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CWHL Tribute: Tara Watchorn | Team Alberta, Boston Blades

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Among a rare group of highly accomplished competitors whose CWHL careers have resulted in play on both sides of the border, Tara Watchorn also holds a revered place as one of the league’s most talented blueliners. With a hockey resume highlighted by a Winter Games gold medal, Watchorn’s blueline brilliance includes a significant haul of hockey hardware from the CWHL, including the Clarkson Cup and the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Having skated at the NCAA level with Hockey East’s Boston University Terriers, Watchorn, who was raised east of Toronto in Newcastle, Ontario, initially went westwards for the first chapter of her professional sojourn. Suiting up for the nascent Team Alberta franchise for the 2012-13 CWHL season, Watchorn’s debut, an October 27 tilt on home ice versus the Brampton Thunder, saw her log her first career point. At the 4:19 mark of the third period, with Brampton having already assembled a 5-2 advantage, Watchorn would assist on a goal by Kristine Labrie, in a 5-3 final.

Although Watchorn would also log an assist the following day, collaborating with Mikkelson on a second period goal by Stephanie Roy, suffering an 8-2 loss, she would have to wait until December 8 for her first professional goal. Facing off against the Boston Blades at the Ristuccia Exposition Center, the visiting Albertans would fall behind 3-0 early in the third period. Despite this setback, with one second left in the contest, Cunningham and Roy assisted on Watchorn’s goal, spoiling Genevieve Lacasse’s bid for a shutout. Coincidentally, Watchorn and Lacasse would call each other teammates on Canada’s entry at the 2014 Winter Games.

Finishing the season as one of only three players on the roster with a positive plus/minus rating, Watchorn also tied with Mikkelson for second on team scoring, trailing Jenna Cunningham by merely one point.

Although Team Alberta, also known colloquially as the Honeybadgers, would morph into the Calgary Inferno, capturing a pair of Clarkson Cup championships, including the last in CWHL history, the expansion years included frequent results in the loss column. During such an arduous time, the franchise was already renowned for its defensive play, a formidable unit headlined by Meaghan Mikkelson, along with the likes of Jocelyne Larocque, Bobbi-Jo Slusar, Kelsey Webster and Watchorn.

Returning to her hometown of Newcastle in 2014, placing a sign celebrating her gold medal status after winning the gold at the Sochi Winter Games (Image obtained from: https://www.durhamregion.com/community-story/7659172-newcastle-s-olympic-gold-medallist-tara-watchorn-hangs-up-her-hockey-blades/)

With the articulate Tim Bothwell as head coach, whose playing career included stops in three NHL markets, playing for the New York (Rangers), Hartford and St. Louis, his coaching resume included head coaching stints with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers and the IHL’s Phoenix Roadrunners, whose roster featured Robb Stauber, a future coach with the US women’s national team. Along with a pair of seasons as an assistant coach for the Atlanta Thrashers, Bothwell’s background included a spot on Canada’s coaching staff at the 2006 Torino Winter Games, capturing a gold medal.

Taking into account that Watchorn aspired to don the Maple Leaf at the 2014 Winter Games, the experience of playing for an individual with such strong coaching acumen proved highly important in her evolution as a world-class competitor. Although there was the obligatory adjustment that encompasses making the transition from the collegiate ranks into the professional sphere, Watchorn’s maturity and team first approach were indicators that greatness was just looming on the horizon. Gaining a spot on the 2012-13 CWHL All-Rookie Team, Watchorn would become the first player in franchise history to earn the honor. Also on said team were Hilary Knight and Genevieve Lacasse, both future teammates on the Boston Blades.

“My first year in the CWHL when I played out in Alberta for Tim Bothwell was a great experience. It is always an adjustment when you make any change in your career and especially going from college to professional hockey. The team had a great group of people and I was able to really develop as a player and person that year. Preparing me very well for the following centralization year with the Canadian National Team.”

Such a promising career also brought with it an opportunity to come full circle. Competing with the Boston University Terriers from 2008-12, she would hold the unique distinction of also playing professionally in Beantown. Joining the Boston Blades for the 2014-15, one of her teammates would be newly arrived Kaleigh Fratkin, a fellow Terriers alum, who would later gain prominence as the first Canadian to sign a contract with the NWHL, along with a stint as an analytics intern for the New York Islanders.

Featuring an influx of new faces for the season, including US national team competitor Monique Lamoureux, a pair of Providence Friars alumnae in Corinne Buie and Austrian-born skater Janine Weber, plus Princeton graduate Denna Laing, Watchorn duplicated the successes gained with the Terriers.

