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CWHL Tribute: Sommer West

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Very few individuals have enjoyed an impact so embedded in the lore of the CWHL, let alone the nascent of professional female hockey as Sommer West. More than just a gifted athlete, who played with Canada’s entry in women’s softball at the 2000 Summer Games, along with a stint on the national women’s ice hockey team, West was a remarkable sporting archetype. Known as a kind-hearted empathic individual who cared about the game and the people involved, showing strong leadership, it truly made her one of the game’s authentic heroes.

Immersed in the game through participation in three different leagues, the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League (COWHL), the original NWHL, and the CWHL, undeniably, the evolution of the game was just as fascinating as the magic that took place on the ice. Among a rare group to have been part of all the aforementioned leagues, the chance to be part of the game’s modern growth placed West in what may have been women’s hockey’s greatest generation.

West garbed in the Team Canada jersey on the ice with Gillian Ferrari and the iconic Manon Rheaume. Credit: Jeff Goode, Getty Images

“I have loved every minute of this. Playing with such amazing players, being coached by some of the best. Watching the growth in all different ways has been cool. The game has grown; the speed the talent and commitment is one thing that all three league share. Players have always played and continue to play for the love of the game. Always trying to grow the game for the next generation.”

Debuting in the COWHL at the tender age of 15, a prodigious West took to the ice in the 1993-94 season, racking up 15 points. Returning to the North York club for 1995-96, her rise to prominence gained momentum, averaging 1.08 points per game. The following season, West was an epiphany, reaching new heights, scoring 36 goals while amassing an impressive 60 points.

West’s efforts with North York continued into the NWHL, the next phase in the evolution of Canadian professional women’s ice hockey. Before the club changed its affiliation to Toronto at the beginning of the 2003-04 season, West developed into one of the league’s elite scorers, recording an astounding total of 247 points, 121 goals garbed in the North York paraphernalia.

Competing for Mississauga in the original NWHL’s final season (2006-07), the transition to the CWHL represented the start of a glorious chapter, one that would elevate West to iconic status. During that first CWHL season, West’s reputation as a prime time player took on new heights. Continuing to bring her skilful hand, she finished third in the scoring race for the Angela James Bowl with a superlative 48 points.

The numbers revealed a balanced attack, with 23 goals and 25 assists. Such consistency would continue into the league’s inaugural postseason, amassing 14 points, on the strength of 10 assists. Propelling the Mississauga Chiefs to the Finals against the Brampton Thunder, it was only fitting that overtime was required to determine the championship team. Although Brampton’s Molly Engstrom scored the game-winning tally, denying West and her fellow Chiefs the chance to be the first-ever CWHL champions, another opportunity at triumph followed. Capturing the gold medal at the 2008 Esso Women’s Nationals, it marked a fantastic finish to a ground-breaking season,

“It was amazing, playing with some of the best players in the world, I enjoyed every minute.”

Racking up 121 points during her first three CWHL seasons, West reached a series of sensational summits in the 2009-10 campaign. Worth noting, the date of November 7, 2009 is etched in her memory as one of the pivotal moments in her hockey endeavours, reaching the league’s Century Club in scoring.

Amassing 35 points, on the strength of 24 assists in just 30 games played, also showing some sandpaper with 68 penalty minutes, West finished the season as a First-Team All-Star selection. During her distinguished CWHL career as a player, it was a milestone, which stood out as her proudest individual achievement,

“100%, that year was a lot of fun we had such a great team and beat a great team. The Final was a good game and I felt so great that day. I also felt I needed to show people I could play the game at the next level.”

In action as a member of the Burlington Barracudas. Image obtained from: https://www.durhamregion.com/community-story/3504811-bowmanville-s-sommer-west-ready-to-write-the-next-chapter/

West’s final season as a player took place during the 2011-12 season, sporting the orange and blue of the Burlington Barracudas. With a roster that featured the likes of Christina Kessler, Shannon Moulson and Ashley Stephenson, this tremendous trio would play a key role in the next chapter of West’s CWHL odyssey.

