With every season that passes by, the CWHL continues to make history, while expanding its scope. The next step involved its inaugural All-Star Game. Contested at Air Canada Centre on Saturday, December 13, 2014, it signified an early holiday gift for women’s hockey fans.
Consisting of three 15-minute periods, squads were divided into Team Red and Team White. Boston Blades head coach Digit Murphy was appointed head coach for Team Red, while Pat Cocklin of the Brampton Thunder was Team White’s bench boss.
Fittingly, Sami Jo Small and Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, the two remaining CWHL founders still playing, were in the game. As a side note, Breton-Lebreux was selected first overall by Team Red in the CWHL All-Star Frozen Fantasy Draft (held on December 12 to determine the rosters). Small would go first to Team White in said draft.
Broadcast on Canadian television network SportsNet, it added a significant degree of importance and relevance. In between the two benches was CWHL co-founder Jennifer Botterill, doing sideline reporting for the cable network. For Sommer West, a coach on Team White, and former teammate of Botterill with the now-defunct Mississauga franchise, she acknowledged the impact of the television broadcast,
“This is very important. Many hear about women’s hockey do not hear about the finesse of game. They play it with finesse and respect. The people watching on television saw our product.”
Of note, the contest began with the obligatory face-off ceremony. Featuring CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress, she was joined by Permier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynee, the former Governor-General of Canada, the Right Honorable Adrienne Clarkson, and former mayor of Mississauga and long-time women’s hockey advocate, “Hurricane” Hazel McCallion.
Jessica Campbell, the captain for Team White, approached center ice, while Team Red captain Charline Labonte was in full pads with her goalie stick. Once the puck dropped, Labonte set the tone for what would be a fun day, by falling to the ice on her knees, covering the puck with her glove hand, simulating a save. It brought a smile to captain Campbell, who tapped Labonte’s pads as a gesture of support.
Early in the period, the best scoring chance belonged to Team White’s Haley Irwin (of the Calgary Inferno), who shot on Labonte at close range. This was followed by Inferno rookie sensation Brittany Esposito taking a shot on Labonte for Team White.
In what was emerging as a theme for the first half of the opening period, Irwin and Esposito continued to pepper Labonte with shots. Off a face-off in the end of Team Red, Esposito was parked in front of the crease. Once again, Labonte was razor sharp. Irwin managed a shot from the corner that went off Team Red blueliner Tessa Bonhomme’s stick. Once again, Labonte was alert, lunging on the puck.
Boston Blades’ superstar Meghan Duggan, donning the jersey for Team White was also making an impact on the ice. With great stick handling, she maintained the pressure on Labonte. Weaving her way through traffic, she managed a great backhand pass to fellow Blades superstar Hilary Knight.
Team Red was struggling to get past centre ice. Brampton super rookie Jamie Lee Rattray tried to build some momentum for the Reds. Receiving a sharp pass from long-time Montreal player Emmanuelle Blais, it was the first test for Team White backstop Sami Jo Small.
Afterwards, Team White continued to maintain its strong play. Kelli Stack, a fixture in New England women’s hockey, released a powerful wrist shot that tested Labonte, as fans were eager to see which team would score the first All-Star Game goal in CWHL history.
Duggan intercepted the puck after Team Red missed a pass. Roaring back for Team White, the excitement continued to build up as time was winding down in the first. After Tara Watchorn would release a slapshot on Labonte, history would follow on the next play.
A remarkable passing display between Stack and Natalie Spooner saw Spooner bury the puck top shelf past Labonte with 1:07 left. The crowd roared with approval as Spooner established herself as the first player in league history to score a goal in CWHL All-Star Game play.
With so many of the young fans in attendance, Spooner established herself as a fan favorite, earning the loudest cheers during player introductions. Although Team Red tried very quickly to tie the game, the puck ended up back in Team Red’s territory. With 2.2 seconds left, Carly Mercer released a shot with Duggan trying to bury to rebound.
Heading into the second stanza, Christina Kessler stood between the pipes for Team Red, relieving a superlative performance by captain Charline Labonte. Despite playing for Team White, Caroline Ouellette, a long-time friend and teammate of Labonte on the Canadian national team, only had praise for her,
“She was incredible. Tremendous in the first, as she made huge saves. It was great to see her wear the C and I could not be happier. She did a great speech (at the All-Star Draft), reinforcing the importance of knowing where we came from. It could not happen to a greater person to be named captain and I could not be happier. They should really change the (general) rule that a goalie cannot be named captain.”