Playing for head coach Digit Murphy, who won more than 300 games at the collegiate level, Watchorn’s first season brought with it a slight tinge of irony. Considering the international rivalry between Canada and the United States, Watchorn suddenly called adversaries such as Brianna Decker, Megan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Gigi Marvin and the aforementioned Lamoureux twins as teammates.

Following a 2012-13 season that saw Team Alberta not qualify for the Clarkson Cup playoffs, Watchorn saw her CWHL career grow by a quantum leap. Fulfilling her promise as an elite competitor on defense, the honour of the Defensive Player of the Year Award served as confirmation of her potential.

Notching a career-best 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 21 games played, and finishing eighth in the scoring race for the Angela James Bowl, Watchorn would become the second player in franchise history recognized with such honors, following Angela Ruggiero, who gained the honor in 2011.

Additionally, Watchorn’s efforts landed her on the 2014-15 CWHL First-Team All-Stars, joined by Blades teammates Blake Bolden, Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight. As a side note, the Second-Team consisted of Blades Genevieve Lacasse and Monique Lamoureux. With Decker capturing the league’s Rookie of the Year Award, setting a league record for points per game, their collaborative efforts firmly placed the 2014-15 Blades in the conversation as one of the greatest teams in league history.

Fittingly, Watchorn’s first season garbed in the black and gold of the Boston Blades brought with it the opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup of women’s ice hockey. With the franchise returning to the Finals for the third straight year, becoming only the second in league history to achieve the feat, following Montreal (2011, 2012, 2013), dynasty and destiny collided as the two powers faced off in the 2015 Finals. Duplicating the intensity of the NHL rivalry between the Bruins and Canadiens, overtime saw Janine Weber earn an immortal place in Cup lore, becoming the first European player to score the Cup-clinching goal.

Allowing Watchorn to add Clarkson Cup champion to her revered repertoire, following a memorable 2014 which saw her capture a gold medal at the Winter Games, the glorious feeling of attaining a new summit was enhanced by the fact that it happened in Markham, 75 kilometers west of her hometown of Newcastle, Ontario. Sipping out of the hallowed Cup, there was a profound feeling like it took place in her backyard.

Although the complexities of the Blades changed dramatically in the autumn of 2015, including the arrival of a new General Manager in the pleasant and devoted Krista Patronick, plus a head coaching change, Watchorn and fellow Canadian Lacasse, along with Megan Myers, who would blossom into an essential leader for the franchise, were all holdovers from the championship team. Bringing a strong presence to a new-look team, there was also an unforgettable opportunity to celebrate the Clarkson Cup win.

Wathcorn (fourth from left) joining her Blades teammates in the dugout of Fenway Park with the Clarkson Cup (Photo credit: Angela Spagna)

Akin to the Blades roster that captured the 2013 Clarkson Cup, the most recent Blades team to win the championship brought the Cup back to Fenway Park, home of the iconic Boston Red Sox. Sitting in the dugout, full view of the hallowed playing surface, diamond and grass intertwined underneath a tranquil sky, the sublime Green Monster a sentinel in left field, the spectacle supplied a unique glimpse in the impact of a championship victory for Watchorn and her fellow Blades,

“Winning the Clarkson Cup is definitely up there when I think about some of my favourite moments of my hockey career. It was such a pleasure to play on such a great team with so many outstanding hockey players and then be able to come together to win the Clarkson Cup. Bringing the Cup to Fenway Park was breathtaking. It was the kind of thing that did not hit you right away, but looking back at those pictures reminds me how special that really was.”

During a strenuous 2015-16 season which saw the Blades collapse to the bottom of the league standings, a dynasty suddenly decimated, a struggle for respectability saw the likes of Watchorn and Lacasse take the leadership rein, tirelessly striving to bring sufficient stability, balancing the elements of both hope and heartbreak.

Certainly, Watchorn’s character went beyond wins and losses, as demonstrated by her role of team captain. Considering that her predecessors in this role included fellow international skaters such as Erika Lawler, Caitlin Cahow, Hilary Knight and Jessica Koizumi, the placement of the C on her jersey not only burnished her legacy with the franchise, the result was a unique instance in the league’s narrative.

Inheriting the honour of the captaincy, it resulted in Watchorn becoming the first Canadian-born player to take on this role in Blades history. Worth noting, the latter half of the 2010s also saw Ashley “Stretch” Johnston become the only other Canadian captain with an American club team. With the C emblazoned on her jersey with the NWHL’s New York Riveters, Johnston and Watchorn not only became associated in a unique aspect of hockey trivia. Both joined Sprague Cleghorn of the Boston Bruins and longtime New York Rangers skater Bill Cook as the first Canadian captains of each franchise, all sharing a unique association which is a fertile part of the growing mythos that links professional men’s and women’s ice hockey.

