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Melissa Wronzberg retires from Markham Thunder

Part of a group of four fantastic women whose Clarkson Cup triumph with the Markham Thunder represented their competitive swan song, Melissa Wronzberg walks away from elite play with a proud series of accomplishments, her legacy involving an admired brush with history.

From the outset, Wronzberg’s footprint in Brampton hockey holds tremendous connotations. As a teenager, she graced the ice with the city’s entry in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL), the Brampton Jr. Thunder. Upon graduation to the professional ranks, following a stellar five year run during Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) play, Wronzberg returned to her Brampton roots.

Selected by the CWHL’s Thunder in the 2016 Draft, Wronzberg is part of a fascinating group of skaters that have played for Brampton in both the PWHL and CWHL. Reflecting on the magnitude of this achievement, it is one that sees her beaming with pride, knowing that she was able to achieve this celebrated feat alongside Jessica Hartwick, also a Ryerson teammate and a treasured friend.

“Playing for the Jr. Thunder was a great experience for me and helped me get to the next step because we had such a good coaching staff. Making the senior Thunder I thought it was a cool, full circle story, especially seeing as I got to play on the team with two teammates from the Jr Thunder in Rebecca Vint and Jessica Hartwick. Now that The Thunder have relocated to Markham it is also something that no one else will be able to say, so that is pretty cool to know we are one of few as well who can say that.”

Sandwiched in between the Brampton years, Wronzberg and Hartwick were integral figures in the launch of the Ryerson Rams women’s ice hockey program in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) conference of CIS hockey. Charter members of the Rams, Wronzberg, who majored in journalism, would become an assistant captain in her sophomore year.

Leading the team in scoring during her third and fourth seasons in Ryerson blue, she was also named the Team’s Most Valuable Player in the aftermath of the 2013-14 season. In her final season, she graduated as the program’s all-time leading scorer, while amassing at least 100 appearances.

Coincidentally, Wronzberg would score goals in her first and final games as a member of the Rams. The first game took place on October 7, 2011 versus the York Lions at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, located inside Maple Leaf Gardens, while the final game occurred on the road, a loss against the Waterloo Warriors on February 20, 2016.

Unforeseen at the time, many “firsts” that Wronzberg achieved during her time at Ryerson would also be duplicated in her second season of CWHL competition. Although her first season was spent with the Brampton Thunder, the franchise would make the transition to the York Region community of Markham, adopting an exciting new color scheme, highlighted by green.

The sense of newness that accompanied the move also supplied Wronzberg with another feeling of coming home, akin to the experience in Brampton. Raised in Thornhill, a community which neighbors Markham, she enjoyed a stirring sense of homecoming, as the Thunder’s home games were contested at the Thornhill Community Centre.

In addition to appearing in Markham’s first-ever game, an October 14 road tilt versus the Toronto Furies, Wronzberg enjoyed a proud milestone in the Thunder’s first game at the Thornhill venue. Hosting the expansion Kunlun Red Star, Wronzberg obtained her first-ever point as a member of Markham on home ice, collaborating with Becca King on the assists for Jamie Lee Rattray’s first goal of the game.

Beginning with such a series of treasured opportunities to be part of Markham’s first-ever games, to their inaugural journey in China, competing against expansion teams, the aforementioned Red Star and the Vanke Rays, there was an even more significant first, one that assured Wronzberg a place in league immortality. Not including the expansion teams that were based in China, the Thunder were the only existing CWHL franchise that had never captured the Clarkson Cup.

As the Thunder challenged the Red Star, marking the first time since 2010 that two teams competing in the Finals had never won a Clarkson Cup before, (coincidentally, the Thunder also appeared in the 2010 edition of the Finals), it was also an opportunity to validate a sometimes underrated moment in Canadian hockey history.

During the inaugural season of the CWHL, the Clarkson Cup was not contested. Instead, a league championship was held, which resulted in Molly Engstrom scoring in overtime, as the Brampton Thunder defeated the Mississauga Warriors to be crowned as the league’s first-ever champions. Considering that the inaugural Cup Finals would be held one year later, the Thunder’s championship somewhat faded into obscurity.

Exactly ten years later, the Thunder would be crowned champions once again, acquiring an elusive Clarkson Cup, while enhancing the legacy of the first championship team. With coincidence as a theme, overtime was also required in this run to the championship. Third generation star Laura Stacey, returning from an appearance at the 2018 Winter Games, lofted the puck past Noora Raty, who made her own history prior to the Cup finals, as the first European to win the CWHL’s Goaltender of the Year Award.

“Winning the Clarkson Cup was so special, I don’t even know how I would put it into words. Winning any major championship takes a lot, and to know my name is going to be engraved on the trophy beside so many greats is such an honour. I’ll never forget the moment I watched the puck go in the net and getting to celebrate with the team both on the ice and after we left.”

Considering that Jessica Hartwick also announced her retirement during the off-season, there was a sense of serendipity in the chance to share the milestone of a Clarkson Cup together. Becoming the first Ryerson Rams women’s ice hockey alumnae to hoist the coveted Clarkson, it represented a storied summit that also brought closure to their shared journey,

“Anytime you win a championship is special, being able to share the experience with Jess makes it extra special because we have known each other for so long and gone through so much together, both good and bad. Just thinking back to our first year Ryerson team that only managed to win one game to the two of us being able to develop into the players and people we are now.

