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CWHL Tribute: Christina Kessler | Burlington Barracudas, Toronto Furies

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Part of an exclusive group of celebrated goaltenders who have enjoyed a unique Triple Crown of CWHL hockey, defined by a Clarkson Cup win, Goaltender of the Year honors and an All-Star Game appearance (which includes Delayne Brian, Charline Labonte, Genevieve Lacasse and Alex Rigsby), it stands as a crowning achievement in the fine career of Christina Kessler.

Among the unique elements of CWHL lore, the quality of goaltending between the pipes during any given season may have represented the worlds finest. Certainly, Kessler, who starred in the Ivy League with the Harvard Crimson, belonged to this distinguished group, leaving her mark with a series of celebrated achievements, including a Clarkson Cup championship, and the chance to play at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre thrice.

Graduating from Harvard with her name evident throughout the program’s record books, including as the NCAA’s all-time leader in save percentage, Kessler was definitely one of the top prospects in the 2010 CWHL Draft, the first in league history. Selected by the Burlington Barracudas with the sixth overall pick, the first goaltender ever drafted by the franchise, she was part of a solid draft class.

Featuring Shannon Moulson, whose older brother, Matt, played in the NHL with the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres, Amanda Shaw and Amanda Parkins, along with fellow goaltender Brianne McLaughlin, plus Swedish national team forward Danijela Rundqvist, on paper, it marked a solid group presenting the potential for greatness in Burlington orange.

Making her debut on October 30, 2010 against the Montreal Stars, Kessler enjoyed the milestone of her first win nearly a month later. Recording 36 saves in a strong 5-1 showing versus the Boston Blades, which also saw Kessler earn the Second Star of the Game honor, the November 20 tilt had a shared sense of achievement. With Moulson scoring the first game-winning goal of her professional career, it would foreshadow a unique intertwined on-ice journey shared between the two.

In action versus Jenny Kirk and the Brampton Thunder (Photo credit: Herb Garbutt – Burlington Post)

Finishing her first season of pro hockey with five wins, Kessler gained widespread notice during a rather bizarre event. Starting her second season in a historic match, between the pipes on home ice at Appleby Centre against the expansion Team Alberta franchise, playing in their first-ever game, she suffered a very rare injury. Player traffic occupying her crease saw Kessler attempt to find the puck. Instead, an opposing players skate blade nicked the right side of her throat. Rekindling haunting memories of when Buffalo Sabres’ backstop Clint Malarchuk suffered the same injury back in 1989, Kessler’s injury was not life threatening.

Although Kessler was brought by ambulance from the rink to hospital, the precautionary measures would not prevent her from returning the following day for the rematch versus Team Alberta. While the return to the rink stood as one of the hallmarks in her young career, the weekend of October 28-29, 2011 affirming her status as one of the league’s toughest, and most durable, goaltenders, bringing a dogged tenacity to each game. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that she faced an astonishing 68 shots in her return.

Bringing such bravery back to Burlington for the remainder of the season, a season which also saw Mandy Cronin and Allison Cubberley share in the goaltending duties, the unfolding results were both unforeseen and to a degree, traumatizing, for fans and players alike. Surprisingly, a talent-laden roster endured a one-win season, compounded by a coaching carousel; it proved to be the unravelling of a proud franchise, contracting by season’s end.

Earning the last win in franchise history, a 3-2 shootout win on December 18, 2011 versus the Toronto Furies, with Sommer West and Lindsey Vine scoring in the shootout round, it represented the coda to Kessler’s experience with the franchise. As a side note, Vine and Kessler were recognized as the First and Second Stars of the Game.

