Angelica Rodriguez

CWHL All-Star Game a Sign of Greater Things to Come

Photo credit: Michelle Jay/michellejay.com

The top players in Canada's premier women's hockey league showcased their talent Saturday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre as part of the CWHL’s All-Star Weekend.

Fans voted in record numbers for the All-Star Captains this season, with 33,000 ballots deciding on Montréal’s Julie Chu and Toronto’s Natalie Spooner. Chu and Spooner drafted five players apiece of their own choosing, then drew sticks to decide the rest of the roster in the CWHL’s Frozen Fantasy Draft on Friday.

Ultimately, Chu’s Team Black proved to be the luckier draw, routing Spooner’s Team White 5-1 Saturday. The line of Caroline Ouellette, Marie-Philip Poulin, and Jillian Saulnier combined for five points, including two goals from Poulin (who earned the first star of the game).

The first period started with Team White getting the better of the offensive chances early. Spooner had a number of opportunities that were either pushed wide or stopped by Furies teammate Christina Kessler. Katia Clement-Heydra was also awarded a penalty shot early on that was handled easily.

Boosted by their goalie’s stellar performance, Team Black found a break. Ouellette gave Poulin a perfect centering pass from the right corner to make it 1-0 at 8:45 of the first. Just under eight minutes later, Calgary’s Jillian Saulnier made a move in off the faceoff and put it past Montreal netminder Charline Labonté.

Kessler finished with a perfect game, turning aside all shots she faced before being replaced by Calgary’s Delayne Brian midway through the second period. Meanwhile, Labonté made a number of good stops but allowed one more as the Poulin line crashed the net again, earning No. 29 her second of the game.

Shortly after the goalie change, Jessica Campbell broke through for Team White, going five-hole on Brian to make it 3-1. But it wouldn’t stay that way -- with just 20 seconds left, Campbell’s Inferno teammate Hayley Wickenheiser put one past Lacasse for a 4-1 Team Black lead.

Kim Deschênes scored one more goal for Chu’s team, and while Team White pushed hard (and team captain Spooner had a couple of crucial breakaways), they couldn’t close the gap, giving Team Black both the win and bragging rights.

Poulin was humble in the post-game scrum, crediting her teammates with “making [her] look good” and her captain with galvanizing her team to win.

“We’ve played together before, I play with Caro [Ouellette] often, but with Jill [Saulnier], she’s such a great player,” Poulin said. “And I mean, when you have a captain like Julie Chu, I think it’s pretty easy to get going, get on the early lead, so I think this is quite fun.”

Fun was certainly on everyone’s minds, as players joked during TV timeouts and posed on-ice for selfies with fans against the glass. Despite the game not going her way, Team White captain Spooner was all smiles as she talked about her experience on the ice.

“It was a great atmosphere out there,” Spooner said. “I think the kids were having fun, dancing around, so it was fun for us to see that.”

Multiple players described the atmosphere as relaxed and happy, but there was still an edge of professionalism and a desire to show how the CWHL’s best are capable of performing.

“I think everybody’s genuinely happy to be here and understands that this is important to grow the female game, and that the people who come paid to come, and so they’re obviously fans of the game too, which is great,” Wickenheiser said.

The game was also broadcast at 3 PM EST on tape-delay via Sportsnet for Canadian viewers, while American and international markets received a free stream via CWHL Live, the league’s streaming service.

“It’s on TV [for the All-Star Game], and it’s not on TV for our regular-season games,” Delayne Brian said of the need to put on a good show for fans and viewers. “We want to show fans that we can play hockey, and we can still have fun doing it.”

There was a powerful moment depicting the importance of representation for women in higher levels of hockey and sports management, as all five general managers for the CWHL gathered for the ceremonial puck drop prior to the start of the game.

The sight of these five executives, all women, was enough to make CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress “a little emotional” at the beginning of the game, and she highlighted how it serves the league’s purpose.

“Our mission and vision is very much about creating leadership opportunities for women,” she said, adding that the idea actually came from one of her staff members during discussions of who should drop the puck.

“These women run these teams, just like the GMs in all the male sports -- this is what our women do. And what better role model to show 6,000 fans and Sportsnet tonight than the CWHL continuing to do what it started out to do?”

The growth of the All-Star Game from last year to this year was also an indicator of the league going in the right direction, according to the commissioner. Unlike last season’s showcase, this year fans paid $10 to see the league’s top players, and while one private box at the ACC was used last year (for the league’s board), 22 boxes were filled with fans this year. Andress called those numbers “a huge statement” as to the growth and impact of the CWHL.

In the end, it was clear that everyone involved considered this a win for the league and a precursor of things to come. With the apparently unintentional announcement of the Clarkson Cup being held at the Ottawa Senators' Canadian Tire Centre in March, Andress was a little quiet on exactly what that means for the league long-term (“I never try to guess the future”), but mentioned that it was yet another move in a positive direction.

“We’ve been working with all NHL teams, and Ottawa’s a perfect place to take the next step with,” she said. “They have a huge fanbase in Ottawa, they have four or five different women’s organizations that play hockey. It’s the perfect time to move.

“It’s awesome that we have another NHL team partnering with us. It’s all good stuff, and we’re looking forward to bringing our game -- because, you know, our slogan is, ‘We are the game’ -- bringing our game to Ottawa and giving the fans an opportunity to see us play.”

There will be more information on the Clarkson Cup within the coming weeks. Right now, though, the players will be savoring the success of this year’s All-Star Game before getting back to business as usual.

“It was a great experience, a great time,” Julie Chu said. “I think we appreciate the support and the growth of the game that we’ve had, from the NHL... to all the fanbase, so we can continue getting bigger and bigger and making not only this event but our league continue to grow and be amazing.”

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