Although the Brampton Thunder didn't make the Clarkson Cup final, Friday's CWHL Awards Gala offered the team a chance to look back their accomplishments this season. In the span of a year, the Thunder went from bottom-feeders to a team with a real shot of winning the Cup, something that even the players didn't expect.
"To be honest, we didn't expect the season that we did this year, not at all. I mean, coming off a season last year we were just like, let's just improve, let's start winning some games. That was our motto: let's win some games," said defender Laura Fortino. "But, to come in and have the impact that we did was, it was amazing. What an incredible year. Now that I look back on it, wow, we beat some amazing teams out there."
Fortino herself played a large role in Brampton's success and she beat out Canadiennes Laurianne Rougeau and Julie Chu for Defenceman of the Year honours last night.
"[This year] has been amazing," said Fortino. "The new girls that we got on the team, the additions we added, playing alongside Courtney Birchard, we had a great season together. I think we did so well as a team and that obviously what helped in my sucess also."
Head Coach Tyler Fines joined Fortino in the winner's circle after being named coach of the year. This was Fines' first year coaching women's hockey and he says that the change has made him a better coach.
"The women, they taught me how to be a better coach, they taught be how to be a better man. They hold you accountable. When you coach men's hockey, you can basically tell them whatever you want to do and they'll do it. When you women, there's always a why. That was one of the main reasons we had major success is that the players made my coaching staff better."
Centre Rebecca Vint and goaltender Erica Howe were also present, nominated for Rookie of the Year and Goaltender of the Year, respectively.
Vint strong play in the second half of the season earned her the nomination--she finished off the season on an 11 game point streak and was named the player of the month in February.
"No, I wasn't expecting this amount of success," said Vint about her first year in the CWHL. "Our league in university, it was very competitive but I think coming into the CWHL, it's definitely the most competitive I've obviously ever played in, being professional hockey."
Howe had a great season, finishing third in SV% behind Charline Labonte (who took home the Goaltender of the Year trophy) and teammate Liz Knox. Her .915 SV% was .019 point improvement on her rookie season. Howe credits a new team attitude for her improvement.
"I think Fortino said it best on stage, it was a team shift. We had the new coaches come in, new systems come in, and a new overall team attitude. If you wanna be here stay, if you don't, go, and we really thrived off that as a team working together to build to what our goals were at the beginning of the year. I think that ultimately helped my success. The team, everyone was on the same page which, as a goalie, that really helps you."
Les Canadiennes de Montreal went home with the bulk of the other awards. Assistant coach and league co-founder Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux won the Humanitarian of the Year award.
"It's really an honour for me, I feel privileged to win that award and I'm very proud of what the CWHL became because at first it was really really hard. [The league] took a little while [to grow but] lately it's been growing really fast," said Breton-Lebreux. "I'd like to see the players getting paid. So far, we have a strong base and we're proud of it. We have sponsors who believe in us, there's that little step that we need to take forward."
Charline Labonte was named goaltender of the year while teammate Marie-Philip Poulin won the Angela James Bowl, the Jayna Hefford Award (MVP as voted by the players), and the league MVP award.
"Last year I feel like I did a little bit more, this year I felt I was in the background a little bit, because people were playing so well in front of me," said Labonte about her play this year. "It was harder because I wasn't getting many shots. It was a team effort and I can't take credit for that."
Poulin echoed those same sentiments when talking about her individual achievements. "I'm so shy every time it happens. It's such a team sport. When I get individual rewards I get shy. Nothing happens by yourself. I'm so lucky to have such a great team, such a great environment around me that makes me better."
Finally, forward Elana Lovell won the Rookie of the Year award for her strong play in Calgary.
"This whole year's been such an experience and a bit of a shock to me. I think I underestimated myself quite a bit so to finish the way I did and get this award, it's a very big honour and it's something that I won't forget. I'm really humbled by the experience."
Lovell and the rest of the Inferno will play Les Canadiennes tomorrow in the Clarkson Cup final. The 4pm game will air on Sportsnet.