With their inaugural season in Markham underway, the Thunder have done a superlative job of making their presence felt in the community, mirroring their treasured time in Brampton. Leading off the month of December, the Thunder hosted a You Can Play Game, which has quickly become a staple among all of the special events staged by the CWHL’s existing teams.
Dedicated to ensuring locker rooms and sporting venues are safe and free from homophobia, You Can Play is attentive to the dignity of the athlete, focused on their skills, regardless of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. With partners that include the Canadian Football League, National Women’s Hockey League and Major League Soccer, among others, part of the CWHL’s legacy is defined by its standing as a proud partner of You Can Play for five seasons.
As the visiting Canadiennes de Montreal provided the opposition, icing 19 players, compared to just 16 for the Thunder, the home team refused to define the word quit. Former teammates on Canada’s national women’s team, Erica Howe and Emerance Maschmeyer would start for their respective teams, treating the fans to a brilliant display of goaltending. Coincidentally, the You Can Play Game on the home ice of Les Canadiennes involved the Thunder visiting them on December 16.
The use of rainbow tape by players on both teams was a definite symbol of unity, emphasizing the league’s values, certainly shared throughout the league by players, coaches and management alike. Even player’s water bottles were adorned by the tape, while a rainbow flag was visible in the stands. Delighted to be competing in such an event, Howe acknowledged that said tape was an opportunity to pay homage to an important initiative,
“You Can Play is such an incredible organization that promotes equality and respect in sport so it is nice to see all the players come together to support this cause. The use of rainbow tape as a “tip of the hat” to You Can Play and all the work they do is incredible to see and I am thankful that I got to be a part of it.”
Earlier in the season, Howe was a significant part of another heartwarming match hosted by the Thunder. As said match was only the second game in Markham franchise history, along with the second ever for the Kunlun Red Star, it was also an opportunity for Howe, who was making her first start on home ice, to share in this moment with a very influential and special person.
Serving as a member of Canada’s Armed Forces, Howe’s mother participated in the ceremonial faceoff, there was a strong sense of emotion as the game’s starting goaltenders approached centre ice. Donning her green jersey, Howe was joined by the legendary Noora Raty, a bronze medalist from the 2010 Winter Games, and one of the Red Star’s star acquisitions from the off-season,
“The Brain Tumor Awareness game meant a lot to me and my family and we are incredibly honored to have the support of the Markham Thunder organization. It is not every day a goalie gets to take the opening faceoff, let alone against one of the best goalies in the game. It was a chance I couldn’t turn down. The whole day was surreal and I am thankful for everyone who took part and made the day so special.”
Strong goaltending and stout defensive play resulted in a tense first period, as anticipation rose as to which team would score the game’s first goal. As the first half of said period was a defensive stalemate, Laura McIntosh would put Markham on the score sheet, recording her second goal of the season at the 11:56 mark. Jamie Lee Rattray, also an alum of Canada’s national team, gained her fourth assist this season for the 1-0 advantage.
Merely 41 seconds into the second stanza, Kristen Barbara, part of the Thunder’s rookie class, extended the lead with her third goal of the campaign. Continuing to emerge as the team’s offensive catalyst, Rattray recorded her second assist of the game, as Markham was looking to maintain their lead.
For Barbara, who also scored the first goal in Markham franchise history, the chance to score in such another meaningful game certainly represented a proud season highlight. Although she remains humble about her place in franchise lore, Barbara remains focused on the team first, mirroring how the event fostered a sense of belonging,
“I thought it was a great thing that we were able to host the You Can Play game. With every game, I just try to contribute however I can and luckily during that game it happened to be a goal.”
With more than a dozen minutes of scoreless play afterwards, as both goaltenders frustrated opposing offenses, Montreal solved Howe’s dominance. Noemie Marin, currently the all-time leading scorer and all-time games played leader among active players on the Montreal roster, foiled Howe’s bid for a shutout, while Karell Emard and Natalie Barrette earned the assists.
Marin would also factor into the last goal of regulation time. Combining with 2017 Clarkson Cup hero Katia Clement-Heydra, the two earned the assists on a goal by former Angela James Bowl winner Ann-Sophie Bettez at 3:16 in the third. With Emard serving a pair of penalties later in the period, the Thunder were unable to take advantage, as the You Can Play game would advance into overtime.
As the extra frame failed to resolve the 2-2 deadlock, attributed to the extension of a masterful goaltending performance, a winner would be decided via the shootout. Worth noting, all of the game’s goal scorers participated. Montreal’s Clement-Heydra would be denied by Howe, while Laura McIntosh ran into a stone wall in Maschmeyer.
With a game-best two assists in the contest, Rattray, the next shootout participant, was unable to foil Montreal’s bid for an important road win. Following Rattray’s effort, Bettez soared across the ice for Montreal, slipping the puck past Howe, as her teammates roared in approval on the opposing bench.
Attempting to prolong the shootout, Barbara was hoping to log her second of the game, but Maschmeyer showed resolve, denying such ambitions in a very intense victory. Although Barbara would have preferred a different result, the bigger picture painted a much different outcome, one where the feeling of sportsmanship embodied the scope of the You Can Play game. With the Thunder emerging as tremendous ambassadors for their new community, such an event was one that Barbara emphasized was instrumental in creating a stronger sense of team unity,
“These types of events definitely bring our team closer together. We are such a tight knit group and being able to come together for something bigger than ourselves is always important.”
Recording 28 saves in the contest, Howe’s determination kept Markham competitive throughout the contest. Among the game’s highlights, Howe nullified four power play opportunities, discouraging the defending Clarkson Cup champions.
Despite the eventual loss, which saw McIntosh recognized as the Third Star of the Game, there was a feeling of realization, as the Thunder proved they were capable of competing against the league’s finest, while making a case to be included in that conversation. After a difficult road trip in China, challenging the Kunlun Red Star and Vanke Rays, Howe was proud to see the team bounce back, although the motivation only increases for victorious results,
“Montreal is a great team and it was good that we were able to battled for a point, especially coming off four regulation losses in Shenzhen. I think we were happy with the point we earned but not satisfied. We come to battle every day and we are getting better and better every time we touch the ice, which I think is what you want as a team.”
Worth noting, Howe was also the starter for Markham when Montreal hosted their own You Can Play Game on December 16. It was a contest filled with emotion as Erin Ambrose made her debut for Les Canadiennes. A former teammate of Howe and Rattray on both Canada’s U18 team and with the Clarkson Golden Knights, where all three captured the gold medal at the 2010 IIHF U18 Worlds and the 2014 NCAA Frozen Four, Ambrose would record a pair of assists in her inaugural game wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge.
Rattray led all Thunder scorers with a superlative four-point effort, while alternate captain Kristen Richards scored twice. Laura McIntosh would log a pair of assists, while Barbara recorded an assist in her second You Can Play game. Of note, she would collaborate with Rattray in gaining the assist on the game-tying goal by Richards, forcing overtime.
With Markham being outshot by a 23-4 margin in the third period, Howe was an essential presence between the pipes once again. Overcoming deficits of 3-0 and 4-3, the Thunder showed tremendous character, mirroring Howe’s courageous performance. Kayla Tutino would record the overtime winner for Les Canadiennes, as the club gained the unique distinction of winning two You Can Play Games in one season.
Photo credits: Jess Bazal