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Jess Bazal Enjoyed Best Seat in the House in Thunder’s Rise to Prominence

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Among the revered hallmarks of the proud Thunder organization is the sense of family that extends to all facets. From the highly talented women that grace the ice, to an amazing group of dedicated volunteers, among the unsung heroes of the game, they all comprise the heartbeat of a model organization.

With a shared appreciation for the game and franchise alike, the experience is a true labor of love for these amazing individuals who give their time. Definitely, the strong culture and proud sense of unity took on an even greater purpose, as a Clarkson Cup championship defined everyone in the franchise as true champions.

Having spent the last five seasons as one of the club’s photographers, viewing the action through her lens, the loyalty of Jess Bazal-Ritchotte also involved making the sojourn from Brampton to the club’s new home eastwards in Markham. Undoubtedly, the greatest reward of being part of this organization is one where she has acquired a profound meaning in the feeling of family that has enriched this fascinating journey,

“I have always partaken in individual activities such as piano or tae kwon do. The Thunder helped me learn that they are not only a team, they are a family. Whatever happens during a game or in their lives, they are all living through it together.”

Bazal’s evolution as one of the game’s premier photographers mirrored the Thunder’s rise to prominence. While her first season was one defined by highly unfamiliar territory, finishing with the league’s worst record for the first-time ever, Bazal’s lens would capture the remarkable rebuilding that followed. Assembling a visual archive that shall be treasured in the years to follow, her role as a keeper of the flame places high value on a fascinating chronology of events.

“Photography has always been a hobby for me. Having this amazing opportunity to work with the Thunder and the CWHL has made me meet amazing photographers. Heather Pollock has not only been an inspiration, but as well a good mentor and an even better friend.”

As the 2015-16 season was one that saw the Thunder return to the postseason picture, it also signified one of the proudest milestones in Bazal’s sojourn. With the second CWHL All-Star Game contested once again at Toronto’s iconic Air Canada Centre (ACC), it was a venue fitting of her assiduous devotion and superlative skills.

Bestowed the prestige of serving as the league’s official photographer for the event, it was a rewarding tribute for Bazal, heralding her arrival as one of the finest in her profession. Enjoying the finest view, she was privy to a landmark game in professional women’s hockey history.

Symbolically, the event represented a passing of the torch, connecting numerous epochs of the game. From the outset, the gathering of All-Star talent was enhanced by the presence of Hayley Wickenheiser, the greatest player in the modern history of the game.

Having first played at ACC at the 2000 TSN Challenge (which also included future Toronto Furies co-founder Sami Jo Small), it was an opportunity for new generations to appreciate Wickenheiser’s legacy. As she was in the twilight of her career, her return to the ACC was a crowning achievement, a chance for fans to savor and absorb her meaning to the game in one last final showcase, similar to Wayne Gretzky’s appearance at the 1999 NHL All-Star Game or Cal Ripken, Jr. at the 2001 MLB All-Star Game.

Adding luster was the presence of the heiress to Wickenheiser’s legacy. Emerging with game MVP honors, Marie-Philip Poulin’s performance was somewhat mystical, adding to her expanding legend. Undoubtedly, this brush with history represented a treasured pinnacle for Bazal, who would also go on to cover the All-Star Game the following year too. In that same year, she would graciously give her time to photograph the 2017 Faceoff to Fight Cervical Cancer, organized by Thunder forward Rebecca Vint.

“I was lucky enough to photograph the All-Star Game twice, and it was an incredible experience. I never thought that I would have the chance to shoot at the Air Canada Centre.”

A venue not too far from the ACC would also play a prominent role in Bazal’s career, finding dual purpose as her professional pinnacle and a personal denouement. With the 2018 Clarkson Cup Finals staged at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum, home of the American Hockey League’s Marlies, it marked the first Finals contested in the GTA since 2015, when Markham served as host city.

Coincidentally, it would be the Markham Thunder qualifying for the 2018 Finals, challenging the expansion Kunlun Red Star, led by head coach Digit Murphy. As a side note, it was Murphy who was the winning coach back in 2015, as Boston defeated Montreal in a thrilling overtime.

Marking a radical departure in the mythology of the championship, as powerhouse clubs such as Calgary and Montreal (who opposed each other in the 2016 and 2017 Finals) were absent, it marked the Thunder’s first appearance in the Finals since 2012, back when they called Brampton home. As a side note, the only member of that 2012 team still on the current roster was Thunder goaltender Liz Knox.  

Building on the milestone of the All-Star Game, the chance to photograph the Finals solidified Bazal’s legacy as one of the finest photographers of the female game in this decade. Undoubtedly, the prestige of the event, and its victorious result, also represented a flood of emotion for Bazal.

When third-generation star Laura Stacey went top shelf against All-World goaltender Noora Raty in overtime, bringing an end to a highly intense contest, there was a shared sense of victory for Bazal and the other legion of dedicated volunteers for the Thunder. From a sense of pride to the historic feeling of achievement, this event served as the bookend to her captivating time with the Thunder.

Although it is the names of the players whose names are on the hallowed chalice, the win held significant connotations for Bazal, as the volunteers truly earned the status of being recognized as champions.

“The only word that comes to mind is accomplishment. Not only professionally, but personally. I have seen this team fight and rebuild over the past five seasons, and I just knew that this was our year.

My heart is full at the end of this season; I could not have ended my career on a better note than by winning the cup. This amazing team has inspired my wife and I to do our pregnancy announcement in Thunder apparel.

I could not be more proud of this team and it has been an honour to photograph these amazing players over the years.”

Continuing the theme of coming full circle, there was a proud highlight in the aftermath of the Finals, as a group of jubilant players and volunteers remained elated over the achievement of the first Clarkson Cup in franchise history. As Bazal immortalized the excitement of the victory for the euphoric players, each proudly holding the Cup as high as they could, winning faces with inimitable smiles from cheek to cheek, it was only fitting that she would enjoy the same privilege.

Bazal would appear on the opposite end of the lens, posing with hockey legends and key figures in the Thunder’s rise to championship status; Lori Dupuis and Chelsea Purcell. A member of the Thunder roster which captured the first championship in CWHL history (back in 2008), and a gold medalist at the 2002 Winter Games, Dupuis began making the transition to the front office, after hanging up her skates in the aftermath of the 2012-13 season.

In a captivating career with the Thunder that began back in 1998, when the club was part of the original NWHL, the chance for Dupuis to see the efforts exerted in her time as general manager bear such remarkable fruit today must have provided great satisfaction. Helping to start the process of putting the championship pieces together, among her greatest moves included the drafting of Laura Fortino, Erica Howe and Jamie Lee Rattray.

Reflecting on the privilege of finding both a tremendous mentor and associate in Dupuis, it was the springboard towards a treasured time that saw Bazal masterfully leave her mark on the Thunder. With the rink providing a residual warmth, the feeling of encouragement was one that Bazal has never forgotten, enriching the privilege of sharing in the achievement of the Cup triumph with such an essential figure.

“Lori took me under her wing many seasons ago, and she always encouraged me with photography. She gave me full, unrestricted access to the team, and was always sure to include me at team events. Lori always made me feel like part of the team, and it is an honour to call her a friend.”  

With the admirable Chelsea Purcell, the first captain in Team Alberta history and a gold medalist at the 2015 ISBHF Women’s Worlds, picking up where Dupuis left off, placing the finishing touches that resulted in a monumental milestone, she definitely brought a strong leadership background in building on the previous solid body of work established by her predecessor. 

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Photo credits: Jess Bazal and Heather Pollock

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