For Kessler, her appearance made history as she became the first goaltender to appear in two CWHL-sanctioned matches hosted at Air Canada Centre. Over in the crease for Team White, DeLayne Brian, the 2014 CWHL Goaltender of the Year Award winner was standing between the pipes.
Carolyne Prevost, one of the Toronto Furies’ leading scorers and Cross Fit champion, tried to even the score for Team Red. With a breakaway, she was denied by Brian. Afterwards, Spooner connected with Knight, who found herself on a breakaway. Her shot was stopped by Kessler but it dropped out of her glove.
Stack was there to retrieve the puck and bury it into the back of the net. With the goal, Stack became the first American-born player to score a goal in the CWHL All-Star Game.
Rebecca Johnston, the leading scorer in the first half of the CWHL season, tried to reduce Team White’s lead. Hitting the post against Brian, both teammates with the Calgary Inferno, it led to more scoring opportunities. Emmanuelle Blais tried to solve Brian, while Ann-Sophie Bettez, the 2014 Angela James Bowl winner, tried to deflect a shot into the net. Despite their efforts, the second would end with Team White’s Sarah Davis, one of seven rookies competing, releasing a slapshot on Kessler.
Genevieve Lacasse (Team White) and Erica Howe (Team Red), teammates on the gold medal winning roster from the 2014 Four Nations Cup, were the goaltenders for the third period. Just 13 seconds into the third, Team White’s shutout was broken.
A pass from rookie Alyssa Gagliardi to Ann-Sophie Bettez resulted in a shot by Blake Bolden. Successfully screening Lacasse, Breton-Lebreux deflected the shot into the net. Leaping into the air, the CWHL co-founder was unable to contain her excitement as the score was now 2-1.
The 12:45 mark saw Team Red tie the game as Blais streaked along the boards releasing a shot on Lacasse. Coming from behind the net, Rattray scooped up the rebound and put a backhand past Lacasse. With the goal, she became the first CWHL rookie to record an All-Star Game goal.
Only 70 seconds later, Team Red took the lead for the first time. Johnston would score on Lacasse, her teammate from the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Finding a gap between two defenders, Johnston capitalized and found the back of the net. The assists were credited to Ann-Sophie Bettez and Jenelle Kohanchuk.
Despite the setback, Team White tried to stage a comeback. Carly Mercer and Natalie Spooner were both denied by Howe, who protected the lead. Captain Jessica Campbell orchestrated a fine passing play to Knight, whose shot was denied.
Howe remained strong under the persistent pressure by Team White. Spooner weaved her way through traffic but her backhand was stopped. Stack passed to Campbell, whose shot resulted in a brilliant glove save by Howe.
With 3:15 remaining, history would be made once again as Team Red’s Jessica Wong (the first visible minority selected first overall in the history of the CWHL Amateur Draft) was called for a penalty by referee Vanessa Stratton. Attempting to tie the game on a power play, Ouellette released a laser beam of a shot which was deflected by Carly Mercer. A teammate of Mercer with Brampton, Howe prevented another goal.
As the seconds ticked away on the power play, a slapshot by Tara Watchorn did not find its way into the back of the net. Another shot by Ouellette saw Howe make the save while exiting the crease to try and grab the rebound. With both teams desperately scrambling for the puck as Howe was not in the net, a missed pass soared towards Team Red’s bench.
Having successfully nullified the power play, Howe was inching closer towards winning the first All-Star Game in CWHL history. As a side note, a stoppage during the power play resulted in the game’s most heartwarming moment. The grandfather of Team White forward Carly Hill was in attendance. Seen on the big screen of the scoreboard, it was also his 96th birthday.
Lacasse would vacate Team White’s net, providing an extra attacker on the ice. Despite their best efforts, the squad could not solve Howe. With less than 10 seconds remaining, Wong tried to dump the puck. Cathy Chartrand intercepted the puck near center ice. Before she could pass the puck, the buzzer rang, signaling the end of another glorious chapter for CWHL hockey.
Having scored the first game-winning goal in CWHL All-Star Game history, Rebecca Johnston was recognized as the game’s First Star. On the strength of a two-point effort, Natalie Spooner earned the Second Star nod. Third Star honors went to Ann-Sophie Bettez.
In the aftermath of the contest, a skills competition followed with smiles all around. The feelings of jubilation were shared by players, coaches and volunteers alike. For Sommer West, who coached the Furies to the Clarkson Cup earlier in 2014, she is already looking towards the future,
“As a player for 18 years, I would like to see where we can go with this experience. I wish I could be playing (today). The girls want our league to go to next level and are willing to give up their time. A lot of the players know each other outside the rink, and all strive for ultimate goal.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Images obtained from Facebook