The Brampton Thunder are now the Markham Thunder. On Tuesday, the CWHL announced a new partnership with the city of Markham that will move the team just north of Toronto. They will play out of the rink at Thornhill Community Centre. Their new home rink is more transit accessible, which should help in getting fans in seats.
The move is bittersweet, though: it marks a low point in Brampton’s several-decades long history as a hub for women’s hockey.
The story of the modern Brampton Thunder begins in 1963. At the time, women’s hockey was in somewhat of a nadir: while the sport was popular in the 1920s and 30s, by 1960, the sport had little money or attention.1 WWII (among other things) limited participation, the media turned their attention elsewhere, and the sport still hadn’t recovered by the time 1963 rolled around.2 Leagues in Ontario were fractured: many only had a few teams and players would have to travel long distances to play.1
That’s the year the Brampton Canadettes were created. They got their start playing in the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League. They also founded the first youth house league in Ontario. Their big claim to fame, though, is probably when they organized the first Dominion Ladies Hockey Tournament in 1967.2 The tournament boasted 22 teams and competitors of all ages, with the oldest being 65.1 By 1986, 19 years later, the tournament had ballooned to 160 teams (including teams from Holland, West Germany, Finland, and Denmark) and was the largest women’s hockey tournament in the world.3
For many years, the tournament was organized by hockey legend Fran Rider (herself a former Canadette). Rider started playing for the team the team in its early days. She described those days in an interview with the Toronto Sun:
When I first got involved in women's hockey in the 1960s there was one team with players on it from seven to 33 years old. There wasn’t much choice.
Today, the tournament is still going strong. It’s still the largest women’s hockey tournament in the world and also the longest running. Now called Canadettes Easter Tournament, they celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.
Rider was, in some ways, one of those indirectly responsible for the creation of the current Brampton Thunder. For many years, she was the executive director of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (which, coincidentally, was formed at the Dominion tournament).1 They partnered with the Ontario government and were given a broad mandate to oversee the the sport in the province.
During her tenure as director, the OWHA organized the 1987 Women’s World Hockey Tournament—an unofficial event that was the precursor to the first Women’s World Championship in 1990.1 The success of the tournament seemed to prove to the IIHF that yearly world championships were possible.
She was a staunch advocate for having women’s hockey in the Olympics and in 1992, five years after the 1987 tournament, the IOC announced that women’s hockey would debut in Nagano.
After capturing a silver medal in Nagano, Cassie Campbell returned home to Brampton but couldn’t play in her city. The Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League (the highest level league in the area) didn’t have a team in the city. While at the Dominion Tournament (Jayna Hefford was getting her jersey retired), she ran into Brampton city councillor and acting mayor Sue Fennell.4
After that, Fennell became the owner of the newly-created Brampton Thunder, turned the COWHL into the National Women’s Hockey League, added teams, and expanded to Quebec.5 Oh, she also ended up as the president of the new NWHL.
In an interview with the Star, she had this to say about it:
“I saw teams from Los Angeles to Great Britain, and about 8,000 players in my city, and yet there was no place for someone of Cassie’s calibre to play on a Brampton team,” recalled Fennell, who was so frustrated she decided to start her own team.4
She found them a home in the newly built Brampton Centre for Sports and Entertainment (now the Powerade Centre) and gave them a $250,000 budget.4 The first NWHL trophy was handed out in Brampton in 2000, between Toronto’s Beatrice Aeroes and Laval’s Sainte-Julie Panthers (Toronto won).
The rest, as they say, is history. The Thunder played in the NWHL until its end in 2007. After that, they played in the CWHL. At least, until now. The move closes the book on nearly 20 years of women’s hockey at the highest level played in Brampton. In that time, a litany of stars have worn the jersey, including Jayna Hefford, Vicky Sunohara, and Laura Fortino.
The Canadettes and their storied history are still sticking around Brampton (they have the Jr Canadettes as well as house league teams), but the loss of the Thunder is a blow.
In the 90s, Fennell dreamed of “an increased fan-base, corporate funding, television rights, and a presence in the Hall of Fame.”4 In the years since, many of those things have come to pass.
But, once again, there won’t be a place for the highest calibre athletes to play hockey in Brampton. Given the rich hockey history the city has, I hope it’s not the last time the city gets to witness women’s hockey at the highest level.
Thanks to Kirsten and Laura for pointing me to a bunch of useful resources.
1 Elizabeth Etue & Megan K Williams, On the Edge: Women Making Hockey History (Toronto: Second Story Press, 1996).
2 Brian McFarlane, Proud Past, Bright Future: One Hundred Years of Canadian Women’s Hockey (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co, 1994).
3 Keith Bollander, “Meadowvale hockey tournament stars women only,” Toronto Star (March 25 1986).
4 Lois Kalchman, “Women dream of pro league; Fledgling NWHL searching for R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Toronto Star (March 19 2000).
5 Jim Coyle, “Brampton hockey dynamo ready for her breakaway,” Toronto Star (November 2, 2000).