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Greater Toronto Women’s Ball Hockey League Rising in Prominence

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As women’s ball hockey continues to grow throughout Canada, the province of Ontario remains its gold standard. Establishing itself as a strong component of such a standard is the Greater Toronto Women’s Ball Hockey League (GTWBHL). Established in 2014, the league has not only featured a very high quality of play, the remarkable group of talented competitors may represent some of the finest in all of Canada.

With sponsors such as Milford Auto and Spartan Services, the league hosted its recent season with a series of Monday evening matches at Malton Arena. Play consists of two 16 minute stop-time periods in which each team must have at least five players available. As a side note, the league holds a zero tolerance policy towards fighting.

A floating blue line also comprises part of the league rules, as it looks to regulate offsides. Should a player successfully bring the ball over the blue line into the opponents zone, the entire opponent’s half of the rink serves as an attacking zone. 

Having already expanded in 2015, plans are already underway for a sixth team in 2016. Associated with the Ontario Ball Hockey Federation (OBHF), the league was co-founded by Diana Brown and Flora Pannunzio, who also bring strong leadership as members of the Executive.

Brown, a CBHA Hall of Famer also serves as league President, while Panunzio is the league’s Vice President and Convener. As a side note, the league executive in 2015 also featured Lucy Fioccola as Treasurer while Sharyn O’Doherty occupied the position of Referee-in-chief. In reflecting on the objectives of launching the league, Brown’s goals were definitely geared towards ensuring a positive opportunity for the players, ensuring a safe, fun and fair environment in the process,

“We founded the league so that there would be a Toronto based league affiliated with the OBHF and CBHA so women in the GTA would have an opportunity to get to events such as the CBHA National Championships as well as the ISBHF World championships.

We also wanted to have a league for these young players that would provide a high caliber of play and not cost them an arm and a leg to participate. We have taken many steps over the past 2 years to keep league fees down and keep registration fees affordable.”

Of note, Brown and Panunzio have also been involved with international play, testament to the world-class group of women involved. This season, Brown was the head coach for the Canadian contingent that captured gold at the 2015 ISBHF Women’s Worlds. Pannunzio, brought her strong organizational skills to Team Italia as its General Manager. As a side note, Brown was part of Team Italia’s coaching staff for the 2013 ISBHF Worlds. 

The two also collaborated in a gold medal finish for the Toronto Shamrocks at the 2015 CBHA women’s nationals. Other events this year included the OBHF Eastern and National Qualifiers, both held in Mississauga, along with provincial championship in Peterborough.

In the aftermath of an eventful 2015 season, the Shamrocks enjoyed a first place finish, grabbing the league’s regular season title, while posting a sterling undefeated mark of 10-0-0. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that the green and white posted a remarkable 57 goals for, while allowing only 16 goals against, both tops in league play.

Their next closest competitor consisted of Spartan. Powered by league scoring champion Jamie Lee Rattray, whose 17 goals also topped all competitors, the club sported a 6-3-1 record while logging 54 goals for. The club tied with third place Rookies for goals against with 29. As a side note, Rookies was the only other club in league play with a winning record. Slightly above .500, the club went 5-4-1.

Forza Italia only participated in eight contests, managing six goals for in a difficult 1-6-1 campaign, they obtained the league’s fourth and final postseason berth. Finishing th season in last place was Team Uselanne, enduring a winless mark of 0-9-1. Frances Russo would finish as the club’s leading scorer, with a five-point campaign. Of note, its one point came in a scoreless tie against Forza Italia.

As the league continues to sprout, one of its most remarkable aspects is the fact that its competitors comprise a remarkable who’s who of women’s hockey. CWHL co-founder Allyson (Ally) Fox is a member of the Rookies club, while third generation player Laura Stacey, whose great grandfather was Hockey Hall of Famer King Clancy, is among the talented members of the competitive Spartan roster.

Rookies teammates Liz Knox and Melissa Boufounos represent some of the GTWBHL talent that has taken their game internationally. Having also played for the Canadian national women’s ice hockey team, Knox expanded her international experience by competing for Team Italia at the 2015 ISBHF Women’s Worlds in Zug. At the 2013 edition of the ISBHF Women’s Worlds, Boufounos (a former Burlington Barracudas draft pick) proudly displayed her Greek heritage by competing for Team Greece.

Of note, Knox is part of another unique aspect of the GTWBHL. Having stood between the pipes as an elite ice hockey goaltender, she does not guard her team’s crease in ball hockey play. Along with fellow CWHL goalies Christina Kessler (Furies) and Erica Howe (who played with Knox on the CWHL’s Brampton Thunder), they have opted to add a new dimension to their game by being part of the action.

