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CWHL Sportsnet Weekend: Preview and primer

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Here’s a handy beginners guide to the CWHL and the teams you’ll see this weekend.

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Sarah Nurse (16) of the Toronto Furies faces off against Marie-Philip Poulin (29) of les Canadiennes de Montréal.
Sarah Nurse (16) of the Toronto Furies faces off against Marie-Philip Poulin (29) of les Canadiennes de Montréal. They’ll meet again in action this weekend.
Chris Tanouye / CWHL

The CWHL has two games airing on Sportsnet this weekend (also available via Sportsnet NOW, if you subscribe online). Since these two games will be more widely accessible to the average Canadian hockey fan than most regular season games, we thought we’d use the opportunity to do a bit of a CWHL primer focusing on the four teams you’ll see this weekend.

How to watch the CWHL on Sportsnet

Game 1: Toronto Furies vs Les Canadiennes de Montréal
When: Saturday, January 5, 2019 12:30 pm EST
Where: Complexe sportif Bell, Brossard QC
Broadcast: Sportsnet, Sportsnet One, Sportsnet NOW

Game 2: Markham Thunder vs Calgary Inferno
When: Sunday, January 6, 2019 1:30 pm EST
Where: Centennial Community Centre, Markham ON
Broadcast: Sportsnet, Sportsnet One, Sportsnet NOW

CWHL Basics

  • The Canadian Women’s Hockey League is in its twelfth season of operation and is considered to be the highest level of women’s hockey available, with players from all over the world. Comparable leagues include the US-based NWHL and the Swedish SDHL.
  • There are currently six teams: Toronto Furies, Markham Thunder, Calgary Inferno, Les Canadiennes de Montréal, Worcester Blades and Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays. (Yes, in China.)
  • Each team plays 28 regular season games. While all six teams do have a home rink, it’s not unusual for some games to be played further afield in an effort to grow interest in the women’s game and in the league. Once in a while an NHL arena will host a game, although none are doing so this year.
  • The current playoff format sees the top four teams reach the playoffs. The semi-finals are a best of three format. The league championship, called the Clarkson Cup Final is currently a winner-takes-all one game championship.
  • Currently, players are paid between $2,000 and $10,000 per year. Each team has a $100,000 cap limit, with minimum amounts dictated for rookies, second year players, and players with over three years of experience. GMs can then assign bonuses as they wish.
  • Some equipment is provided by the league (Bauer is a partner), but a little is expected to go a long way. You won’t see CWHL players smashing their sticks. You’ll also see that some goalies don’t have masks or pads that match their team colours. Some of the national team players are high profile enough to have sponsorships, but most players have to make do with what they can afford.
  • Players can sign up to be drafted each summer. The minimum age is 20, although exceptions are occasionally made. Due to the low pay (and thus the need for outside jobs), players are allowed to indicate a preference for the geographical area they want to play in.
  • The current league commissioner is Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, who previously played in the league.

Rules

  • There’s no handy primer for CWHL rules, but the Alberta Central Zone Referees Committee does provide this PDF of what’s different between CWHL and IIHF rules, last updated in 2015-16. Note that most of the on-ice officials are women.
  • As everyone probably knows by now, there is no body checking allowed. Body contact is allowed, sometimes more than you’d see at the Olympics. The line gets a little fuzzy, and you’ll definitely hear some crashes along the boards that don’t come with a whistle.
  • There’s no trapezoid rule for goalies, they can and will play the puck wherever they want. Unlike the Olympics, there’s also no crease rule—players get right into the blue paint to battle with the goalie for the puck.
  • All players must wear full face visors or cages. This one just makes sense—most of these women have jobs to go to and while bruises to the body can be covered up, do you want your real estate agent, or accountant, or physiotherapist to have a shiner and be missing some teeth? Plus it avoids them having to navigate any discussion of domestic abuse.
  • Overtime for regular season games is five minutes of four on four hockey, followed by a shootout.

