The first player in the history of the Team Alberta/Calgary Inferno franchise to reach 100 career games, it was a fitting career milestone for someone as dedicated and assiduous as Jenna Cunningham. A throwback to the team’s earliest days, when it was known simply as Team Alberta, its jersey adorned by navy blue and gold colors, Cunningham, who is the embodiment of grace and perseverance, has skated for the franchise since its inaugural season.
Adding to the jubilation of this proud achievement is the fact that she also reached the career 60-point plateau during the season, the first in franchise history to do so. The milestone point was reached on December 13, 2015, as she scored on goaltender Genevieve Lacasse (who compiled an astounding 63 saves) in a 4-1 road win against the Boston Blades. In the aftermath of the game, Cunningham was recognized as the Second Star of the Game. As a side note, she would reach her 50th career point in the same calendar year, earning an assist in a February 7 loss against the Toronto Furies.
One of only three players remaining from the original roster, including Meaghan Mikkelson and Kelsey Webster, who has played in 99 regular season games for the franchise, Cunningham had always worn the number 22. With Hayley Wickenheiser joining the franchise this season, Cunningham graciously provided her with the number, one that held profound meaning for Wickenheiser as she wore 22 in five Winter Games for Canada. This season, the number 14 is adorned on the back of Cunningham’s jersey.
Like several other players that have skated for the Inferno franchise, Cunningham holds an Ivy League background (she accumulated 125 points with the Dartmouth Big Green). While the early years of the franchise were lean ones, featuring the efforts of the likes of Lundy Day, Samantha Hunt, Brittney Maschmeyer and Chelsea Purcell, she continuously provided her team with an opportunity to succeed, subsequently inspiring hope.
Among her accomplishments during those early years, which included leading the team scoring in 2012-13, the most unique may be the fact that she logged the first two game-winning goals in franchise history. The first took place in an October 28, 2011 road match against the now defunct Burlington Barracudas. Scoring against future CWHL All-Star Christina Kessler in the second period, Bianca Zuber would log the historic assist. Of note, the second occurred at home on November 19 versus the Toronto Furies as Cunningham scored the first shootout winner in franchise history. Said winner would come against CWHL co-founder Sami Jo Small. The contest against Toronto also represented the first multi-goal game in franchise history as Cunningham and Purcell each compiled two-goal performances.
While the 2015-16 campaign represents the fifth in Cunningham’s sparkling career, which saw her log double digits in points scored (one of 13 Inferno players to do so) her growth as a leader, along with a consistently strong presence have run parallel to the Inferno’s ascendancy as a Clarkson Cup contender. When the Inferno first qualified for the Clarkson Cup playoffs in 2014, Cunningham set a franchise record for most assists in one playoff game with three.
During this season, when Cunningham logs her name on the score sheet, the result is a 6-3-0 mark for the Inferno. Although she recalls the earliest days from Team Alberta with ease, surprised at how quickly the seasons have faded into the record books, Cunningham helped lay the foundation for the bright future enjoyed today.
“It was surprising that my 100th game came so fast. It does not seem like it has been that long that this team was starting in Calgary. I am pretty fortunate to have played all my games in Calgary. I have been able to experience the growth of the CWHL and the Inferno from the begging. The progress is a true testament to the league and those involved.”
While there are so many treasured moments over the span of 100 career games, Cunningham traces back one key event as more than just a personal favorite. Exemplifying the personification of teamwork, Cunningham’s reflections on her favorite game tells the tale of an absolutely seminal moment. Displaying devotion to her teammates in a character-building game, she witnessed first-hand a turning point in franchise history.
“The game that stands out the most was our first win against Montreal, at home in a shootout. I was actually out with an injury but our head coach was away so I was on the bench with our assistant coach. When I look back that game really changed the dynamic and path of our franchise. It was our first real taste of success that was the product of hard work.”
The February 2, 2014 victory against Montreal displayed Calgary’s toughness. Being outshot 34-12 in the game, including an overwhelming 16-1 margin in the second, the squad’s resiliency forced a shootout. Julie Paetsch, a two-sport sensation whose background included a stint on the Canadian national women’s tackle football team that captured silver at the 2013 IFAF Women’s Football Worlds, scored the shootout winner.
Montreal would be part of another milestone in Inferno franchise history as Cunnnigham’s 100th game took place against them. The milestone took place on the road as Le Centre Etienne-Desmarteau played host to this momentous occasion. Although the feeling of such a unique feat did not carry the same impact as compared to a home match, Les Canadiennes showed a touch of class by acknowledging it.
Taking place on January 31, 2016, Cunningham proved to be the feel-good story of the contest. Although the home team prevailed by a 3-1 tally, it was only fitting that she scored the goal for the Inferno. With Les Canadiennes holding a 3-0 lead with less than five minutes left, she spoiled Charline Labonte’s bid for a shutout, as Hayleigh Cudmore and Brigitte Lacquette earned the assists. Adding to the sense of celebration was the fact that Cunningham was recognized as the Third Star of the Game.
“My 100th game felt like any other game. Montreal was kind enough to announce it before the game and the crowed there, like always, was great. So I appreciated that. I think my teammates were shocked I had been playing that long. I got some congratulatory taps for sure.”
By season’s end, Cunningham had made 104 appearances for the franchise. Complemented by 64 career points, the Inferno are 23-21-0 in her career when she records at least one point, resulting in Cunningham earning a point in 42% of her games. Beyond the numbers, there is a total appreciation from fans and teammates alike. Having established herself as the first star in franchise history, still contributing many historic firsts, Cunningham’s efforts are such that they shall forever hold a special place in the hearts of those loyal to the Inferno.
"All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credit: Joseph Leung