Howe was the highest scoring among the trio. Competing for Spartan, she managed an eight-point season on the strength of five assists. Kessler scored three goals and logged five points overall as a member of the Shamrocks while Knox compiled four points.

Consisting of a strong CWHL influence, it was no surprise that the league’s top five scorers had all competed there. In addition to Rattray (whose CWHL club is the Brampton Thunder), Shamrocks sniper Julie Allen finished second with 20 points. Having once scored three shootout goals in a CIS contest, Spartan’s Jessica O’Grady placed third with 16 points but led all GTWBHL players with a remarkable 13 assists. As a side note, all three would bring their presence to the CBHA Nationals, each enjoying a podium finish, indicative of their remarkable talent.

Multiple Winter Games gold medalist Cherie Piper placed fourth overall with 15 points, finishing only second to Rattray in goals scored, while finishing as the Rookies leading scorer. Clarkson Cup champion Holly-Carrie Mattimoe tied Piper with a 15 point campaign, establishing herself as an integral component of the Shamrocks offensive unit. 

The majority of Shamrocks members have also graced the ice with the CWHL’s Toronto Furies. In addition to Shamrocks co-founder Meagan Aarts (a member of the CWHL’s 100 point club), she is joined by Julie Allen, Jenny Brine, Lexie Hoffmeyer, a charter member of the Furies, Katie Wilson and the Zamora sisters, Kelly and Kristy. Although Furies star forward Carolyne Prevost would play with the Shamrocks during the CBHA nationals, she was a member of Spartan during the regular season.

In seeing the high quality of talent, Pannunzio is quick to acknowledge that the players have also been important in helping to acquire said talent. Among them, she recognizes the efforts of Meagan Aarts, a long-time CWHL veteran and co-founder of the Shamrocks,

“She is the backbone of the Shamrocks for sure. She helped get things started off in 2010. Aarts and a few other girls are pretty much the spokespersons for this team. She is very respected in the CWHL and she helped pull in some elite players.”

A pair of GTWBHL clubs, Spartan and Rookies has been sprinkled with the Brampton Thunder’s influence. In addition to Rattray, the Thunder’s influence on Spartan also featured Howe, the first winning goalie in CWHL All-Star Game history. Kristi Alcorn, who has also served as Brampton’s head coach, competed on the Rookies roster. She was joined by current and former Thunder players such as Allyson Fox, Jennifer (Jenny) Kirk and Liz Knox.

As a side note, three former members of the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno also called Spartan their ball hockey home. Among them were O’Grady, Chelsea Purcell (2013 ISBHF gold medalist) and Karolina Urban, who played for Canada’s gold medal winning roster at the 2015 ISBHF Women’s Worlds.

Gold would continue to be the prevailing theme for the GTWBHL. With the CBHA nationals signifying the last major event of the ball hockey season, Brown and Panunzio brought the Shamrocks to the game’s biggest stage in Canada. Hosted by the ultra competitive Ottawa Vanier Women’s Ball Hockey League (OVWBHL), the Shamrocks attained a second place finish in preliminary play, as the Ottawa Rebels, one of the OVWBHL’s signature clubs grabbed first.

Gaining confidence as the tournament progressed, the Shamrocks remained strong. With the contributions of key pickup players such as Prevost and Rattray, while veterans such as team co-founder Meagan Aarts and Kristy Zamora provided a leadership presence, a run to the national championship was never out of sight.

Defeating the defending national champion Vanier Mooseheads (another elite OVWBHL club), the Shamrocks survived a late comeback by Newfoundland United in the gold medal game to prevail in overtime, as Jenny Brine, ranked as one of the 50 greatest Canadian female ball hockey players ever, scored the gold medal winner.

Adding to such jubilation was the fact that it marked the first time a club representing the GTWBHL earned the CBHA national title. Although the Shamrocks captured the title in 2012, they had been part of another league. Since winning in 2012, Pannunzio reflects on the journey towards another hard-earned title,

“We have been battling for it. We won it in 2012, then we tried to go back-to-back. In 2014, we lost it in overtime and this year we took it in overtime. It was a sweet victory that resulted in us taking it back again.

It is nice to keep the title in Ontario. Newfoundland United has come a long way and it will only be a matter of time before it is theirs. Our team played with heart and never gave up. Our goalie stood on her head.”

As 2016 looms on the horizon, exciting times lay ahead for the GTWBHL. From proposed expansion to the defense of their title at next year’s CBHA nationals in Vancouver, there is no shortage of motivation. Looking to build on a strong 2015, the impact of the GTWBHL, from its elite players to strong leaders, their efforts ensure that a strong future lays ahead for women’s ball hockey in Canada.

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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