Toronto Furies vs Les Canadiennes de Montréal

This is Toronto’s third time going up against Montréal this year. With 13 games left in the season, the Furies are just one point back of a playoff spot, with a game in hand on the fourth place Shenzhen Rays. Unfortunately, second-place Montréal is the only team in the league Toronto hasn’t been able to beat at least once this season. The last time the Furies managed a win over the Canadiennes was January 21, 2018, with Montréal’s backup goalie in net. Toronto has beaten Canadiennes starter Emerance Maschmeyer before, but the last time was in the 2017 playoffs, when Maschmeyer was in her rookie season playing for Calgary. That’s not to say the Furies can’t do it, but they’re the underdogs going into this weekend.

Les Canadiennes de Montréal

Montréal is a stacked team with six Olympians on their roster. Two are currently out with injuries, but the players you’ll see this weekend will include forwards Marie-Philip Poulin, Hilary Knight, and Jill Saulnier, with veteran Lauriane Rougeau on defence.

Emerance Maschmeyer has been the league’s top goalie for most of the season, leading qualified goalies (minimum 300 minutes played) in wins, goals against average and time on ice, tied in number of shutouts (three in 13 games) and just .01% back of Calgary’s Annie Bélanger in save percentage. Bélanger has played 6 games to Maschmeyer’s 13, so we might give that one to Masch as well.

The league’s top scorer is a name well-known to CWHL fans but overshadowed by her peers among more casual hockey fans. Ann-Sophie Bettez comes into this game with 14 goals and 12 assists over 15 games. Now in her seventh season with the league, Bettez won Rookie of the Year in 2013, both the Angela James Bowl (the league’s scoring trophy) and league MVP in 2014, and is a three-time All-Star. She has never played with the senior women’s national team and no one can figure out why.

Defender Erin Ambrose was cut from Team Canada prior to the 2018 Olympics and requested a trade from Toronto to Montréal. This resulted in the Furies receiving a number of draft picks from Montréal, including two in the 2018 draft that allowed Toronto to pre-sign Shea Tiley as their second pick in the first round, and draft defender Julia Fedeski in the third round. (It also allowed former teammate Renata Fast to change her number to 14 this season.) That didn’t quite soothe the broken hearts of Furies fans as we have to watch her lead all defenders in scoring while on the wrong team.

The Canadiennes’ long-time head coach Dany Brunet stepped down suddenly mid-season citing personal issues. The team is now coached by CWHL and Team Canada star Caroline Ouellette, with Olympic gold-medal winning coach and Québec coaching legend Danièle Sauvageau acting as mentor coach. This will be their first game on Canadian soil as officially appointed coaches—Montréal ended 2018 with their Shenzhen roadtrip where Sauvageau coached the team on her own, Ouellette having stayed in Canada due to pre-existing obligations.

For more on the Canadiennes, check out our colleagues over at Habs Eyes on the Prize.

Toronto Furies

Toronto, of course, has a few Olympians of their own. Three are from Team Canada: power forward Natalie Spooner, the Furies all-time leading scorer, known for her 200 ft rushes; rookie Sarah Nurse, who has possibly the softest hands in the league and leads rookie scoring with 18 points in 15 games; and puck-moving defender Renata Fast who, let’s face it, thinks she’s a forward. Nurse and Spooner are usually on a line together and they make a wicked combination. You’ll also see Team Japan defender Sena Suzuki wearing number 6 out on the Toronto blueline. Suzuki hasn’t scored yet this season but she’s a heads-up defender who makes smart plays and is working on a bit of a slapshot.

The big story in Toronto this season has been the rookies, and not just because Sarah Nurse is a Fury. We’ve got two-time NCAA champion Shea Tiley trying to make her mark as a starter this season, and she’s likely to get the net for this game. Brittany Howard and Mellissa Channell are third and fourth in team scoring, and Channell actually leads all Furies defenders with six points in 15 games.

