Of note, the parent club of the Marlies are the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the most iconic sports franchises in the world. Considering that the Leafs have graciously engaged in a sponsorship agreement with the CWHL, the Women’s Hockey Day initiative is a special extension of their growing legacy with the female game.
One of the traditions of Women’s Hockey Day is the invitation of several Furies players to gather at centre ice for the ceremonial face-off. As a side note, the Furies also participate in autograph sessions and meet-and-greets with jubilant fans. At the most recent Women’s Hockey Day, 2015 first-round pick Emily Fulton, CWHL All-Star Christina Kessler and Winter Games gold medalist Natalie Spooner were the participants for the face-off. In addition, all three shall be part of the second CWHL All-Star Game on January 23, held at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
Although she was not at centre ice, another proud member of the Furies was essential to the success of this event. Sonja van der Bliek, a highly talented goaltender whose background included four solid seasons with Rensselaer Polytechnic and a pair seasons with the Brampton Thunder, worked tirelessly to co-ordinate the event, serving as one of the key points of contact.
The result was a labor of love for van der Bliek. Among the events that were part of Women’s Hockey Day at Ricoh Coliseum, young players had the chance to grace the ice prior to the Marlies match against the Utica Comets. In addition, they had the opportunity to meet the participating Furies, only adding to the jubilation of such an exciting day. The enthusiasm of the young players in attendance was definitely not lost on van der Bliek,
“The most rewarding aspect of coordinating Women’s Hockey Day was to see what an impact it had on the young girls who participated. Whether it was being able to skate on a professional rink before the Marlies game, meeting the Toronto Furies players, or seeing themselves on the video board during the Parade, it seemed like each and every girl had a pretty awesome day.
The only challenge that we faced, which I would say should be classified as a win for women’s hockey in general, is that there were a lot of teams that were more interested in watching a Toronto Furies game. This just goes to show the growth of Women’s Hockey in general, as the younger girls continue to look up Toronto Furies/CWHL players more and more as the league and the game develops.”
Currently in her first season with the Furies, occupying a backup role to Kessler, van der Bliek made her debut on November 29, 2015 in a remarkable 48-save effort against Les Canadiennes de Montreal. Her second appearance with the Furies would result in a pair of milestones. Stopping all 31 shots faced in a December 20 road match against the Boston Blades, van der Bliek earned her first win with the Furies and the first shutout of her CWHL career. On January 3, she played valiantly in a 5-4 loss to her former club, the Brampton Thunder, making 34 saves.
Also in her first season with the Furies, Women’s Hockey Day represented a first for Emily Fulton. Currently leading all Furies rookies in scoring, she made her Furies debut on October 17, 2015 scoring a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win. The chance for Fulton to be part of the ceremonial face-off follows in the proud footsteps of other Furies that have been involved in years past, such as Kori Cheverie, Martine Garland, Holly Carrie Mattimoe, Jordanna Peroff and CWHL co-founder Sami Jo Small, to name a few.
Part of a new generation of promising stars for the CWHL, Fulton demonstrates tremendous maturity and an appreciation for the game. Having also worn the Hockey Canada jersey during her career, Fulton, a graduate of Cornell University, understands that such an event is integral to not only helping the game grow, but to set a positive example by meeting the young players that look up to her and her Furies teammates as role models. Only added to the feeling of importance for so many youngsters, Fulton also donated her time as a coach for the junior girls game that took place on Ricoh Centre ice
“It was extremely exciting to be a part of the Marlies event alongside some of my Furies teammates. I am very fortunate to be coming into the league and becoming a part of the Furies organization at this time.
It is exciting and eager to see (that) the future of women’s hockey continues to grow and be a part of that process. seeing firsthand the amount of support our team has from the Toronto community is not only very exciting for the present but also shows the potential our team and league has for the future.
Being able to coach and watch the younger girls play only helps to grow my own love for the game. As much as they were learning from us we were learning from them. It was an honour to be a part of the official puck drop and something I won’t forget.”
No stranger to women’s hockey fans in Toronto, Christina Kessler may be one of the city’s most iconic competitors. A former member of Canada’s national team and a graduate of Harvard University, Kessler’s career continues to grow. Not only did she play in the first-ever CWHL game held on NHL ice (at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre), gaining a shutout in the process, she competed in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game, and helped the Furies to a Clarkson Cup title in 2014.
Despite such a proud playing legacy, Kessler is equally gaining prominence as a coach. Having worked as a goaltending coach at the PWHL level, she is a true champion in helping to inspire and motivate a new generation of elite female hockey goaltending talent. Women’s Hockey Day served as an ideal venue for Kessler to display her appreciation for the ambitions of tomorrow’s stars, happily donating her time in a coaching role for the pre-game festivities,
“I thought the entire event was a success. It is really nice to see this event grow in the capacity that it has since it was introduced a few years ago.
I really enjoyed coaching the Dolphins Bantam team in their exhibition game against the Chiefs at the Ricoh prior to the Marlies game. It’s always great to be able to give back at the grass roots level. It was a unique experience for the girls to play in a professional stadium and really nice to see how much they enjoyed the "professional" experience.”
A remarkable example of how the men’s and women’s hockey communities can collaborate, Women’s Hockey Day delivered on all accounts once again. Proud to have been able to contribute to such a meaningful day, van der Bliek is optimistic that the event will only continue to gain prominence,
“I was very happy with how the Toronto Marlies Women’s Hockey Day turned out. The Marlies and MLSE are terrific ambassadors of the women’s game, and this event continues to be a great opportunity to showcase the professional and grass roots programs that we have here in Ontario and Canada. I’m sure this event will continue to grow, and I look forward to building the day out even further, creating an event that young players can look forward to every year.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Action shot of Sonja van der Bliek, photo credit: Jess Bazal