Stoically reflecting on a sometimes difficult season with grace and dignity, Kessler’s last appearance in the Burlington jersey taking place in an 11-1 loss on March 10 to the eventual Clarkson Cup champion Montreal Stars. Viewing the bigger picture as a character-building experience, testament to her toughness, it marked growth in the evolution of this valiant backstop. Additionally, one of the realities of the CWHL’s earlier existence was the fact that the Greater Toronto Area was home to multiple franchises. While other franchises had their respective markets exclusively to themselves, the allocation of talent possessing international experience was spread more thin in the GTA, adding another challenge in attempting to be competitive.

“Toronto was the only city in the CWHL to have more than one team, which forced the top players in the league to be distributed across three teams (Brampton, Toronto and Burlington). This made it very difficult to remain competitive against teams like Montreal, Boston and Calgary, which were stacked with members of both the Canadian and US National Teams.

It was certainly a learning experience for me to join the Burlington Barracudas – in one season, I think I faced more shots than I had my whole NCAA playing career. The team was a good group, however, the results on the ice always fell short of our expectations.”

Image obtained from: https://twitter.com/ckessler35

One positive element from the experience was that numerous Barracudas would play a key role in the next chapter of her career. Fittingly, the sharing in a series of accomplishments that cemented her legacy. Along with Moulson, both became teammates once again. Selected by the Furies in the league’s dispersal draft, joined by another pair of Barracudas leaders who would align themselves with the franchise too, it marked a new era in their collective careers.

Sommer West, the last captain in Barracudas franchise history, transitioned to the coaching ranks, serving as the Furies’ new bench boss. Joining her on the new-look staff was Ashley Stephenson, a two-sport star also revered as one of the icons from Canada’s national women’s baseball team. Having scored a goal in the Barracudas final victory, Stephenson possessed more than a decade of experience, enjoying eight seasons (CWHL and NWHL) with the Mississauga Chiefs, winning the Abby Hoffman Cup, all sharing in the adjustment to a new team.

“Moving to the Toronto Furies was an exciting opportunity, a chance to play with a winning team and contribute on and off the ice. I have shared some of my best hockey memories with that group, winning the Clarkson Cup is at the top of that list.”

That first season (2012-13) saw the new Furies together enjoying a shared milestone. Running parallel to said season was another lockout in NHL play, resulting in the Furies taking to the ice at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (ACC) for the first-ever CWHL game contested on NHL ice. Marking the first female game contested at the venue since the 2000 TSN Challenge, of which Furies co-founder Sami Jo Small was one of the participants, Kessler gained the start for the Furies, hosting Team Alberta in a historic affair.

With Leafs alumnae, Hall of Fame goaltender Johnny Bower and former 50-goal scorer Gary Leeman, among the guests of honor, they were witness to Kessler reaching a new summit in CWHL lore. Blanking the visiting Albertans by a 3-0 tally, Kessler became the first female goaltender to record a shutout in an NHL venue.

The euphoria of that event proved to be prologue as Kessler would return to the ACC’s frozen perimeter two more times. Fittingly, her return to the ACC in December 2014 served as the crowning touch to an unforgettable chronicle of events in a highly memorable calendar year. Enjoying a significant number of pinnacles that placed her into heroic status.

Named to the league’s 2013-14 First-Team All-Stars, it signified the start of a remarkable haul of hockey hardware for Kessler. Qualifying for the 2014 Clarkson Cup tournament, their run to the Finals was an against all odds type of scenario, reminiscent of the Minnesota Whitecaps overcoming the odds back in 2010.

Having finished with a .500 record during the regular season, expectations were that Boston and Montreal, both Finalists in 2013, would renew rivalries once again in the big game. Instead, the Furies displayed tenacity, as all of their round robin games were decided by just one goal. Gaining the start in every round robin appearance, Kessler recorded 31 saves in an opening round match versus Calgary, 22 saves in a visceral 2-1 loss to Boston, followed by a thrilling 34-save effort in which the Furies dispatched of the Montreal Stars in a 2-1 shootout win to advance to the Finals. Worth noting, Kessler denied Caroline Ouellette, Ann-Sophie Bettez and Sarah Vaillancourt in the shootout, showing a peerless poise that would set the tone in the Finals.