Scoring is still an issue for Toronto — last season’s leading scorer, Carolyne Prévost, has just one point in 11 games, and only Spooner and Nurse have totals in the double digits.

Another issue has been injuries or other absences. Defender Carlee Campbell will make her season debut this weekend, returning from maternity leave. Prévost also returns after an extended absence competing in the Dubai Crossfit Championship. However Anissa Gamble, Emily Fulton and Jordan Hampton are likely still out with various injuries, although GM Sami Jo Small indicates they will travel with the team. To round out the roster, both Sydney Kidd and Jenna Dingeldein have been called up from the 40 player roster and will be available to the team this weekend. They’ve each played two games already this season.

Markham Thunder vs Calgary Inferno

Last season’s Clarkson Cup winners, the Markham Thunder, take on the current league leaders, the Calgary Inferno, for the final time this season. The two teams are likely sick of this matchup already as they played four of their final six games of 2018 against each other. Going into the weekend, the record stands at 3-1 in favour of Calgary. Markham sits seven points back of Calgary in third place, which is a spot higher than where they were when they ended last season, which is to say, don’t count them out of anything.

Calgary Inferno

Calgary is another juggernaut of a team. They won the 2016 Clarkson Cup, lost the 2017 final to Montréal and lost the 2018 semi-finals to Kunlun Red Star in a triple-overtime goalie battle that made a star of their twitter feed (@InfernoCWHL, check them out). Calgary attracts a lot of top names because Hockey Canada’s centre of operations is in Calgary, so it’s a good way to stay on their radar, and have access to their training facilities outside of camp. They started the year with former Olympic and University of Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller as head coach and she added to their recruiting power, bringing several American players onto the roster.

That’s a long way of saying, there are nine Olympians from four different national teams on the Inferno and they’re scary. From Team Canada they’ve got Rebecca Johnston, Brianne Jenner and Blayre Turnbull up front with Brigette Lacquette on defence. From Team USA you’ll see forward Brianna Decker, defender Kacey Bellamy, and starting goalie Alex Rigsby. Aina Mizukami returns from Team Japan, and rookie Venla Hovi is a forward from Team Finland.

Meanwhile Zoe Hickel is an on-the-bubble player with Team USA who didn’t make the Olympic lineup last year and spent it in China with Kunlun Red Star (now the Shenzen Rays). Her sister Tori joins her on the Inferno this season. Halli Krzyzaniak was centralized with Team Canada last season but was ultimately cut. Her omission from the Olympic blueline raised some eyebrows; she’s one of Canada’s most talented young defenders. Along with the Hickels, Calgary has another pair of sisters in Kelly and Eden Murray. Kelly is the veteran (her second year) on defence while Eden is the rookie at forward.

Shannon Miller left the team not long before the end of the year. Whatever the story is there, it hasn’t affected the Inferno on the ice. They remain in first place with assistant coaches Ryan Hilderman, Mandi Duhamel and Becky McGee running the show.

Matchsticks and Gasoline does a weekly recap of Inferno news during the season.

Markham Thunder

The reigning Clarkson Cup champions may not be in first place right now, but they spent most of last season battling for the final playoff berth, so they’re actually doing better than they were last season. Markham has long been known for their defence and their physical play, but this season we’re also seeing an improvement in secondary scoring. With the most reliable goalie tandem in the league in net, they’re always a threat.

Markham’s the only team whose 2018 Olympians are all Canadian. Captain Jocelyne Larocque and Laura Fortino have both earned multiple Olympic medals as defenders for Team Canada, while Laura Stacey made her Olympic debut in Pyeongchang as a forward. Stacey then went on to score the Clarkson Cup-winning goal in overtime for the Thunder—she had an eventful year!