Every step of the way for the last eight years, we have had each other to lean on and being able to not only make a pro team together but also having our names on the cup together is pretty special. We definitely have a lot of things that connect us and I think we both know we can go to the other about anything at this point in our lives.”

While Wronzberg shall be a spectator for Markham’s home games this season, she remains highly active in the game. Contemplating a promising coaching career, while balancing a promising employment opportunity related to sports marketing, Wronzberg still has a crowded calendar. From a coaching perspective, she shall serve on the coaching staff of the PWHL’s Toronto Leaside Wildcats.

Although she was part of the Wildcats coaching staff during the 2016-17 season, she was also juggling her competitive obligations with the Thunder, not enabling her to take on the opportunity full-time. Worth noting, she also served as an instructor for Total Female Hockey, along with a sterling run at Northern Freeze Hockey, where she also served commendably as Social Media Coordinator. Undeniably, her presence remained impactful for the Wildcats, although the approaching season is one that should yield even more sensational results.

“I love coaching. My first year I remember being a little nervous, but I have learned so much from the players I’ve coached and from Kim, who is actually one of the founders of the CWHL. She’s a great person to learn to coach from because of how much experience she has both playing and coaching. She was actually my coach at a point in high school so its fun now standing by her side.

Each team we have coached has been different, as this is my third year behind the bench. I have watched some amazing players come through and I’m excited to see how they develop at college and maybe into the CWHL. I say my goal as a coach is to help the players anyway I can, whether on the ice or even in school or life. I want the players I coach to have a respect for me, and feel comfortable coming to talk to me about anything even after they have moved on to new teams.

I think my favourite part of this year’s team is that they are so young and skilled, some of the girls don’t even know how skilled they are, and the fact that we only lose six players next year, I’m excited to develop this group both as players and people. Every girl in the room seems to be very eager to learn and that is what makes coaching enjoyable.”

In addition to the exciting prospect of coaching with the Wildcats on a full-time basis, Wronzberg’s love of competition will certainly not waver. Akin to so many other wondrous women that have played at multiple levels of the game, OWHA Senior play provides an enjoyable outlet, allowing accomplished skaters to extend their playing endeavors, simultaneously allowing to reunite with former teammates.

“As much as I am retiring from the Thunder, I am in no way hanging up the skates completely. Just taking a step back. I shall still be playing this year, just at the Senior A level for the Scarborough Sharks. Playing with girls I played with in Bantam and Midget as well as getting to be on the same team as my sister, as we have been on the same roster together at Ryerson but we never actually got to really experience playing together aside from summer men’s league.”

Professionally, Wronzberg enjoys the opportunity to further her love of sport. Employed by Athletic Knit (AK), where she is part of the Sales Team, her time with the firm has already resulted in an impactful career highlight. Of note, AK emerged as a meaningful contributor for one of the league’s signature events.

With the Thunder hosting a heartwarming fundraiser for Do It for Daron (DIFD) during their inaugural season in Markham, commemorative jerseys were made, featuring the cause’s favorite colour; purple. Through a collaboration that exemplified teamwork, a high quality jersey was issued by AK, which added a touch of class to the event.

“I love working at AK because of the environment. It is almost like a locker room feeling with the staff, we all get along and can have fun while still working. It is also super cool to see how jerseys are made and be a part of the process.

We have made some awesome jerseys; one I am super proud of would be the DIFD jerseys we wore last year. I loved getting to help create those for the team and such a good cause.”

Pondering the exciting road ahead, Wronzberg also reflects proudly on a profound run with the Thunder franchise. From the thrill of wearing the Thunder jersey for the first time, attaining the status of professional athlete, to the transition to Markham, culminating with the historic Cup win, it was an eventful time that provided Wronzberg with a lifetime of memories.

Through it all, the culture of collaboration, which translated into a strong feeling of teamwork both on and off the ice was essential towards Wronzberg’s experiences in Thunder colors. Recognizing the significant pool of dedicated volunteers, along with the incredible effort of a former player turned General Manager, their tireless work helped set a positive tone, cultivating a franchise whose core values were built on respect, duty and belonging.

“I think especially when we were in Markham we were taken care of really well. We were treated like pros and that is in large thanks to the people behind the scenes, in Chelsea and volunteers.

It is also an honour to be able to say I am an alumni of the Thunder organization just because of the other names that I can look at. Players I grew up idolizing every year (that) I watched the Olympics, who threw on the same jersey I did; from Dupuis to Hefford and beyond.

I am also thankful for the teammates I had while playing, getting to practice and play with and against some great players and athletes is something that I will always feel honoured to have experienced. It is not easy making the CWHL, and as you see the new talent coming in it just gets better and better.

So, I am thankful that I got to play at such a high level with a great organization and learned a lot while I was there, things that I can hopefully take and use while I am coaching.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Photo credits:

Ryerson Rams phots by Alex D’Addese

Thunder photos by: Teri Di-Lauro and Jess Bazal

 


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