Facing off against the defending champion Boston Blades in the Finals, a star-studded roster consisting of Kacey Bellamy, Blake Bolden, Jillian Dempsey, Hilary Knight, Jessica Koizumi and Kelli Stack were unable to score on Kessler in regulation. Recording 25 saves, Kessler’s performance was almost matched save-per-save by Brittany Ott, only the third rookie to start in the Finals (following Liz Knox and Genevieve Lacasse), as she notched 24 stops, contributing to one of the finest displays of goaltending in league history.

Overtime would see an unlikely hero, as blueliner Britni Smith fired a shot past Ott at the 33 second mark, providing the Furies with their first Clarkson Cup championship in franchise history. Appropriately, Kessler and Ott gained the Second and Third Star of the Game honours for their scintillating efforts, while Kessler gained the Playoff MVP award, allowing only five goals in three games, recording over 247 minutes of ice time, while becoming the second Canadian goaltender, following Kim St. Pierre, to win a Clarkson Cup by shutout.

Several years later, the elation of hoisting the Cup remains a prized moment for Kessler. Discussing the tone in the locker room following regulation, there was an air of relaxed confidence within her, as another long-standing Canadian ritual provided a serendipitous feeling that a championship was destined on this magical day,

“Winning the Clarkson Cup was by far the highlight of my career in the CWHL – it was one of those games where bounces just seemed to go our way. The energy and confidence our team had throughout the first three periods was unparalleled.

I remember coming back to the locker room after the third period and one of our players Rolled up the Rim of a Tim Horton’s cup, only to find ‘Winner‘. We knew in that moment the odds were in our favor, we were going home with the Cup. That euphoric feeling is something I will never forget; I still feel like it was yesterday.”

Christina Kessler (left) and Sommer West celebrate after capturing the 2014 Clarkson Cup (Photo credit: Brandon Taylor)

Before the year came to a close, Kessler enjoyed the opportunity to be part of another epic moment in league history, affirming her status as one of its most celebrated goaltenders. With the inaugural All-Star Game contested on December 13, 2014, with the ACC as the venue accentuating the feelings of celebration and achievement, truly affirming the status of the league’s competitors as Major League, Kessler, selected seventh by Team Red in the Frozen Fantasy All-Star Draft, enjoyed the opportunity to share goaltending duties with Charline Labonte and Erica Howe.

In a tinge of irony, Digit Murphy, the Blades head coach, served in the same capacity for Team Red, while Sommer West served as Team White’s head coach. Other Furies on Team White included Michelle Bonello, Sami Jo Small and Natalie Spooner, while five other Furies, including Tessa Bonhomme, Megan Bozek, Jenelle Kohanchuk, Shannon Moulson and Carolyne Prevost joined Kessler on the Reds, turning teammates into respectful rivals on a historic day in league lore.

During a stoppage in play during the first period of the All-Star Game, Kessler’s visage was prominent on the big screen. Having filmed a public service announcement about not texting while driving, using the example that she would never text while playing, it served as one of the most unique moments of the day, providing a connection with the fans, at the time, setting an attendance record (since broken) for a professional women’s ice hockey game in Canada.

Seeing action in the second period, sandwiched in between starter Charline Labonte and Erica Howe, who would gain the win for Team Red in an exciting 3-2 come from behind victory, with all three goals scored in the third period.

Photo credit: Chris Tanouye

The following season, Kessler would gain the thrill of participating in the second CWHL All-Star Game. Hosted once again at the ACC, the January 23, 2016 affair saw Kessler enjoy another unique milestone, as she was the starter for Team Black. Opposing former Team Red All-Star teammate Charline Labonte, starting between the pipes for Team White in 2016, Team Black enjoyed a 2-0 lead after the first period of play, with goals scored by Marie-Philip Poulin and Jillian Saulnier.

