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CWHL Tribute: Jessica Koizumi | Boston Blades, Montreal Stars

Having skated in five Clarkson Cup tournaments, hoisting the coveted prize twice, Jessica Koizumi is certainly one of the event’s luminaries. Holding a special place in its history, part of a group of world-class competitors who graced the ice in the inaugural edition of the Finals, as Koizumi was aligned with the Minnesota Whitecaps, such an event served as the start of a fascinating chapter in her distinguished career.

Revered as the Stanley Cup of women’s ice hockey, the impact of the Clarkson Cup tournament was one highly appreciated by Koizumi. While the event’s evolution was a work in progress, dedicated to continued improvement, its relevance increased with each successive tournament, simultaneously providing a stability to the professional female game. Highlighted by a Canadian national television audience on Sportsnet, it added an allure to its standing as a major league event.

Part of a rare sorority to have captured the Clarkson twice in a career, perhaps rarer still was the fact that Koizumi appeared in the tournament with three different franchises. While her greatest glories came in the paraphernalia of the Boston Blades, appearing in three straight Finals, raising the hallowed trophy in 2013 and 2015, she reveals how the championship glory was actually part of a much more profound narrative,

“I played in five Clarkson Cup tournaments, one with the Whitecaps, one with Montreal, and three with Boston. All of them were so special and unique since the tournament format evolved throughout the years.

The support, budget, and professionalism also grew making each continual season and the Clarkson Cup tournament more like the professional league we all dreamed of as little girls.

Us players in the league were grateful that we had a home to play after college graduation, but also a responsibility to keep growing the game. I know I played as long as I did because of my love for the game and passion to keep moving it forward.

I hold incredible memories celebrating Clarkson Cup wins with our team, but most of us that have ever won a championship will tell you it is about the moments that our fans do not get to see. The road trips, the locker room talk, the friendships, the life-long connections, and even the practice and weight room grind that make it one of the most special times in your life.”

Raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, Koizumi would sharpen her skills in California, skating for the California Thunder, LA Selects and Ventura Mariners. Belonging to a pioneering group of highly skilled female players from the Pacific, such a list has grown to include Cayla Barnes, Chelsey Goldberg, Chanda Gunn, Kourtney Kunichika, Annie Pankowski, Jenny Niesluchowski–Scrivens, plus Hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero. Koizumi would skate alongside Ruggiero with the Whitecaps, Team USA, plus the Boston Blades, the first American-based team in the CWHL.

Koizumi (centre) coaching in Japan during the summer of 2018 (Image obtained from Facebook)

Before Koizumi would become a charter member of the Blades, her career path took an unexpected turn. Following the inaugural Clarkson Cup Finals, contested in Kingston, Ontario, Koizumi stayed north of the border. Joining the Montreal Stars, the Whitecaps’ opponents in the Finals, the geographic proximity proved to be essential for a new chapter in her career.

Part of the US National Team’s gold medal winning roster at the 2008 IIHF Women’s World Championships, Koizumi aspired for a spot on the roster that would compete in anticipation for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. Although a spot on the final roster did not materialize, an individual with Koizumi’s acumen and strong leadership skills was certainly in demand for the professional ranks, ensuring that the season would not reach an abrupt end.

Running parallel to the extension of Koizumi’s competitive endeavors was the discovery of an exciting new niche, gaining the opportunity to also serve in a coaching capacity. With an empowered confidence in composing her next chapter, coaching in the state of Vermont, bordering the province of Quebec, Koizumi enjoyed the best of both worlds. Balancing her love of competitive play by skating for the Stars, while instilling inspiration in a new generation of prospective players at the North American Hockey Academy, Koizumi enjoyed a renaissance.

On a very talented Stars team coached by Patrick Rankine, it was also a very young team, featuring the likes of Brooke Alfred, Leslie Oles, Donna Ringrose and Nicole Martindale. Undeniably, a player of Koizumi’s solid skill set was integral, especially with significant competition from the 2008 league champion Brampton Thunder, a high scoring Burlington Barracudas squad, plus a veteran-filled roster on the Mississauga Chiefs.

Amassing a very impressive 22 points in 17 games played with the Stars, there was also a highly familiar face for Koizumi. Of note, Noemie Marin, who set the CWHL record for most points in one game with 10, was a teammate of Koizumi with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (UMD) for four seasons. Worth noting, the two combined for 93 points during the 2006-07 NCAA season, leading the Bulldogs to their fourth appearance in the NCAA Frozen Four Finals. In addition, Emmanuelle Blais, who would win the Clarkson Cup with Montreal in 2011 and 2012 was in her freshman season at UMD.

