her devotion to the sweat and sacrifice made by her championship players. Intent on ensuring that the rings would materialize, maintaining communication with Baron, while commendably organizing a fundraiser that covered any remaining costs, the finished product was a touch of class which served as a crowning finish to her revered run as General Manager,

Thunder players reunite for 2018 Clarkson Cup championship ring ceremony (Image obtained from Twitter)

“Players and staff put their heart and soul into the season and to be able to come out champions is already so special. I am glad a year and so later, I am able to bring those feelings and memories back. They deserve it and it is exciting that it all came together!

After we won, many different companies were reaching out to me to do our championship rings. I had a couple mock up different designs and then went with the best price, quality and service, which was Baron.

Transitions happened in the league and we learned quickly that budgets were needing to be cut and the rings would be one of them. Baron stayed on top of us throughout the season and I did not know if we would ever get these beautiful rings that we designed.

We talked about players purchasing their own or the staff purchasing their own and trying to find a sponsor for the players. When the CWHL announced they would be discontinuing operations I knew I needed to find a way to get these rings.

I worked with Baron to find ways to cut down the cost per ring and luckily none of it took away from the beauty of it! We did a small fundraiser and I reached out to some supporters over the years to come up with the money. It was actually much easier than I thought. I ordered them back in May when I knew I was close to the amount needed.”

Adding to the beauty of the rings was a highly touching reunion where players and coaches gathered. Sharing stories and rekindling the joys of an unprecedented feat in franchise history, the rings, beautifully displayed on a table, while another table featured a green Thunder jersey with the number 18 on the back, indicating the year won. Beside it was a PWHPA jersey, the number 19 on its back signifying the potential for an even brighter future. Undoubtedly, the Thunder made many significant contributions in the rise of women’s hockey, and such efforts are highly valued in the Canadian sporting lore.

Taylor Woods with Erica Howe and Liz Knox on her shoulders (Credit: Heather Pollock)

Holding her own place in sporting Canadiana, Taylor Woods’ list of achievements includes gold at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship in 2012, a team that also featured Laura Stacey, plus subsequent rings for their efforts. Complemented by the prestige of an Esso Cup with the Notre Dame Hounds and the 2013 ECAC Conference Championship with Cornell, plus participation at the Canada Winter Games, Woods, a face-off specialist, was ecstatic to accentuate her most recent championship with the final product.

Impressed by its design, Woods enjoyed the fact that the rings were personalized for each player, with their name and number engraved; it was the kind of personal touch that magnifies the feeling of achievement and career milestone. Currently occupied as a Strength and Skills Coach and Personal Trainer, while also participating in the PWHPA Dream Gap Tour, Woods enjoyed the fact that a reunion took place in order to receive the rings, adding a comforting and human element to the achievement. While several Thunder alumnae can also be seen on the Dream Gap Tour, there were faces at the reunion that had not been seen since the Cup triumph, adding to the feeling of friendship and success that defined this special and beautiful event,

“Receiving our championship rings took a little longer than normal. Nonetheless, Chelsea was extremely diligent to get our team them and without her efforts, we would not have them and had the time to celebrate a hard fought and collected season.

The rings look fabulous! They are personalized with our name and number and have the playoff scores engraved in the loop. They are also pretty big! Your finger gets a workout wearing it! I have not see some of my old teammates in over a year, so it was great to have time to catch up with one another.”

Kristen Richards and the new Markham Thunder logo (Credit: Heather Pollock)

Beyond the beauty of the rings, another meaningful legacy concerning the celebrated summit of winning the Clarkson Cup is defined by the sentiment holds a shared sense of achievement. Encompassing such feelings is the ebullient Kristen Richards, whose list of championships includes an OWHA gold medal as a member of the Mississauga Jr. Chiefs, plus a CBHA national ball hockey championship with the Toronto Shamrocks, which featured Rattray on its roster.

Having helped introduce the Thunder’s new era in Markham with a series of pictorials by Heather Pollock, the ring brings Richards’ experiences with the franchise full circle. As the ring represents an unprecedented reward for a championship team in the first era of Clarkson Cup play, it shall serve as both visual reminder and a source of residual warmth from a cherished time. Yet, there is also another constant.

Such a time exemplified one of the franchise’s greatest legacies, a significant organizational culture built on unity, belonging and friendship. One in which players, coaches, volunteers and supporters all felt a sense of ownership, a mutual respect that worked towards a common goal, resulting in the sobriquet “Thunder Nation” as a means of identifying such a gregarious group.

Reflecting on the privilege of donning the Thunder paraphernalia, whether it was garbed in Brampton black or Markham green, the championship is part of a much richer narrative. Richards’ heartfelt reflections encompass the feelings of many, proud of recognizing that the achievements made were capable because of the friendships forged, all encouraged and empowered to reach greater heights.

“Winning the Clarkson Cup with the Markham Thunder was definitely the highlight of my hockey career. There were so many amazing volunteers, sponsors, and supporters of the Thunder who made it possible. Knowing how hard our GM Chelsea Purcell worked to ensure that we had rings to commemorate this moment leaves a lot of us speechless. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you Thunder Nation!”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”


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