The Calgary Inferno and Montreal Canadiennes met at the Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata for the Clarkson Cup on Sunday, the first Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) playoff game in an NHL arena.It was a symbol of progress for a league that boasts the best women’s hockey players on the planet, and it didn’t take long to find an exciting high-tempo pace, and stay there.
"This is a good product, people talk about it being the best-kept secret but it really is," said Hannah Bevis, a CWHL writer, blogger, and die-hard fan.
But it’s quickly becoming no secret.
The CWHL has built a special bond with many of its fans. Birch Davis and eight-year-old Wren Davis flew from Peoria, Illinois, to catch the game. Originally from Minnesota, Birch has struggled to find good competitive hockey to watch. The closest team is the Southern Professional Hockey League’s (SPHL) Peoria Rivermen. It was at Rivermen games that Wren was able to watch Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados play professionally.
"We took her with the girl scouts, and they had the little kids play in the intermission and she was like ‘I could play! I want to play," Birch said, sitting front row between the benches.
Naturally, the two tried to find women’s hockey to watch. "In Peoria, hockey’s really hard to find," Birch said. "The SPHL is kind of 'murder-puck,' so we found the CWHL and watched them."
Wren fell in love with Natalie Spooner and the Toronto Furies. After watching the Clarkson Cup last year, Birch promised Wren they could go next year.
"There was a lot of big eyes and pressure on that," Birch said of Wren, who played hockey for the first time this year. "And our team won the championship," Wren injected with a squeal and a smile.
To find competitive organized hockey, Birch and Wren would have to travel three hours. "It’s disappointing," Birch said. They flew more than six hours to catch the game.
"It was a long day," Birch recalled, but it proved worth it and they were on their feet less than three minutes in after Rebbecca Johnston opened the scoring on a pass to the slot and gave the Inferno an early 1-0 lead. Minutes later, after a penalty to Brianne Jenner, the Canadiennes responded. CWHL MVP Marie-Philip Poulin finished off a second-chance opportunity to tie the game.
After some early Inferno pressure, the Canadiennes began to take over. After Hayley Wickenheiser was upended, Erica Kromm took a body-checking penalty on Caroline Ouellette moments later.
Unable to score on the ensuing 5-on-4, Les Canadiennes took a penalty of their own, opening it up for the Inferno’s first powerplay of the game.
On it, the scoring kept coming. This time, Jenner pounced on a chance in front to beat Charline Labonte, the CWHL’s top goalie, and open up a 2-1 lead before the first period was through.
Early in the second, the game didn't slow down. Minutes in, after a Sarah Davis shot left a rebound in front of Labonte, Jessica Campbell slid to the stop of the crease to finish the play and extend the Inferno’s lead to 3-1.
Quickly, the Inferno took control of the game. Midway through the period, Wickenheiser sent Blayre Turnbull in for a partial breakaway and the 4-1 lead.
After it looked like Les Canadiennes had cut into the lead, a Lauriane Rougeau goal was called back for goaltender interference. But Les Canadiennes continued to press, and Noemie Marin scored high and far side.
Having cut the lead to 4-2, the goals continued to come. Before the goal could be announced, Hayley Wickenheiser feathered a saucer pass for a Turnbull one-time for her second goal of the game and a decisive 5-2 lead.
Les Canadiennes, the favourites coming in after winning 20 of 24 regular season games, out-shot the Inferno through two periods 28-19 despite the three-goal deficit.
In a single-elimination game, it's the closure that makes the difference. And the Inferno continued to finish in the third, as Campbell picked up her second goal of the game to extend the lead to 6-2 and quiet the pro-Canadiennes crowd.
After surrendering 2-on-1 breaks on back-to-back shifts, Johnston held and shot far side off the left wing to make it 7-2.
Despite a late goal from Les Canadiennes’ Kim Deschenes, Delayne Brian and her 38 saves helped maintain the lead and allow Jenner to pick up a last-minute empty net goal and the 8-3 Clarkson Cup victory and the game’s first star.
Even when it was all said and done, the game was about the impressive growth of the game and the fans, like Wren and Birch that make it special.
"It just shows how much the game has grown and how much support women’s hockey has got over the years," Turnbull said of the more than 4,000 fans that showed up to watch the Clarkson Cup in a city where there isn't yet a franchise. "I wasn’t expecting such a big crowd so it adds a bit more excitement to the game."
But there’s still work to be done.
"We need more television," Wickenheiser said. "It’s good to see all of you here but more than just one game and I think we need the NHL to step up and be a little more invested in this game and this league."
"We know that this is a girls hockey hotbed," she added.
Despite the loss, the support from the Montreal faithful meant a lot to the league’s leading scorer.
"They mean the world, we are so lucky to have such a great fan base in Montreal," Poulin said. "To see them come from two hours away coming to support us, it is quite awesome to see."
Poulin sees real growth in the women’s game, and it starts with youth like Wren.
"The growth of women’s hockey is really going, to see the little girls, to see the parents with their kids, I think it’s quite awesome to see," she said with a smile.