In a weekend that saw both the CWHL and the NWHL host All-Star Games, things began on January 23 at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Beginning with a ceremonial puck drop that involved all five of the league’s general managers, Team White, led by captain Natalie Spooner, and Team Black, which featured four-time US Olympian Julie Chu as captain, were ready to entertain the fans.
With both teams having selected their roster through a Frozen Fantasy Draft that was held at the Toronto Hilton on January 22, Team White had the first pick overall, opting for Brianne Jenner of the Calgary Inferno, who is also their team captain. One of the most talked-about picks included Team Black’s selection of goaltender Christina Kessler from the Toronto Furies.
As Team Black captain Julie Chu competes for Les Canadiennes de Montreal, fans in attendance expected her to select teammate Charline Labonte. With the next pick, Spooner added to the intrigue by grabbing Labonte for Team White. Of note, Chu and Kessler were teammates when the two played together at Harvard University. The 2016 CWHL All-Star Game allowed them to be teammates again for the first time since graduation.
Other intriguing subplots in the game involved the fact that it marked the All-Star Game debut four-time Olympic gold medalist Hayley Wickenheiser, a living legend. The four members of the Boston Blades that were participating in the event wore the number 24 on their helmets, in recognition of Denna Laing, a member of the NWHL’s Boston Pride,
Stickers with Laing’s initials were also on the back of their helmets. Laing suffered a spinal cord injury after crashing into the boards at the Women’s Winter Classic on December 31, 2015. The broadcast crew graciously mentioned Laing’s foundation in order to raise money for her medical costs.
In addition, Sena Suzuki, who was selected by Team Black, became the first international player (in this case, born outside of Canada and the United States) to compete in the All-Star Game. Team Black’s head coach Tyler Fines also became the first man to serve as head coach in All-Star Game play. Opposing him was Team White head coach Sommer West, who led the Toronto Furies to the 2014 Clarkson Cup championship.
Early in the first period, there was good back and forth by both teams with good scoring chances by both sides. Kim Deschenes streaked down the ice for Team Black with teammate Ann-Sophie Bettez trying to score on Team White’s Labonte. As a side note, all three are members of Les Canadiennes in the regular season.
Team Black’s persistence continued as Caroline Ouellette tried to use Courtney Birchard as a screen to shoot on Labonte. Just a few minutes later, Ouellette would contribute to the first goal of the game. With 11:12 remaining in the first frame, she made a beautiful cross-ice backhand pass to Marie-Philip Poulin, who would lob the puck backhanded into the Team White net for the 1-0 lead.
A humorous moment would follow as Katia Clement-Heydra went on a breakaway for Team White. Wickenheiser would come off the bench as her stick glided across the ice as she could not catch Clement-Heydra in time. As the referee called for a penalty shot, Team Black goaltender Kessler nullified her effort with a poke check, akin to Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending legend Johnny Bower.
Kessler would also prevent Spooner from scoring on a subsequent breakaway as Team White attempted to tie the score. Instead, it was Team Black that would add to its lead on the game’s most perfectly executed goal. With Dru Burns attempting to get the puck out of Team White’s end, Jillian Saulnier (the first player from Nova Scotia to compete in the IIHF Women’s Worlds) stripped the puck from her, following such exceptional skill with a goal, as the period would expire with a 2-0 advantage in favor of Team Black.
During the second period, CWHL co-founder and Toronto Furies goaltender Sami Jo Small (who is on leave after giving birth to her daughter Kenzie) was in the broadcast booth with the Sportsnet announcers, John Bartlett and Cassie Campbell, a former member of Canada’s national team.
Declaring that she is proud to have been part of the league’s initial stages, Small also reflected on how she had discussed with Jennifer Botterill (who was the sideline reporter at the game) that the game needed to continue after a previous league folded. She would acknowledge during the broadcast how others like Jayna Hefford, Allyson Fox and Liz Breton (among others) were part of the encouraging discussion to start the CWHL.
