Many wide-eyed girl hockey players, fans and first-time spectators got a taste of the high-calibre play of the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) when the Calgary Infernos took on the Markham Thunder here at the Cochrane Arena, Dec. 2.
The matchup between two of the top contenders in the six-team league, that includes one team Stateside and another in China, saw the Inferno rally to a 5-3 win to avenge a shootout loss the night previous in Calgary.
Rebecca Leslie put the Inferno on the scoreboard two minutes into the game, only to have it erased 90 seconds later by the Thunder. The Inferno went on a four-goal scoring spree in the second to take a 5-2 lead into the third. The Thunder put in a goal late in the game, but it was too little, too late. The moulting fire of the Inferno's offence and complementing key saves by goalie Alex Rigby kept the Thunder from rumbling.
The Inferno made adjustments after losing the night before, says Rebecca Johnston, Inferno Captain and three-time Canadian Olympic medallist, and created more momentum in the rematch.
"We wanted to get more shots on net and get players up front to try and capitalize on the rebounds. We had a lot of opportunities the night before but we just couldn’t bury the puck."
The win leaves the Inferno alone in first in the CWHL standings. They were on an eight-game winning streak before the Thunders' shootout victory on Dec. 1 at the Max Bell.
The two have a rematch this weekend in Markham, ON.
With some 15 Olympians from Canada, the US and other countries on the ice, Cochrane enjoyed watching some of best women hockey players in the world.
Inferno general manager Kristen Hagg says bringing games to outlying communities of Calgary gives professional women's hockey valuable exposure. People don't necessarily know about the league or the Inferno and the quality of hockey it offers. Nor do they always realize the number of Olympians playing in the CWHL.
"Sometimes people don’t make the connection. They don’t realize that these are the same people they watched go into a shootout in the Olympics just under a year ago. It’s the same players here. The three years in between they’re playing here."
For young players like Holly Bremner, 9, it was a full day of a sport she has been passionate about playing since she was 4. She attended the hot stove with players and Inferno head coach Shannon Miller in the morning before enjoying some ball hockey just outside the arena then heading inside to watch the players she aspires to be.
"I want to be like them when I go up," she said shyly, but decisively.
She wasn't the only one. The stands were filled with many female hockey players from many teams in the rapidly expanding girls' division of Cochrane Minor Hockey. Some also travelled from outside of the community for the game.
"I think it’s been amazing," says Lorne Bremner of the female division of Cochrane Minor Hockey. "You can tell from all the girls that are here they're excited. It’s sports-changing because they see close and personal these talented players. For some of the girls it’s the very first time they’ve seen something like that and because the ice is so close it’s even better for them."
Afterwards, many eager youths lined up to get autographs from the international array of female hockey stars.
"We take pride in the accessibility we provide to our players and how we allow kids to meet their heroes and the people look up to," says Hagg.
For young players like Holly, Inferno captain Johnston says never be afraid to dream too big.
“For me, making it to the Olympics and playing for Canada was something that I never thought was possible when I was younger. So stick with whatever you enjoy and are passionate about and always give 110 per cent and your dream just might come true.”
While there are no concrete plans in place, Bremner hopes the Inferno will return to Cochrane next season for a regular season game. He's already putting a bug in their ear.
It might help that Ryan Hilderman, president of P3 Sports here in Cochrane, is one of Shannon Miller's assistant coaches.
Hilderman met Miller at a coaching retreat a couple of years ago. When Miller was successfully recruited by the Inferno, she reached out to Hilderman and he didn't hesitate to join her coaching team.
He says it's a blast.
"We’re fortunate to have world-class athletes and the more you get to know them the more you understand they are world class people, too. It’s nice to have a tight-knit group of girls that play together and are coachable. As a coaching staff, we are learning from them as well."
With so many of the players who compete as rivals in the Olympics their dedication to the Infernos is impressive, he says.
"It’s something we were wondering about but they are professionals so this is their team when they're here and they play hard for each other."
The event doubled as a fundraiser for minor hockey's female program and proceeds will help provide additional ice time and training. They received a share of pre-sold tickets and also hosted a pre-game barbecue outside the arena. Several youths also took advantage of nets set up for ball hockey games.
Five all-stars were on the ice
Today, five of the players in yesterday's game have been named in the first round of players named to the CWHL All-Star Game slated for January. Johnston is joined by goalie Alex Rigby (Team USA's #1 goalie) and Blayre Turnbull from the Infernos. Markham's Jocelyne Larocque and Laura Stacey were also named.