Image obtained from: https://www.eliteprospects.com/player/367045/jessica-koizumi

Certainly, the opportunity to call Marin a teammate once again provided an important piece in the transition. Although Koizumi would spend only one season in Montreal, complementing the veteran presence of Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, Nathalie Dery and Annie Guay, she would help the team finish first overall in the league standings. Reflections on such a unique experience also pay homage to a special chapter in today’s game.

“I played for the Montreal Stars for one season because I was unfortunately cut from the 2010 Olympic team in the fall of 2009. I was scrambling to figure out what was next and committed to coaching in Stowe, Vermont for the North American Hockey Academy.

I knew my playing time with hockey was not over and Montreal was the closest team to my job. There were some Hockey Canada rivals on the team I played with, but there were also some former teammates from college on the team making the transition seamless.

With the current PWHPA Dream Gap Tour I have seen players from all over North America, US Olympians, Canadian Olympians play with and against each other more so than ever before. The motto: ‘We are something bigger than ourselves‘ has really been showcased with these women who are all fighting for the same goals; a viable sustainable professional league.

Prior to graduating college I would have never thought my playing career would have lasted over a decade, making over six-hour round trip commutes for practices a couple times a week, 10 hour commutes for some away games, and several plane tickets paid out of pocket.

For my season in Montreal and previous years on the Minnesota Whitecaps we paid $1000 to cover some expenses. Even though our financial situation to our male counterparts is incomparable we were willing to work full time jobs outside of hockey, train on our own time, make long commutes because we all love the game. With that said, I have no regrets, I kept playing because I still had such a competitive passion left in me.”

Koizumi’s last hurrah in a Montreal jersey took place at the 2010 Clarkson Cup tournament in Richmond Hill, Ontario, located north of Toronto. With a roster for the event including a pair of former Team Canada rivals in Caroline Ouellette and Marie-Philip Poulin, the experience of calling them teammates would prove to be short lived for Koizumi.

Becoming a hockey hero on both sides of the border, Koizumi would return stateside for the 2010-11 CWHL season. With change a key theme for said season, as the Ottawa Lady Senators and Vaughan Flames were contracted, while the Mississauga Chiefs were re-branded as the Toronto Furies, the league also expanded to the United States for the first time.

Jessica Koizumi and Meagan Aarts participate in a ceremonial faceoff on International Women’s Day (Image obtained from Twitter)

As the city of Boston become part of the CWHL’s first-ever US based team, the Blades quickly became a team loaded with an outstanding collection of talent. Coached by USA Hockey alum Erin Whitten, who once played in a preseason game with the American Hockey League’s Adirondack Red Wings, the presence of Koizumi was enhanced by a solid group of talent. Of note, the Blades welcomed former BC Eagles legend Kelli Stack to its roster, Harvard alumnae Caitlin Cahow and Angela Ruggiero, along with Kacey Bellamy, Samantha Faber and Cherie Hendrickson, among others.

Statistically, Koizumi was a marvel for the Blades, amassing a solid 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists), placing third in team scoring, trailing Angela Ruggiero (26) and Sam Faber (30). In her debut with the Blades, an October 30, 2010 affair against the Burlington Barracudas, Koizumi scored twice in the third period, including the game-winning tally in a 3-0 shutout win.

Coincidentally, Faber and Karen Thatcher, logged an assist on her first goal, while Ruggiero earned an assist on her second goal. Adding to the theme of coincidence on this glorious day was the fact that CWHL co-founder Mandy Cronin was the winning goaltender for the Blades. The following day, Koizumi would score twice again, including the game-winning tally, as the final score was 6-4 in Boston’s favor.

During the season, the Blades would sport a 7-3-0 mark when Koizumi recorded at least one point, establishing her as one of the club’s key impact players. Although Koizumi would have to wait two more years before hoisting the Clarkson Cup with the Blades, the chance to be part of American women’s ice hockey history during the 2010s, skating in the Blades’ inaugural season, represented a proud opportunity to build on her own legacy, while continuing to grow the female game in the Northeast,

“After my season with Montreal I knew I wanted to coach college hockey and thought that this meant the end of my playing career. I began coaching at Yale University while rumors spread that summer about the possible expansion in the CWHL to create a North American team in Boston.

This expansion came with perfect timing in my life and we had an immense advantage by having some of the best players in the US on one team. I remember when requests were going out for the name of the franchise. We all chuckled when Boston Blades was the final decision, but it certainly grew on us since we eventually started calling ourselves the Bladies.

The rosters from the years I was a part of the franchise had so much talent, it felt like a national team and I am incredibly blessed to have played five years there.”

Enriching the privilege of donning the paraphernalia of the Black and Gold was the opportunity to serve in a proud lineage of remarkable women that served as team captain. The list of players who served in such capacity truly read like a who’s who of women’s ice hockey.