With back and forth once again defining the early minutes of the second stanza, it was Poulin who make her presence felt once again. As Ouellette attempted a backhanded shot, the puck bounced to the left of Labonte. As the puck had not been cleared, the net was open with Poulin taking complete advantage for a growing lead that saw Team Black jump out to a 3-0 score.
Despite Team White’s best efforts, Kessler was solid between the pipes not allowing one goal. Despite Clement-Heydra shooting at close range, a subsequent shot by Lauriane Rougeau and a valiant effort by Jamie Lee Rattray with a backhand shot, the fans at Air Canada Centre were still waiting to see who would score the first goal for Team White.
Midway through the second period, a goaltending change would occur for both teams as Genevieve Lacasse replaced Labonte for Team White, and Delayne Brian, the winner of the 2014 CWHL Goaltender of the Year Award took over for Kessler. Considering that there had never been a shutout in All-Star Game history, Brian was looking to maintain Kessler’s sparkling performance.
Toronto Furies rookie Emily Fulton (who was skating for Team White) nearly broke the shutout as her slap shot beat Brian but sailed over the top of the net. Jessica Campbell, a teammate of Brian with the Calgary Inferno, shot the puck for Team White, followed by Courtney Birchard looking to grab a rebound but denied by Brian.
With 2:58 remaining in the second, Team White’s Kelly Terry had a cross-ice pass up to Brittany Esposito who missed it. Showing resilience, she grabbed the puck and made a backhand pass to Jessica Campbell who scored on Brian, snapping Team Black’s attempt at the first shutout in All-Star Game history.
Before the period would expire, there was enough time for one more goal, although it would not be scored by Team White. Once again, a cross-ice pass factored into the outcome, as Wickenheiser scored on Lacasse, gaining a goal in her All-Star Game debut, to a rousing roar of approval from the fans in attendance.
As the third period began with Team White facing a three-goal deficit, Spooner tried to lead by example, completing her back check, as she tried to steer the momentum in her team’s favor. Early on, Fulton would collide with Team Black’s Ouellette, crashing to the ice. Despite being knocked down, Fulton was gracious enough to do an interview on the bench with sideline reporter Botterill, discussing her charitable efforts with Right to Play.
Frustrations would continue for Team White as Lacasse grabbed the puck and cleared it over the boards, going into the stands, being called for a delay of game penalty. With tongue in cheek, Lacasse would skate over to the penalty box signifying the delay was her fault, although a skater would serve the penalty.
During the power play for Team White, Spooner went on the breakaway but Brian made the save. With Fortino trailing on Spooner’s trail for the back check, she was called for a hooking penalty, resulting in over 60 seconds of 4-on-4 hockey.
Once again, Team White tried to chip away at their opponents lead. Birchard and Tara Watchorn both shot on Brian. Spooner would charge to the net later in the period, playing on a line with Brianne Jenner and Jamie Lee Rattray. Passing to Rattray, her shot was denied by Brian, who continued the strong goaltending performance of Team Black.
Instead of Team White, it was Team Black that would find the back of the net once again. Adding to their commanding lead, Laura Fortino unleashed a laser-like slap shot that was saved by Lacasse. Bouncing off her blocker towards her right, the puck would hit Kim Deschenes, who placed it into the empty net.
As the minutes passed with Team Black protecting their lead, Campbell would try to score once again for Team White, who were playing for pride at this point. Unleashing a booming slap shot, it beat Brian but hit the post, echoing throughout the Air Canada Centre. Bouncing behind Brian, no one from Team White was close enough to bury the rebound as Brian got back into position. It would prove to be the last scoring chance of the game.
With the seconds ticking away, as the crowd gave both teams a standing ovation, the heroics of the game belonged to Marie-Philip Poulin. As Kessler was credited with the win, with Jillian Saulnier logging the game-winning tally, it was Poulin’s two goal performance that impressed, resulting in having Game MVP honors bestowed upon her.