Exiting midway through the second period, relieved by Delayne Brian, who played for Team White at the first CWHL All-Star Game, the two combined in a 5-1 triumph which saw Poulin recognized as Game MVP. Credited as the winning goaltender, it was an ideal denouement in Kessler’s final appearance at the ACC, providing her with a trilogy of outstanding games,

“It was humbling to have the chance to participate twice in the CWHL All-Star Game and an even greater honor to play out of the ACC for that event. The All-Star Games were an opportunity to showcase the tremendous amount of talent that exists in North America – playing those games at the ACC and in front of such a large crowd truly made us feel like professional athletes.”

If any aspect eclipsed the list of fantastic feats in Furies blue, perhaps it was enjoying the privilege for Kessler to call the revered Sami Jo Small as her goaltending partner. A co-founder of the Furies, Small stands as the league’s all-time record holder in wins and shutouts. Having also served as the starting goaltender for Team White at the inaugural All-Star Game, the Furies were the only team at the event to be represented by two goaltenders, an achievement proudly shared by the goaltending luminaries.

Although Kessler assumed the starter’s role upon her arrival in Toronto, there was definitely the sense of awe, starstruck at calling such a celebrated figure as her teammate. Despite the role reversal for Small, who had assumed the lion’s share of goaltending duties in the Furies first two seasons, she displayed a remarkable professionalism.

Sami Jo Small (left) and Kessler all smiles after winning the 2014 Clarkson Cup (Photo credit: Richard Scott)

In their first season as teammates, Small provided a highly effective relief role. While Kessler appeared in 17 games, Small managed over 360 minutes of ice time in seven games, registering three wins and a solid 2.49 goals against average. During the Clarkson Cup championship season, Small won six regular season games, emerging as a very valuable contributor.

Akin to Small, a Winter Games gold medalist, Kessler also enjoyed the privilege of wearing the Team Canada jersey, winning a gold medal at the 2010 MLP Cup with Canada’s Under-22/Development Team, along with another gold, serving in the role of backup with the Senior Team at the 2010 Four Nations Cup.

Another shared trait between this distinguished goaltending duo is the fact that Small also served as starting goaltender in a Clarkson Cup Final. During the Furies first season (2010-11), the squad qualified for the Finals against a star-studded Montreal Stars roster. Facing 51 shots, a record that was never broken, Small displayed an admirable courage in a visceral 5-0 loss. That work ethic never wavered upon Kessler’s arrival, supplying an inspiration that elevated her game, resulting in duplicating another feat of Small, enjoying 100 career appearances between the pipes.

“One of the best parts of joining the Toronto Furies was the opportunity to play with Sami Jo Small. She is an iconic player in Women’s Hockey History – one of the best goalies to have come across the game. She has accomplished so much throughout her career.

Not only did she inspire me to be a better goalie on the ice, she was a great teammate and friend. She was one of the most influential mentors in my career – I am definitely very fortunate to have had the chance to play with Sami.”

Reflecting fondly on such a great career, the facet that made the professional chapter of her journey so enriching was the fact that she was able to play against the world’s finest. As every franchise throughout the league boasted talent that once (or currently) played internationally, the quality of the on-ice product never faltered.

Proud to have been part of such an exciting era, Kessler gained the admiration of fans, teammates and rivals alike bringing a stoic dignity to the rink. Although the dissolution of the former league that she called home for more than half a decade is one that is still to be fully absorbed, the resolve that defined her career also defines her approach to the game’s future, optimistic that the foundation established shall yield very positive results,

“Now that I have been away from the game for a few years, it is amazing to think that I once had the opportunity to play with and against the best female hockey players in the world. I have seen so much progress in the game through my career. I know there have been recent setbacks with the dismantling of the CWHL, but I do think there is a place of Professional Women’s Hockey in the very near future, where players are compensated enough to make a living playing the sport they love.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Featured image from: https://twitter.com/ckessler35

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