“It was an honour to wear the ‘C’ for the Boston Blades and to be the first Canadian in the program’s history to do so. The Blades had a long history and tradition of success before I moved back to Boston and there were a lot of great captains who came before me – pioneering the first American program in the CWHL.”

Despite the doldrums that the Blades had descended into, Watchorn, in her capacity as team captain, and world-class competitor, quickly became both, franchise player and an ambassador for the female game. Perhaps no venue was of better indication of Watchorn’s standing than the CWHL All-Star Game.

Competing in the mid-season classic during all her seasons as a Blade, the event held a very strong and emotional connotation for Watchorn. Considering that Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, home of the NHL’s Maple Leafs, was the only rink which the league’s All-Stars graced, it provided Watchorn with a sense of homecoming.

With each successive event resulting in the attendance increasing, the prominence of the All-Star Game not only found a national television audience, the gathering of elite top-notch talent made it the type of celebrated showcase that could only be eclipsed by the grandeur of an IIHF or Winter Games event.

Gaining the privilege of participating in a handful of CWHL All-Star Games, the prestige of being an All-Star, skating on NHL ice, brought with it a seemingly infinite series of cherished memories. From the novelty of calling Blades teammates her opponents, to reuniting with numerous current and former Team Canada competitors, including finishing in fifth place in the online balloting to determine the first-ever CWHL All-Star captains, the dominant theme in Watchorn’s reflections are one of celebration,

“It is pretty unbelievable to have gotten the chance to play at the Air Canada Centre with the best of the best female hockey players. The All-Star weekend was always such an amazing experience; to be able to reunite with all of the women you have played with and against through the years, to celebrate the success of our sport, are memories I will forever cherish.”

Before Watchorn’s final season in the black and gold reached its conclusion, reminiscences provided her with the chance at homecoming once more, providing a fairy tale ending. Although the Blades were slated to end the 2016-17 by hosting the Brampton Thunder, home ice advantage took on a very profound meaning for the team captain.

Contested at Bowmanville, Ontario’s Grant B. Rickard Arena, a stone’s throw away from Watchorn’s hometown, the final game of the Blades marked an emotion-filled event, bordering on the themes of welcome yet celebrating a career reaching its apex. Allowing the sun to set on an excellent body of work first crafted in her hometown, past and present collided as the game marked an opportunity to recognize the world-class player and gracious individual that Watchorn would become.

With Brampton’s roster featuring Laura Fortino, whom Watchorn called a teammate at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, her presence enhanced the sense of relevance on this day, a pleasant reminder of the dream attained of a gold medal on the game’s biggest stage. Although Brampton prevailed, there was no sense of loss on this day, one that paid tribute to Watchorn. With her parents proudly in attendance, surrounded by friends, family and admiration, the impact of this game remains close to her heart.

“There are really no words to describe what it meant to be able to play in Newcastle with the Boston Blades. I had the opportunity to bring my two homes together in what would actually end up being the last game I ever played. My career really came full circle and I loved sharing my hometown with my home team.”

Fittingly, Watchorn remains relevant in Boston hockey, finding a new legacy by returning to her alma mater. Serving as an assistant coach on Brian Durocher’s staff with the Terrirers, the first female alum to return to Boston University in the capacity of coaching on a full-time basis, she has proven to be a significant asset.

Displaying a strong acumen, Watchorn has preached effectiveness and consistency. Enabling the defensive unit to find its offensive capabilities, the results were almost instantaneous. A solid group emerged among the top 10 in the NCAA for points per game by blueliners (2.16 per game) during the 2018-19 campaign. Additionally, Watchorn’s tutelage has transformed British Columbia’s Abby Clarke into a Hockey East All-Star, amassing a sensational 28 points during said season.

Coaching at Boston University (Image obtained from: https://twitter.com/tweetintara27)

While the city of Boston has provided a new focus for Watchorn’s raison d’etre, part of an exciting generation of former players turned coaches, her superlative skills allowed for the theme of homecoming to remain relevant even in this new chapter. As Watchorn is part of a sensational sorority of skaters that have worn the Maple Leaf in all three levels of Hockey Canada’s women’s ice hockey program, the 2019-20 season allowed Watchorn to return to her roots.

Taking on the role of assistant coach for Hockey Canada’s Under-18 National Women’s Team, she was joined by former CWHL skater Britni Smith, who scored the Clarkson Cup winning goal for the Toronto Furies in 2014. Akin to Watchorn, Smith is also a coach at the NCAA level, part of the staff for the dynastic Clarkson Golden Knights. With legendary Alberta Pandas hockey figure Howie Draper serving as head coach, the Canadian contingent qualified for the gold medal game at the 2020 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championships, allowing Watchorn another podium finish, adding to an impressive collection of hockey hardware, including the honors which defined a proud CWHL career.

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Featured image by Michelle Jay

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