MARKHAM, ONT. – As the relatively short dynasty of the Montreal Stars came to an end – a 5-2 loss to the Boston Blades in the Clarkson Cup final Saturday afternoon halted Montreal’s bid for three straight Canadian Women’s League championships – the gatekeeper of the planet’s best league for elite female players said she was pleased with the growth made in the much longer game of expanding the sport.
“The four years we’ve put into this tournament are starting to pay off,” said CWHL president Brenda Andress, pointing proudly at a crowd estimated at more than 1,000 at the Markham Centennial Community Centre as an example of the women’s game’s growth. “There are challenges, but we’re encouraged by the interest there is in helping us build. I think the future is promising.”
The Blades and Stars held up their end of the bargain, thrilling the largely pro-Montreal crowd with back-and-forth action – and much like you see in men’s professional hockey these days, special teams played a huge role in the result.
Boston built a 2-0 lead on Montreal by the 3:17 mark of the second period on a pair of power play goals from Jen Schoullis, but the Stars stormed back to tie it with two goals in the next five minutes. However, Boston’s prowess with the man advantage hurt Montreal again when big forward Kelley Steadman beat Stars goalie and Canadian Olympian Charline Labonte at 11:09 to restore the Blades’ lead heading into the final period.
From there, the sides traded chances and Montreal was given a golden opportunity to tie it with a 5-on-3 power play that lasted for two minutes thanks to three consecutive Boston penalties. But Blades goalie Genevieve Lacasse was outstanding all game long (turning aside 40 of 42 shots) and two minutes after the final Boston penalty had been killed off, Stars forward Haley Irwin incurred a four-minute penalty and Steadman scored another power play marker to put the game and the Cup out of reach for Montreal. An empty net goal at 19:04 gave Steadman a hat trick and finished off the scoring.
Boston coach Digit Murphy admitted the momentum her team got from killing off the extended 5-on-3 provided a confidence boost the team rode the rest of the way.
“When we killed the 5-on-3, like, are you kidding me?” Murphy said. “After that, we were invincible in our minds, whether we actually were or not. We stayed really tight, we were blocking shots, and that’s what this team’s all about: selfless play.”
Blades defenseman and U.S. Olympian Gigi Marvin concurred with her coach.
“Special teams were huge,” said Marvin, named one of the Clarkson Cup tournament’s all-stars after the game. “It seemed like there were people in the box 24/7 and we were just fortunate enough to bury the puck today.”
But for as happy as Blades players and staff were to win the Clarkson Cup, CWHL brass were just as pleased at the steps forward the league has taken. In addition to the crowd in attendance, Canadian sports TV giant TSN broadcast the game, and rink board advertising and corporate support grew again.
It isn’t as if CWHL players will be paid a living wage anytime soon, but step by step, they are building the infrastructure for future generations to better appreciate women’s hockey. To that end, they’re already succeeding: a large portion of the crowd was comprised of young female players and participation in the women’s game has never been better.
“We’re laying a good foundation for the years that are ahead,” Andress said. “We’re branding for the kids and the community, so all the money involved goes back into the sport.”
The Clarkson Cup title capped off a brilliant season for the Boston franchise: leading scorer and American star Hilary Knight was named league MVP and Boston had the CWHL’s best regular-season record – one win better than the Stars. Murphy believes the organization will be able to build on their success and make the women’s game more visible south of Canada’s border.
“I think it’s going to be great,” Murphy said. “I don’t really think the U.S. knows a lot about women’s hockey and when we come back and show them we were on TSN, that we won this whole league, they’re going to be intrigued by it.”
By now, nobody should expect the CWHL to get a license to print money like the NHL. But a half-decade in, the Clarkson Cup has established firm roots as a celebration not only of the best the women’s game has to offer, but just as importantly, of the wonder and pride associated with being true athletic pioneers. Because of their efforts and sacrifices, young female players can dream of being a Tessa Bonhomme or a Meghan Agosta or a Lacasse and have a Cup of their own to hoist.
“It’s just great that the young kids coming up already know who some of the veteran women are now,” Marvin said. “They want to emulate and strive for that. It’s awesome.”