CWHL: Markham Thunder Capture First Clarkson Cup
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CWHL: Markham Thunder Capture First Clarkson Cup

CWHL: Markham Thunder Capture First Clarkson Cup by Kirsten Whelan

Jamie Lee Rattray couldn't describe it, but she could feel it coming all along.

"There's no words for this," she said after her Markham Thunder defeated the Kunlun Red Star, 2-1, in overtime on Sunday to capture the Clarkson Cup. "I mean, you look at our season and how many ups and downs we had, and it's just awesome. Especially with this group of girls, we just supported each other through anything and everything this year. I had no doubt in my mind today, waking up, that this was going to happen. I just felt it in the air. What a fun game. What a fun game."

Overtime hero Laura Stacey said she didn't know what she felt as she watched her shot beat Kunlun netminder Noora Räty at 2:49 of the 4-on-4 overtime period. She hadn't processed it yet. Rattray's just glad her teammate's still around to tell the story.

"I remember seeing Stace -- she was like, on the ground on the boards -- and I'm just trying to make sure that no one squishes her, because I still wanted her to be alive after that goal!"

It was a fitting end for the team that played more overtime than any other in the league, and that had sometimes struggled to finish off tight games. The Thunder had posted a disappointing 2-7 record in the extra session before overcoming Montreal in game one of the semifinals, and they seemed to carry forward the momentum from that win.

Both sides looked hesitant in the opening minutes of play, but Markham appeared to settle in after the first TV timeout. Nicole Brown promptly beat Räty off a feed from Laura Fortino from behind the net, just before the midway mark of the period.

Stacey thought she'd doubled the advantage after stealing the puck for a dangerous chance early in the second, but her shot crossed through the crease without ever crossing the line. It turns out that celebrating a no-goal won't convince the officials to count it.

"That was a little bit embarrassing when I thought it crossed the line but it hadn't, and we were celebrating in the corner," she laughed. "But that's the game of hockey, I guess, and our team was able to bounce back."

The Thunder eventually realized that play was continuing before Kunlun was able to make them pay, and they got the better chances, until a pair of late penalties gave the Red Star some space. Kunlun's Kelli Stack capitalized on the second power-play by redirecting a shot from Zoe Hickel with just 48 seconds left in the frame to set up a tense third period.

Markham again held the bulk of possession through the final 20 minutes of regulation play, though Red Star's opportunities were dangerous. With just over two minutes to go in a 1-1 game, goaltender Erica Howe took a risky journey well out of her crease to prevent a Kunlun breakaway, and the teams held on to force the overtime.

Unlike in the semifinals, when the overtime format was 20-minute periods of 5-on-5 hockey, overtime for the final was reduced to five minutes of 4-on-4 play to accommodate the Toronto Marlies game occuring later that afternoon. (What better way to honor women's hockey day than to prematurely cut-off a women's hockey championship final?) Fortunately for all involved, Stacey's winner prevented the game from being decided by a shootout before the Olympic flashbacks could hit too hard.

"I definitely had that OT, shootout kind of picture in my head and I really, really didn't want to go back to what happened a couple weeks ago," she acknowledged.

Nicole Kosta made a beautiful pass through the feet of Red Star defender Taylor Marchin, and Stacey made no mistake placing it top corner as she fell to the ice, celebrating from her knees before being mobbed by her teammates.

"First things first, I wanted to get to my goalie partner, Knoxy," said Howe of the moment she saw the puck go in. "We've been through it all year. It's incredible. Overtime is so nerve-wracking so when it goes in the net it's just like relief and celebration and happiness. It's indescribable, really."

Howe was named championship MVP after turning away 17 of 18 shots. She's looking forward to getting a sweater (or 20 sweaters?) with her prize money, and to a backpacking trip in Nicaragua that she had to push back to Wednesday to make time for celebrations.

"I planned it all along that it was going to leave right then, right after the Clarkson Cup. But now I'm like, 'Well, what if we have time to hang out and I'm leaving, I'm going to miss my friends!'," she said with a laugh. "It's bittersweet."