Although said season ended with merely one win, followed by the franchise sadly folding, it was certainly not an ending worthy of West’s wondrous skills. During her first season in Burlington (2010-11), West showed some remarkable displays of skill, amassing a four-game scoring streak, which included her first goal as a Barracuda, Scoring twice at Appleby Rink in a convincing 5-1 defeat of the Boston Blades on November 20, 2010, she was also named First Star of the Game.

Transitioning into the coaching ranks, West became the bench boss for the Furies, a post she would hold for five seasons, the longest run in franchise history. Joining her on the coaching staff would be Stephenson, who would also join West in the transition from player to coach. During West’s first season with the Furies, one that saw former player Rebecca Davies serve as General Manager, the result was a remarkable roster that featured a dazzling draft class. Said class consisted of Natalie Spooner, who would become the greatest player in franchise history, Rebecca Johnston, and Jennifer Wakefield.

Managing to win the third place game at the 2013 Clarkson Cup tournament, defeating the Brampton Thunder in an intense overtime that saw Rebecca Johnston log the overtime winner against All-World goaltender Florence Schelling, it marked a breakthrough moment for West, setting the stage for dynasty and destiny to intersect during the 2013-14 season. Recognized as the CWHL Coach of the Year, a brilliant postseason would result in one of the biggest upsets in Clarkson Cup history.

Undeterred by its standing as the fourth seed, a scrappy team, embracing its underdog status, the Furies faced off against the defending Clarkson Cup champion Boston Blades, led by former NCAA head coach Digit Murphy. With Moulson and Kessler on the Furies roster, the result was a shared milestone, paying one final tribute to the Barracudas. Dethroning the defending Clarkson Cup champion Boston Blades, Kessler recorded 25 saves in a 1-0 overtime which saw Britni Smith score the Cup-clinching goal.

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

With the 2014 Clarkson Cup win, West became the first former player in CWHL history to serve as head coach for a Clarkson Cup winning team. In addition, Natalie Spooner would become the first (and only) player to win both, a Winter Games gold medal and Clarkson Cup, in the same year, while Tessa Bonhomme and Sami Jo Small, a Furies co-founder and former teammate on the Chiefs, joined Spooner in the Triple Gold Club for Women.

Before the calendar year of 2014 came to a close, West would build on the momentum of the Cup title with the honor of serving as head coach of Team White at the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game. Contested in December 2014 at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (now known by the nomenclature Scotiabank Arena), there was a unique coincidence in the fact that Murphy served as head coach for Team Red.

The ideal finish to a landmark year, the Furies who skated for West on Team White included Michelle Bonello, Spooner and Small, who was the game’s starting goaltender. Six Furies, including Megan Bozek, Tessa Bonhomme, Kessler, Jenelle Kohanchuk, Moulson and Carolyne Prevost, were rivals on this day, skated for Team Red. Spooner would enjoy a multi-point performance, including the first goal of the game, while Kohanchuk earned one of the assists on the game-winning goal for Team Red.

West reviewing the intricacies of the game with Alyssa Baldin. Credit: Chris Tanouye

Such an eventful year was one that saw West take her rightful place in the spotlight, celebrating her standing as one of the league’s luminaries. Consistently and dutifully supplying a strong stability to any team she is aligned with, West reflects proudly on 2014 as both learning experience and milestone-filled. Although she reveals that she was initially looking for an assistant coaching role following retirement, her aptitude quickly showed that she was more than capable of serving brilliantly in a head coaching capacity.

“This year was a crazy year. When I stepped away from the game I was looking to get back into the game in a coaching role. When I say coaching, I mean assistant coaching, to learn more about the game from the other side of the puck. The team I had was amazing, the group was a little older and helped me along the way as well. Winning the Cup was truly an amazing feeling, I was so happy for the team and super proud of them. Anything that came after that was just icing on the cake.”

Assembling a career which was emblematic of how the female game refuses to be constrained, consistently redefining boundaries, West’s career over the course of over two decades not only helped build the stage, but it contributed to writing the role. Looking back on a time of brilliance in which West truly was a once-in-a-lifetime figure, her entire body of work, woven together as one exceptional narrative evokes positive memories,

“I would say I was proud of my whole career. I played every game as hard as I could, to the best of my ability. I made so many friends and traveled around the world.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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