Regarded as one of the most prestigious championships in Canadian women’s ice hockey, the eighth annual Clarkson Cup was one defined by many unique firsts. From the outset, it marked the first time that the Cup was contested in an NHL arena. Hosted at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, home of the NHL’s Senators, the Calgary Inferno qualified for their first-ever appearance in the finals.
Taking on Les Canadiennes de Montreal, the club that finished first overall in the 2015-16 CWHL standings, the Inferno were skating against a group that was making its sixth appearance in the finals. Having last won the Clarkson Cup in 2012, when the franchise was known as the Montreal Stars, there was a sense of urgency as the franchise wanted to avoid the choke label, especially after finals losses in 2013 and 2015.
While the Inferno entered the contest with an underdog status, it was not fair comment. In reflecting on the 2015 CWHL Draft, the pieces were in place to assemble a Clarkson Cup champion. The first three rounds saw the Inferno select Brianne Jenner and Jillian Saulnier (both from Cornell University) and living legend Hayley Wickenheiser, owner of four Winter Games gold medals.
Such selections defined the best draft class in Inferno draft history, foreshadowing the glory to come. Providing the Inferno with a significant depth on offense, relieving the pressure off of 2015 Angela James Bowl winner Rebecca Johnston to carry the scoring load, it proved to make the difference in the 2016 Clarkson Cup final as 11 different Inferno skaters logged at least one point.
Johnston would open the scoring in the contest just 2:26 seconds in. For Johnston, it was a goal that only added to her growing legacy with the Inferno. In addition to being the first player in franchise history to win the Angela James Bowl and League MVP honors, she also scored the first game winning goal in CWHL All-Star Game history. It was only fitting that Johnston became the first player to score a Clarkson Cup goal for the Inferno.
With Inferno captain Brianne Jenner called for slashing at the 6:40 mark, it resulted in the first power play of the game. Considering that 2016 scoring champion Marie-Philip Poulin (the first player to win three awards in one CWHL season) was on the ice for Les Canadiennes, it was inevitable that she would capitalize on the power play opportunity and tie the game.
Coincidentally, the Inferno would also take advantage of a power play before the first period expired. Katia Clement-Heydra, Montreal’s first round pick in the 2015 CWHL Draft, was called for cross checking. With Johnston earning the assist, Jenner would provide the Inferno with the lead once again. At close range, Jenner made what looked like a backhand pass. Instead the puck went off the right pad of Charline Labonte and found its way into the net. Despite the 2-1 lead, it was still anyone’s game as both teams had recorded 10 shots on net and played with high energy.
Showing no signs of quit, Les Canadiennes peppered Inferno goaltender Delayne Brian with 18 shots in the second period. Despite their best efforts, they could only manage to score once as three-time Cup champion Noemie Marin (who recorded her 200th CWHL point during the regular season) beat Brian at the 12:58 mark. By that point, the scoreboard read 4-2 in favor of the Inferno.
Prior to Marin’s goal, Campbell and Blayre Turnbull both scored, logging the first Clarkson Cup goals in their promising careers. Of note, Turnbull would make her presence felt another time on the scoreboard. A mere 23 seconds following Marin’s goal, she would score on Labonte once again, extending the Inferno’s lead to three goals. Despite the Inferno managing only nine shots on goal during the second, they made those shots count.
For the second consecutive period, Campbell would score the period’s opening goal. With Canadiennes scoring sensation Ann-Sophie Bettez sitting in the penalty box for hooking, Calgary was looking to take advantage of the power play and put the game out of reach. With 12 seconds remaining, Campbell delivered, scoring the Inferno’s second power play goal of the game.
Right before the midway point of the third, Johnston scored on a breakaway against Labonte, going top shelf for the Inferno’s seventh goal of the game. As a stunned crowd watched on, seeing Les Canadiennes endure their worst performance of the season, the Clarkson Cup now seemed within reach for a determined Inferno squad.
