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CWHL Tribute: Kristen Richards | Brampton/Markham Thunder

With creative and charitable endeavors that she poured her emotions into, Kristen Richards reached new heights in the athletic imagination. Possessing a kind smile and a team-first approach, her presence enhances any roster that she is aligned with. Having displayed strong leadership at an early age, enjoying the prestige of provincial championships in both PWHL and high school play, Richards would continue to enhance her credentials at the university level with the Niagara University Purple Eagles, and later the Robert Morris University (RMU) Colonials, establishing her as a top prospect for professional hockey.

Sandwiched in between graduation from RMU and ascending to the professional ranks, the summer of 2015 allowed an invaluable experience. Gaining a unique exposure to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), Richards graced the slab with the Toronto Shamrocks at the 2015 Canadian Ball Hockey Association (CBHA) Nationals, the roster, which was coached by former COWHL (a predecessor to the original NWHL) competitor Diana Brown, was filled with a remarkable number of accomplished players from both the Furies and Thunder franchises.

(L-R): Richards, Jamie Lee Rattray and Rebecca Vint in their Toronto Shamrocks jerseys from the 2015 CBHA National Championships (Image from the Rebecca Vint Collection)

Among said players was Jamie Lee Rattray, who would become the first member of the Thunder to win the Jayna Hefford Trophy. In addition, Rebecca Vint, who called Richards a teammate with the Robert Morris University Colonials, where Richards served as team captain in her senior campaign, also donned the Shamrocks green jersey.

Capturing the national championship with an emotional overtime win over Newfoundland United, as Jenny Brine, scored the game-winning goal, it would foreshadow another epic chapter in Richards’ hockey odyssey. Fast forward three years, and Richards would add another championship to her hockey resume, as Laura Stacey scored the overtime winner for the Markham Thunder, besting the expansion Kunlun Red Star in the 2018 Clarkson Cup Finals.

Selected by the Thunder with the 16th pick in the 2015 CWHL Draft, there was a unique sense of past and present serendipitously colliding. With the first pick overall, the Thunder acquired Sarah Edney, who skated alongside Richards at the PWHL level, as members of the Mississauga Chiefs, capturing the OWHA gold medal in 2009. Following the Shamrocks triumph, Vint would call Richards a teammate for the third time, as the Thunder obtained her with the 11th pick overall.

The Clarkson Cup championship rings of Richards and Bozek (Image obtained from Twitter)

Although Richards experienced many of her biggest career milestones during the glory years of Markham, from the Clarkson Cup championship to competing in China, along with meeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the franchise was actually based in its original home of Brampton when Richards and her fellow draft picks were selected.

Certainly, the Brampton jersey allowed Richards to experience two significant milestones that represent a rite of passage for any player. From the outset, Richards’ professional debut took place in Brampton paraphernalia, as an October 17 road date against Les Canadiennes de Montreal marked the beginning of a new chapter.

One month later, a 9-1 home triumph on November 21, 2015 over the Boston Blades resulted in Richards placing her name on the scoresheet, logging her first career goal. Scoring what proved to be the game-winning tally, as Laura Fortino gained the lone assist, she achieved two milestones in one. Worth noting, said goal was recorded against Genevieve Lacasse, a member of the gold medal winning roster at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Finishing her rookie campaign with a solid 13 points, on the strength of 11 assists, tied with Jenna McParland for the team’s rookie lead, Richards had demonstrated that she was poised to be an ideal fit for the franchise. Along with a pair of playoff games against the eventual Clarkson Cup champion Calgary Inferno, which saw Richards record an assist in the second game, it was one of many positive signs that Richards would become an asset for the franchise. Reflecting on that landmark year, Richards shows great candor in discussing her first appearance as a professional, gaining an appreciation for the high level of skill and determination that encompasses league play,

“I cannot even begin to tell you how nervous I was for my first game. I knew I had been preparing my whole life for that moment, but I could not help but think about how fast, strong, and smart every player on the ice would be.

The CWHL was home to the best players in the world and the speed/skill of the game reflected exactly that. I was honoured to put on the Thunder jersey every game that I played and I am extremely thankful to the CWHL for providing me that opportunity. That being said, I know that there is more for our game and look forward to the future of women’s hockey!”

Among Richards’ proudest highlights as a member of the Thunder included a unique, yet highly creative collaboration with Heather Pollock. A compelling photo shoot served as a highly innovative approach to introduce and simultaneously re-invented the franchise, who were now calling Markham home. Adopting green as its new color, abandoning the traditional black and red motif, the image of Richards spray painting the new Markham logo on a white brick wall was the first exposure for the fans of this new era in Thunder hockey.

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

Praising Pollock’s creative attributes, the aftermath of that first season in Markham was commemorated by another highly creative shoot, serving as an ideal bookend. Undoubtedly, the imaginative elements that defined the first photo shoot bolstered Pollock’s portfolio of boxing images. Along with iconic Toronto Furies goaltender Sami Jo Small, whose simulated bout with Thunder goaltender Liz Knox reinvents the rivalry between both franchises, the coveted Clarkson Cup was also in tow, adding to the impact of an unprecedented championship victory.

“Our first photo shoot featured musical instruments, skateboards, graffiti, and handstand attempts. Our most recent shoot featured us inside a boxing ring. She constantly pushed me outside of my comfort zone and made me believe that there are no limits. I will be forever grateful for that and cannot wait to do more with her!”

