Boasting one of the youngest rosters in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the Brampton Thunder (located west of Toronto) hold the potential to alter the league’s balance of power, possibly shaping the next dynasty. Eager to help attain such potential is Courtney Birchard, one of the league’s most talented defenders, whose skills have also landed her a spot on the Canadian national women’s ice hockey team.
With a Brampton roster that features several of Birchard’s teammates from the national roster, highlighted by the likes of Thunder team captain Jocelyne Larocque and the offensive catalyst that is Jamie Lee Rattray, a Clarkson Cup title looks within reach sooner rather than later. Another encouraging fact for the Brampton fan base is that all three were named as participants in the 2016 CWHL All-Star Game.
Leading into the CWHL All-Star break, Birchard was second in scoring among defenders in league play. As a side note, the top three scoring blueliners all play for the Thunder with Laura Fortino leading the way with 21 points, while Birchard and Candice Styles have logged 15 and 14 points, respectively.
During such an exciting time for the franchise, a still-young Birchard is one of the team’s most experienced players, providing leadership through example. Having first established herself as one to watch at the University of New Hampshire, Birchard is capable of supplying an offensive flair when needed, while providing her team with a solid blueline performance.
On the offensive side of the game, Birchard’s contributions are essential. Having logged at least one point in ten regular season games, the Thunder have enjoyed a sparkling 8-2-0 mark. Assembling a pair of three-game scoring streaks, her best performance included a three-point output in an 8-7 shootout win against the Calgary Inferno on January 10, 2016. Working tirelessly to bring the Thunder back into the CWHL postseason for the first time since 2013, looking towards the long term with great enthusiasm,
“I am quite excited with the team’s future. We seem to be taking big steps in the right direction. We used to be a team full of older, more experienced players, which worked for us up until the Olympics, and then we lost them. Others had quit, a few players were lost to retirement and some moved away. We have a very young team full of energy and willingness to learn.”
In 2015, Birchard would appear with the Canadian national team at the IIHF Women’s World Championships in Malmo, Sweden. Finishing the tournament with a silver medal, Birchard appeared in all of Canada’s games. Accumulating a solid four points during the event, she would provide a two-point output in a 4-0 win against Russia, including a goal.
Of note, another milestone would soon follow for Birchard. In the autumn of 2015, the Upper Deck card company released a trading card set featuring Team Canada players, both male and female. Birchard would be among the female players featured in the set, gaining cardboard immortality as her image displayed on card number 72.
While Birchard has golden ambitions for 2016, looking to help Canada attain its first gold medal in the IIHF Women’s Worlds since 2012, of which Birchard was also a member, she is very proud of the opportunity to have donned the iconic Maple Leaf on her jersey. In reflecting on her first experiences with Hockey Canada, Birchard was originally part of its Under-22/Development Program. Her debut with the program was one that also saw her play internationally, as the Canadian contingent traveled to Germany to participate in the 2008 MLP Nations Cup.
“I remember heading to Germany for my first U22 tournament. I was very nervous and excited. So thrilled and privileged to have the opportunity to wear the maple leaf.”
Having first joined the Thunder in the autumn of 2011 (where was selected sixth overall in the 2011 CWHL Draft), Birchard was part of an exciting rookie class for the club, which also included highly talented goaltender Liz Knox, also possessing experience with Canada’s national program. Making her debut with the Thunder on October 29, 2011 against Team Alberta, Birchard would also register her first CWHL point during said debut. Scoring an unassisted goal in the third period against Jillian MacIsaac, it would also prove to be the game-winning tally, gaining a pair of career milestones on one goal.
By season’s end, the two would contribute towards an appearance in the Clarkson Cup final, Brampton’s second in three years, which also resulted in Knox becoming the first rookie goalie to start in the finals. Throughout such an eventful rookie season, there was no shortage of accomplished teammates to look up to. Such players would prove to be positive role models, helping to shape and influence Birchard into the leader that she has now become with the franchise today.
“When I started with the Thunder in 2011, I had a few players that I looked up to, such as Cherie Piper, Lori Dupuis, Jayna Hefford (the club’s all-time leading scorer) and Gillian Apps. All were players that were not only role models on the ice, but off the ice as well.”
A significant aspect to Birchard’s leadership also translates into an exceptional role in coaching at the junior hockey level. Considering that so many other players in the CWHL have also taken on similar roles, it is testament to the devotion such players have to their community and the future of the game.
Currently, Birchard is involved in a coaching capacity with the Oakville Hornets organization, one of the most accomplished in Southern Ontario. As a side note, Toronto Furies alternate captain Alyssa Baldin is also a coach in the organization, although both serve at different age levels. Birchard is responsible for the Hornets team that competes in the Lower Lakes Female Hockey League.
“I coach with Jim Nyhuss who is an amazing mentor. We have bonded quite well and come together in creating some successful teams. I think the best part about coaching is seeing these girls develop on and off the ice and having the opportunity for scholarship opportunities. The most rewarding thing for me is knowing that I have the ability to point these ladies in the right direction, help them reach their dreams.”
The most accomplished female coach in the Hornets organization is Bradi Cochrane, a rising star in Canada’s coaching ranks. A former player with Niagara University, Cochrane coaches at the highest level with the Hornets, in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL). As a side note, she also coached at the Canadian National Under-18 championships in 2013.
Not only did Cochrane lead the Hornets to a PWHL regular season title in 2014-15, her guidance and mentoring was a key factor in the club capturing the gold medal in the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association provincial championships. For Birchard, the chance to be part of the same organization as Cochrane is highly rewarding, as Cochrane’s growing profile as an elite coach is not only a source of inspiration, but an opportunity for Birchard to strengthen her leadership skills,
“I think the main thing I take away form Bradi is her passion for coaching. We all know she reads the game very well but the way she interacts with each and every player on her team is something very special.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”