In the aftermath of the CWHL’s 10th Anniversary season, the key theme for the 2017-18 season is one defined by change. Welcoming a pair of expansion teams from China, the Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays, there is great potential for the leagues balance of power to experience a seismic shift.
Contributing to the theme of change also involves the relocation of one of the CWHL’s charter teams. The Brampton Thunder, who captured the leagues inaugural championship, relocated to the York Region municipality of Markham, Ontario, located north of Toronto.
Abandoning its traditional red and black color scheme in favor of a green motif, it marks a radical departure for the Thunder, truly signifying the beginning of a new era. One tradition that remained intact was the following of long time volunteer and team announcer Don Simmons from Brampton to Markham, part of a devoted group of individuals giving their time for the club making the trek eastwards. A long-time fixture on the team for over a decade, his enthusiasm and dedication for the game and the Thunder embody the club’s proud culture and spirit of family.
Hosting the Kunlun Red Star during its opening weekend, it resulted in history colliding for both franchises. Considering that the Red Star were playing in their first-ever game, simultaneously, their North American debut, it is a roster that features world-class talents such as Shiann Darkangelo, Noora Raty, Kelli Stack, plus Jessica Wong, who was the first overall pick of the 2013 CWHL Draft, selected by the Calgary Inferno.
As a side note, the Thunder’s first-ever game as representatives of Markham actually took place a week earlier. Renewing rivalries with the Furies, it was a new interpretation of the Battle of Toronto, with no shortage of drama as the Thunder prevailed in a hotly contested 1-0 final. York University alum Kristen Barbara scored the first goal in Markham colors, slipping the puck past former Brampton backstop Sonia van der Bliek at the 11:48 mark of the second stanza, which was simultaneously the first game-winner. Former Frozen Four champion Erica Howe would log the historic shutout, as the Thunder’s new chapter in Markham began on a victorious note.
Undoubtedly, the Thunder’s debut on home ice in Markham a few days later was a highly anticipated event. Building on the momentum of an amazing team effort against the Furies, the chance to host the Red Star would prove to be an early test for both teams, one which would determine whether this collection of talent for Red Star was truly worthy of their preseason status as a Clarkson Cup contender.
With the pomp and circumstance surrounding the opening ceremonies at the Thornhill Community Centre, which included OWHA President, and IIHF Hockey Hall of Fame member, Fran Rider, plus Team Canada 1972 legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Esposito, a member of the Red Stars Board of Directors, it added a touch of class to a capacity crowd that was on-hand to witness history.
Anticipation was high as to which player would score the first goal in the history of the Red Star, along with the first goal of the Thunder’s new era on home ice in Markham. Of note, Dania Simmonds, who was raised in the York Region community of Aurora was bestowed the honor of serving as one of the team’s alternate captains, etching her name in team lore.
The feeling of homecoming was accentuated by the fact that goaltender Liz Knox was given the start for the Thunder. A former member of Canada’s national women’s ice hockey team, and a Brodrick Trophy winner while competing with the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, she grew up in the neighboring community of Stouffville. The opportunity to start between the pipes for the first professional regular season women’s hockey game in Markham accentuated her legacy.
Emotions ran high as a penalty was called before the opening faceoff as Wong and Markham’s Devon Skeats, who captured an Isobel Cup in 2017 with Buffalo, were both called for roughing. Unfortunately for Skeats, she would be called for a tripping penalty just 36 seconds after exiting the penalty box, providing the Red Star with the game’s first power play.
At the 16:45 mark of the first period, it would be Knox that would become intertwined with Red Star history, as she allowed their first-ever goal. Kelli Stack would add to her stellar CWHL legacy, as fellow Americans Zoe Hickel and Shiann Darkangelo logged the assists.
Worth noting, there was another unique American connection to the Red Star. Madison (Maddie) Woo, who played her NCAA hockey at the Ivy League level with the Brown Bears (serving as their leading scorer in 2016-17) holds a unique connection in the team’s unfolding history. Of note, Red Star head coach Digit Murphy, a two-time Clarkson Cup champion and the winning coach of the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game, spent over two decades as the bench boss at Brown.
After the goal, Woo would be called for a pair of penalties within a time span of less than three minutes. Called for roughing after the whistle at 6:42, she would return to the penalty box at 9:18 for a hooking penalty. Tensions continued as the period progressed, as three players were called for a roughing penalty. With Naixin Zhou gaining the penalty for the Red Star, a pair of Thunder players would also be sent to the penalty box as second year player Jessica Hartwick was joined by the Laura McIntosh, returning to the Thunder after a season spent coaching with the Laurier Golden Hawks.