From Erika Lawler to Caitlin Cahow, who served as captain when the Blades won their first Clarkson Cup, along with Hilary Knight, Koizumi was part of a group that later included the likes of Tara Watchorn, a member of the Blades 2015 Cup champions, plus Melissa Bizzari and Megan Myers.

Taking into account that Koizumi had also served in the role of captain during her university years with the UMD Bulldogs, her strong leadership allowed for a very treasured brush with history.

Following a revered run with the Blades, including the first to reach 50 Koizumi joined the Connecticut Whale in the reincarnation of the NWHL. In addition to scoring the first goal in that league’s history, she was also the first captain in Whale history. Worth noting, it also made her the first player to hold the honour of captain in both leagues, a privilege that stands as one of the hallowed hallmarks of her hockey odyssey.

“Being named captain for both the Boston Blades in the CWHL and the Connecticut Whale in the NWHL is an honor. It is a nice highlight to add to my career, but with my personality comes this feeling of wistfulness to do more as a leader in the years (when) we did not win our final game.”

Photo credit: Troy Parla

Concerning Koizumi’s final game in the CWHL, the epic journey towards reaching that plateau involved may have been more dramatic than the game itself. As the 2015 Clarkson Cup Finals between the Boston Blades and the Montreal Stars required overtime, following a three-game round robin, getting to the round robin involved a tireless trek from New England to Markham, Ontario.

Braving the elements of a gruelling bout of horribly bad weather in early March, as the last weeks of winter still exerted its chilly influence on travel. With a handful of players, including Koizumi, displaced by the meteorological mischief taking place, the challenge of commuting meant that numerous players either missed flights or were unable to gather at the team bus.

Improvising in such difficult times, opting for vehicular transport, Koizumi’s view obstructed by a constant barrage of ice and snow, she refused to relent until reaching the final destination of Markham, home of the Clarkson Cup for the third consecutive year.

Although Koizumi had little rest before the Blades’ opening game, hosting the defending champion Toronto Furies on March 4, her perseverance extended into a solid performance. Collaborating with Monique Lamoureux, both would assist on Brianna Decker’s second goal of the game, part of an inspiring 3-0 win.

Of note, the contest against Toronto provided a unique aspect of coincidence. Earlier in the season, Koizumi scored a second period goal, assisted by Rachel Llanes and Jillian Dempsey, versus Toronto on December 21, 2014. Scored against Christina Kessler, it proved to be her final CWHL goal. Coincidentally, the assist on Decker’s playoff goal also stood as the final point of her splendid run in CWHL play, reaching its pinnacle in a 3-2 overtime victory versus Montreal, her former team, supplying Koizumi with the crowning touch of her second Clarkson Cup.

Koizumi (left) with Jillian Dempsey winning the 2015 Clarkson Cup (Image obtained from Facebook)

“Though, one of my Boston Blades memories in one of the years I was captain will go down as top five crazy things I have ever done for hockey. In 2015, my flight to the Clarkson Cup was delayed four times because there was an ice storm.

Several players on the team did not take the team bus because of our locations and all of our flights were delayed. I found out the flights in the morning were booked full, meaning I would have missed our first game of the tournament.

At 7:45 pm that night, I decided to cancel my plane ticket and pull an all-nighter, driving to the Clarkson Cup through an ice storm. I remember driving incredibly slow looking through the smallest quarter sized clear part of my windshield in a crouched bent over position.

I tried to make minimal stops since I was so exhausted and did not want to leave the main highway. I pulled into our hotel at 5:00am and was able to get about three hours of sleep before I needed to be up for our 11:00am game.

The things we do to show up for our team and not miss one of the biggest stages in our sport at that time. I can sit here now almost five years later and admit it was crazy, but all worth it!”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Featured image by Meg Linehan


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More about Mark Staffieri

Raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Mark holds an extensive writing background. A contributor to Wikipedia since 2007, his writing endeavors have included writing for Bleacher Report (2012-13), and the former CWHL (2012-15), and the Canadian division of the Legends Football League (2013-14). Also part of the team of writers for Hockey Canada at the 2013 IIHF Women's World Championships in Ottawa, Mark contributed features on Jenny Harss, Elin Holmlov, Iya Gavrilova, Kathleen Kauth, Lucie Povova, Alex Rigsby, Julia and Stephanie Marty, and Katie Weatherston, among others. In addition to composing more than 700 articles for Women's Hockey Life (since 2012), his current slate of duties includes covering female tackle football for Canada Football Chat, along with pieces for NowVIZ Magazine (digital format) since its inaugural issue. Also the publisher of allowhertoplay, a website devoted to the heroics of sporting heroines, Mark remains focused on raising awareness of the positive impact of women in sport.