Kristen Richards all smiles while playing the cello in hockey gear (Credit: Heather Pollock)

From working with Small on the boxing photo shoot, to the chance to participate along numerous Furies at the CBHA Nationals, it allowed Richards a unique perspective regarding the CWHL’s premier rivalry. Reflecting on the magnitude of their on-ice battles, matches waged with both rosters featured national team alumnae and Winter Games participants, it channeled the spirit of legendary rivalries such as Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs, or Flames vs. Oilers, adding another celebrated layer to the lore of Canadian hockey, simultaneously raising the profile of professional female hockey,

“The GTA rivalry between the Thunder and the Furies was one of the best in sports. The teams were made up of athletes who had grown up playing with and against each other their entire lives. No matter how intense/heated games were between us, respect always overpowered the rivalry once the final buzzer sounded.”

Just as prevalent is the fact that both franchises have also subscribed to the commendable values of giving back, combining forces for fundraising tournaments hosted by Toronto-based group, The Women of Winter, among others. Worth noting, Richards has been part of Vint’s trio of fundraising games for cervical cancer, which speaks volumes about the essence of dedication and friendship.

(L-R): Sportsnet’s Ken Reid, Laura Stacey, Erica Howe, Ailish Forfar, Kristen Richards, Jamie Lee Rattray, Megan Bozek, Liz Knox and Chelsea Purcell at the 2019 Conn Smythe Celebrity Sports Dinner. Image from: pic.twitter.com/MgJrYCJO13

During the 2018-19 season, Richards was among a group of Thunder players who were part of a season-defining event. Attending the Conn Smythe Celebrity Sports Dinner, in support of Easter Seals. A longtime staple of Toronto’s charitable events, Richards and her Thunder teammates donated $1000 in order to send a child to camp, a remarkable show of compassion.

In the aftermath of the Thunder’s season, which was unfortunately, the final one in league history, one of the most devastating events in modern Canadian female sporting history, the spirit of teamwork could not be diminished. With Laura Stacey, who scored the Clarkson Cup winning goal, hosting her second annual fundraiser, LS7 Sticks in for Charity, Richards was among a number of Thunder skaters from the 2018-19 campaign, which also included CWHL Rookie of the Year Victoria Bach, Ailish Forfar and Jamie Lee Rattray, among others, who proudly participated.

Richards (front row, second from left) among the proud Thunder teammates in attendance for Laura Stacey’s LS7 Sticks in for Charity (Image supplied by Kristen Richards)

Happily benefitting from the presence of such devoted teammates, Stacey’s charitable event was a rousing success. Undoubtedly, this display of devotion set a very positive example for the youth in attendance, enjoying an admirable access to the Thunder’s sensational stars. Reflecting on the magic of the event, giving back to the community while indulging in a shared enjoyment of the game, it not only brought betterment to the community, it raised the morale of players suddenly without a league. For Richards, the event was another indication that the association between Thunder alumnae is one that truly extends beyond the ice.

“The Thunder is one of the most special organizations I have ever been a part of. We are a family that supports each other through everything with an unbreakable bond. Laura Stacey’s ‘Sticks in for Charity’ event was a perfect representation of that.

Although the CWHL had ceased operations prior to the event, there is nothing that would have stopped us from showing up and being a part of it. We understand that our platform as athletes goes beyond the barriers of an organization.”

Showing instruction to a group of young players (Image supplied by Kristen Richards)

Such aspects remain strong for Richards, as she embarks on the newest chapter of her hockey odyssey. Along with Megan Bozek, also a member of the Clarkson Cup championship team, and part of Pollock’s boxing portfolio, both are also part of this year’s PWHPA Dream Gap Tour, demonstrating how adversity can be overcome through solidarity. Of note, this distinguished duo have launched the aptly named Bozek/Richards Hockey venture, becoming instructors and entrepreneurs. Also known colloquially as Nine Hockey, their Weekend Warriors event at Oakville’s Cutting Edge was a sell-out, while participants are encouraged to participate in a survey following their experience, a simple innovation with tremendous results, part of a commitment to continuous improvement.

Having once learned from Dawn Braid, who became the first female to serve on an NHL coaching staff, as she joined the Arizona Coyotes as their skating coach, the sense of empowerment which emanated from that experience is one that Richards aspires to instill in her students.

Megan Bozek and Kristen Richards (Image supplied by Richards)

Emphasizing the values of hard work, discipline and self-confidence, while highlighting the importance of having fun, Richards and Bozek, who is also a Frozen Four champion and Winter Games silver medalist, are dedicated towards encouraging a new generation of players. Perhaps one day, such players may emulate the heroics of their celebrated mentors, but they have definitely found a pair of tremendously positive influences. Certainly, Richards’ own experiences, whether it be as a valued team player, or engaging in activities that commendably embody the spirit of a hockey humanitarian, have transformed her into the kind of person that made the CWHL great, simultaneously enhancing her status as a revered role model,

“Megan Bozek and I recently joined forces to launch Bozek/Richards Hockey. The two of us have been coaching for years and absolutely love being on the ice together. We recognize the growth of the game and see the need for development at all levels. Our inaugural “Weekend Warrior” program for adults was a great success and we look forward to doing more in the near future. Feel free to give us a follow on Instagram/Twitter: @nine_hockey”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Feature image by Dave Holland


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