Although Kim Deschenes, whose hockey roots include a national collegiate championship with the University of Montreal Carabins, scored with 7:15 left in the third period, reducing the Inferno’s lead to four goals, Les Canadiennes were playing for pride at this point. Despite facing such a huge deficit, Les Canadiennes showed bravura by playing with an empty for the final four minutes and 55 seconds.
With a pair of Inferno penalties, Brigitte Lacquette for holding at 15:28 and Louise Warren for too many players on the ice at 18:21, fans of Les Canadiennes remained optimistic. With the empty net allowing for the extra attacker, Les Canadiennes attempted to score on Delayne Brian and hopefully shatter her confidence. Instead, it was Brian who would discourage her opponents, playing with a determined desire and a resolve that set the tone for an Inferno team that showed great fortitude. As a side note, the Inferno would manage to score on the empty net, despite being shorthanded as Brianne Jenner iced the game with 51 seconds left.
Emotions ran high for the Inferno as the clock wound down and an 8-3 victory was assured. With tears of joy streaming down their faces, hugs and smiles were prevalent throughout, as the Inferno became the first Western Canadian-based team to hoist the Clarkson Cup. Delayne Brian was not only recognized as the First Star of the Game, she would garner Playoff MVP honors, while Rebecca Johnston was rewarded with Second Star honors. Blayre Turnbull, who was credited with the Cup-winning goal, gained Third Star recognition.
Of note, Turnbull and Jillian Saulnier became the first players raised in Nova Scotia to win the Clarkson Cup. Geographically, there were two other regions that could now boast of a homegrown talent hoisting the Cup. Sarah Davis, the first woman from Newfoundland to compete for the Canadian national team also became the first from that region to win the coveted Cup. Adding to such momentum was the presence of Japanese rookies Kanae Aoki and Aina Takeuchi. Not only did they become the first players from Japan to experience the thrill of victorious elation in a Clarkson Cup final, Takeuchi would become the first Japanese player to register a point in the finals, gaining the assist on Campbell’s second goal.
For Les Canadiennes, the club has engaged in a similar pattern once again. Having experienced its third Clarkson Cup loss in four years, the franchise has consistently been among the league’s powers. With a core group that consists of a star goaltender, several prominent blueliners and a strong scoring first line, such success has not translated into championship glories.
Despite its ability to dominate with ease in the regular season, its weaknesses are exposed in postseason play. Only six Canadiennes players registered a point in the Cup final, compared to 11 for the Inferno. Traditionally, its top line constitutes the vast majority of goals scored. If an opposing defense can shut down the top line, there is not enough depth on the remaining lines to compensate for such a loss. The Inferno’s defense managed to frustrate Les Canadiennes by playing physically when needed, taking the top scorers off their game.
Taking into account that the NWHL’s Isobel Cup had taken place the day before, there was also a unique connection between the Inferno and the Buffalo Beauts, who ended up being swept by the Boston Pride in a best of three series. Each team could boast that their starting goaltender had played at the NCAA level with the Robert Morris Colonials in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. Delayne Brian stood between the pipes for the program during the 2012-13 season, after three seasons with Wayne State, while Beauts starting goaltender Brianne McLaughlin rewrote the Colonials record books in the late 2000s.
Another special link between these two teams involved bloodlines. While Bailey Bram was making her Clarkson Cup debut, her younger sister Shelby Bram was one of three Canadians competing in the inaugural Isobel Cup, along with Beauts teammates Tatiana Rafter and Devon Skeats. For Bailey, the offseason does not begin just yet as she will be looking to make her mark with several other Canadians on the world stage.
In the aftermath of a championship-filled weekend, over a dozen players from both the Inferno and Les Canadiennes will not have to time to reflect on the Clarkson Cup experience for too long. This collection of talent will focus on the 2016 IIHF Women’s World championships, taking place on Canadian soil in Kamloops, British Columbia. Should Canada attain its golden dreams, it will extend the victorious streak for the Inferno while soothing the visceral feeling of loss for Les Canadiennes. Considering that almost a third of Team USA’s roster consists of players from the NWHL’s Boston Pride, the race for the gold medal will take on the feel of a match filled with stars from both leagues.