Megan Bozek’s exclusion from the 2018 US Olympic team was somewhat of a shock. She’s an excellent defender with a hell of a shot and Markham was more than glad to have her when she decided to rejoin the CWHL. Markham’s first round pick Victoria Bach made her senior level debut with Team Canada at 4 Nations Cup this fall and she’s currently leading the team in scoring with 11 goals and 6 assists in 17 games—a point per game pace. Jamie Lee Rattray, who won the Jayna Hefford Trophy as player-voted MVP last season, isn’t carrying her team on her back this season and is probably pretty relieved about it. Where last season she was a good 16 points ahead of the rest of her teammates, and 21 points ahead of the third best scorer, this season she’s got plenty of help while still scoring 10 points in 17 games. Jess Jones returned to the Thunder after a season in the NWHL and while she’s not back to her Angela James Bowl-winning pace of the 2016-17 season she’s tied with Rattray in scoring despite having played two fewer games.

The names Erica Howe and Liz Knox might not draw the same amount of attention as Emerance Maschmeyer or Alex Rigsby, but Howe and Knox have been a solid tandem for the Thunder for several years now. Although Howe is generally considered the Thunder’s starter and has played twice as many games as Knox this season, the usual pattern is Howe in net on Saturdays while Knox takes a lot of the Sundays. Howe currently has six wins, including two shutouts, which is good enough for third in the league. That’s pretty good when she leads the league in shots faced with 379.

The Thunder also have a couple of rookies who have made their mark as much away from the team as on it. Daniella Matteucci has put up five points on the blueline this season, but she might be better known as a member of the Canadian women’s national baseball team. Ailish Forfar is still finding her scoring touch at forward, but 2018 was a bit of a year for her. A student with Ryerson University’s Sports Media program, she transitioned from captain of the Ryerson Rams in the 2017-18 season to assistant coach for 2018-19. In February, she covered the 2018 Paralympic games as a video blogger. She was named to the U Sports all-star team that took part in the 2018 National Women’s Development Team camp and was pre-signed as a second round pick by the Markham Thunder. More recently, she was hired to the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey ops staff for video work.

CWHL Standings on January 4, 2019

Team GP W L OTL SOL PTS ROW GF GA DIFF PCT PIM
Team GP W L OTL SOL PTS ROW GF GA DIFF PCT PIM
CALGARY INFERNO 16 13 2 0 1 27 13 67 27 40 0.844 100
LES CANADIENNES MONTREAL 15 12 3 0 0 24 12 69 19 50 0.8 128
MARKHAM THUNDER 17 9 6 2 0 20 8 50 47 3 0.588 160
SHENZHEN KRS VANKE RAYS 16 7 8 1 0 15 7 44 40 4 0.469 102
TORONTO FURIES 15 7 8 0 0 14 7 33 46 -13 0.467 158
WORCESTER BLADES 17 0 17 0 0 0 0 10 94 -84 0 130

What’s next?

After you’ve watched the full Sportsnet weekend and picked a team to cheer for (blue and white are lovely colours, we’re just saying), what’s next?

If you’re local to a CWHL team, checking out a game in person is always recommended. You can pick up tickets for the North American games through the CWHL website. If you happen to be in Shenzhen, we’re told that tickets for the games in China are available here (s/t to Wiseguy_1).

If you can’t get to a game for whatever reason, you can watch games online. Sadly it’s not quite the shiny HD production values of the Sportsnet broadcast, but there are multiple ways to watch. The league streams about one game a week over at their website. On top of that, four of the league’s teams stream their home games and some of their away games: check out Toronto Furies , Markham Thunder, Worcester Blades and Shenzhen Rays. Markham will most likely be streaming their game this Saturday evening, although I’m told it might be without commentary. Despite being in Montréal this weekend, Toronto is hoping to be able to stream their Sunday game.

As well, the CWHL All-Star game is not far away. The game takes place at 1:30 pm on Sunday January 20th at the Scotiabank Arena. Tickets are $19 plus fees and you’ll get to see some extremely fun hockey. (If you want to come with other PPPers, Species is checking interest over on this fanpost.) Alternatively, it too will be broadcast on Sportsnet.

As usual PPP will have recaps of all the Furies and Thunder action this weekend.