Räty made 37 saves on 39 shots in defeat.

"[I'm] really proud of my team," she offered. "Probably not a lot of people thought we would play in the Final, and battling through last week and still putting up a show today and taking them to overtime. Just really proud how we battled. So yes, disappointed that we lost, but I feel like in our heart, we were the champs."

Thunder captain Jocelyne Larocque felt a lot of emotions as she skated towards her teammates with the Cup above her head, but one particular sentiment stood out.

"I have a lot of Markham/Brampton teammates that have played in the league, similar to me, that haven't been to a Final, haven't obviously then won the Cup," she explained. "So to see how much those players have sacrificed, working full-time jobs and continuing to play, and then finally seeing that success of winning the whole thing, it was pretty special."

It's been a long series of firsts for Markham.

"At the beginning of the year, we actually put our jerseys on together, because it was a new season, clean slate," Howe reflected.

That clean slate came with a new home and new uniforms, but perhaps most importantly: belief. Still, Howe admits that early in the year, they weren’t sure it would come through.

"There was definitely a moment when we started to believe," she explained. "And that's what it was. We believed through the entire playoffs, we believed in this game, and we knew we could do it."

"I remember thinking in November, 'I guess I won't be coming back, because I don't think they're going to make playoffs,'" admitted Larocque, praising the work her teammates put in all year to earn their spot. "And then to go and be on a 13-game [unbeaten] streak is unbelievable.

"This year there was definitely a sense of confidence that I felt throughout the room," she added. "Confidence in each player individually and in the whole team. As soon as I came back, I could see that."

Some billed the matchup between Markham and Kunlun as a battle of two new teams, but this isn't really the story of an upstart organization; it's a championship that's been over a decade in the making. The Thunder franchise was a founding member of both the CWHL and the original NWHL before it, and, until Sunday, was the only remaining North American team to have never won the Clarkson Cup. While the relocation and rebranding has led to an influx of resources and support, the core of the roster has been with the team for years.

"I'm just so happy about this ending because this is what we deserve," said Rattray. "And there's so many girls in that room that have been... especially girls like Liz Knox and Dania Simmonds who have been in this league for so long, and through the years in Brampton. For us to just kind of put it all together this year is just such a great feeling."

As the team made its way to the locker room, so too did a group of former players, including some prominent familiar faces.

"A lot of past alumni like Lori Dupuis, Vicky Sunohara, Jayna Hefford, they were there celebrating with us, which was pretty unexpected but so cool," said Larocque. "Those are players that paved the way for us and the organization has a tonne of respect for them, and we do as individuals as well, so for them to come and party with us was pretty special."

"I was upstairs with the alumni and they will tell you that that is still Brampton and Markham together," offered Brenda Andress. "A lot of them have built that team and a lot of them have played there or are still playing. It showcases the strength of our league where our alumni are behind us and the alumni still come out and cheer. And a lot of the alumni are on our boards or over the years have helped us grow the game. I think it really means a lot to the Markham team to have the alumni girls sitting there in the stands and supporting them."

For Kunlun, this ending isn't quite the end of the road. The players and staff affiliated with the Chinese national team immediately move into their final preparations ahead of the Division IB World Championships, which take place in Asiago, Italy from April 8-14. While some of the ambassadors will begin their offseason right away -- Räty is looking forward to a week on a beach -- others, primarily the team's heritage players, will remain on hand throughout the tournament.

"It still hurts and it's still trying to soak in right now, what just happened," said Jessica Wong. "But we'll regroup and figure it out. I mean, I'm happy for the girls. We came together this year, we had to go through a lot. I'm just proud of them all.

"There's not so much bad in it," she added. "There's a lot of positives that we can take out of this. The girls worked so hard this year and have done a lot that they've never done before. I think they're ready for Worlds and we'll just regroup this week and start new."

(Photo credit: Chris Tanouye/CWHL)