With a second period involving just one penalty (a cross checking call to Kristen Richards), the tone of the game was emerging as a defensive stalemate, as Raty and Knox were putting on a brilliant display of goaltending. Before the period would expire, Raty would allow the first goal of her CWHL career, as All-Star Jamie Lee Rattray scored Markham’s first-ever home ice goal, unassisted, to a roar of approval from the crowd.
Rattray would score again in the third period, with Barbara registering the assist for her first career point on home ice. In spite of Ratray’s heroics, the outcome of the game was far from determined, as more than 15 minutes of tense, scoreless play proceeded. Physical play ensued between Rattray and Kelli Stack at the 16:11 mark, with Stack called for slashing, while Rattray was sent to the penalty box for the Thunders second call of roughing after the whistle.
With Simmonds still in the box for a slashing call, it provided the Red Star with a power play opportunity. Once again, Knox rose to the occasion, nullifying the Red Stars frustrated offense.
Playing with a remarkable sense of determination, eager to not disappoint the friends and family on-hand to see her play, Knox, the local hero, assembled a peerless performance that was the game of her life. Such heroics were affirmed when she denied Rachel Llanes, who has won both the Clarkson and Isobel Cups in her career, on a penalty shot with only 22 seconds remaining in the game.
Fittingly, Knox would be recognized as the First Star of the Game, preserving the 2-1 lead for the first home victory in Markham history, handing the Red Star a loss in its debut, while the fans in attendance honored her with a tremendous display of applause. Scoring sensation Rattray was recognized as the Game’s Second Star, recording the first game-winning goal in Markham history, while Llanes became the first Red Star player to gain such post-game honors, earning Third Star.
The following day, the clubs would renew rivalries for the bookend in this two-game series. With All-Star Erica Howe gaining the start, the opening ceremony brought with it strong emotion. Joining Howe at center ice for the ceremonial faceoff was fellow goaltender Noora Raty, a rare occurrence which accounted for the feel-good moment of the game.
Howe’s mother, Jane Bruce, a Major in Canada’s Armed Forces was joined by Brain Tumor Foundation Ambassador Chuck Mott. Of note, Howe lost her father to brain cancer as a teenager, dedicating herself to numerous fundraisers for the cause.
Akin to Knox the game before, Howe played with a strengthened sense of purpose. An eventful first period would help her secure the win for the Thunder.
Merely 30 seconds into the game, second year player Taylor Woods scored on Noora Raty, with Devon Skeats gaining her first assist in Thunder colors. Adding to the Thunder’s lead would be Rattray, scoring unassisted less than three minutes later. Although a total of six penalties would be called in the first, including three for the host Thunder, Howe was brilliant, continuing to frustrate a Red Star offense.
The quick scoring trend continued in the second stanza with Rattray continuing to hold the hot hand. Just 36 seconds after the first puck drop of said stanza, Rattray scored her fourth goal of the series, while Simmonds earned the assist, gaining her first point in Markham green.
Facing a three-goal deficit, the Red Stars woes were compounded by the fact that they were handed three penalties, disabling any offensive potential. With Stack, a two-time Winter Games medalist and the Boston Blades single season record holder for most points, called for roughing and cross checking penalties, her return to the CWHL was highly frustrating.
A combination of fatigue and frustration reached white-hot levels in the latter half of the third period. With Howe continuing to keep the Red Star off the score sheet, roughing and slashing penalties defined the last four minutes of the game.
The 16:34 mark saw a pair of distinguished competitors adding to the on-ice friction. Darkangelo, a former member of the US national team was called for slashing, while Urban, making her CWHL comeback after stints with the Inferno and Furies, was sent to the box for roughing.
Bemidji State alum Stephanie Anderson would get called for roughing at 19:03, while Boston University grad and Thunder free agent acquisition Alexis Woloschuk endured a slashing penalty. With the seconds ticking away, the Red Star unable to mount any comeback, the hometown crowd cheered vigorously, euphoric over an early season sweep that saw Howe add to the feeling of history with the first shutout on home ice in Markham history and her second for the season.
For the second consecutive game, a goaltender would gain First Star of the Game honors, as Howe recorded an amazing 45 saves in a sparkling performance. Rattray repeated as the Second Star of the Game, while Lindsay Grigg, whose hockey resume includes professional play in Europe and the United States, contributed towards the Thunder sweeping the Three Star honors.