It doesn’t get much more Canadian than the Clarkson Cup, right down to the Tim Horton’s ads they snuck onto each of the players’ socks for the game. But if you’re looking for one underlying theme from this year’s championship game in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, it came courtesy of an American Invasion.
There were many storylines to this game, which the Calgary Inferno won for the second time in four years over Les Canadiennes de Montreal, who played with arguably the world’s best player in Marie-Philip Poulin in full gear and watching from the bench with a lower-body injury. Calgary’s 5-2 win was decisive and complete and cemented the Inferno’s stature as one of the league’s premier franchises, along with the Canadiennes. But the most prominent one was the contribution the Inferno got from American-born players, both in the playoffs and throughout the season.
U.S. Olympic stars Brianna Decker and Kacey Bellamy made the decision together to come and play for Calgary. All Decker did was score the winning goal and pick up Clarkson Cup MVP honors, while Bellamy had two assists in the game. Zoe Hickel, the pride of Anchorage, Alaska, scored two goals in the game and was named first star. And Alex Rigsby, who has won four World Championships and an Olympic gold medal for USA, was named CWHL goalie of the year and stopped 25 of 27 shots.
“I just wanted a change,” Decker said. “I think Kacey and I were like, ‘Let’s try something new.’ I think after the Olympic year we just needed a change. I played in the CWHL before and enjoyed and I’m just thankful I came back to this league. The competition itself just shows every single weekend and no game is guaranteed. And today was a good example of the talent we have in this league.”
It has been quite a season for Decker and it’s not even over yet. There’s a good chance she’ll captain Team USA in the World Women’s Championship in two weeks after wearing the ‘C’ for her country in its win in the 4 Nations tournament. She was part of the women’s contingent that took part in the skills competition at the NHL All-Star Game and picked up the second Clarkson Cup of her career. And it’s pretty clear that winning follows her around. In fact, she’s the only player in hockey history to win an Under-18 World Championship, a World Championship, an Olympic gold medal, an NCAA title, a Clarkson Cup and an Isobel Cup, which goes to the champions of the rival National Women’s Hockey League.
“I think it’s just the people who have surrounded me,” Decker said. “I’ve been on a lot of great teams and a lot of great players have surrounded my play. I think I thrive off that pressure, I thrive off these games. It’s fun to be able to compete in the top championship games every season.”
The Inferno capped off a dominant season with their win, but not one that was without controversy. The Inferno took the title with Ryan Hilderman behind the bench, who was the team’s fourth coach in fewer than three seasons. Despite winning coach-of-the-year honors in 2017 and 2018, respectively, Scott Reid and Tomas Pacina stepped down from their jobs. Former Canadian Olympic coach Shannon Miller was named head coach of the Inferno for this season, but stepped down in December with the team sporting a 10-0-1 record. Hickel, who played for Miller at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, was one player who was recruited by Miller and both Decker and Bellamy came in part because Miller would be behind the bench. Winning was a testament to the quality of players on the roster, nine of whom will be at the World Championship representing Canada, USA, Finland and Japan.
“We’ve got so much experience, both professional and international,” said Brianne Jenner. “There’s a lot of really good characters and smart players in that locker room. You take someone like (defenseman) Venla Hovi (who will play for Finland). I think the tournament in Finland will be one of her last tournaments and she has just been so solid for us all year long. I don’t know how many blocked shots she had today. We have people like that who make the difference for us.”
A couple of other interesting storylines in the game:
* Poulin, who was injured in Les Canadiennes’ semifinal win, sat on the bench in full gear, but was unable to play. To their credit, Montreal did not use her absence as an excuse, but there’s little doubt her skill and pedigree as a big-game player would have had an impact. With 11 days until the World Championship begins, Poulin has some time to heal.
“She did everything she could, even rehab two or three times a day, to give herself a chance to play for this moment,” said Canadiennes coach Caroline Ouellette. “We couldn’t compromise her career for that one moment. She wanted to play, but the doctors agreed it was not possible. She’s doing all she can and the World’s from the start was more realistic than this moment. She’s aiming for that now and all her focus is on that.”
* With the future of professional women’s hockey so much in flux, you had to wonder whether this would be the final Clarkson Cup. There is a ton of momentum behind the notion of the CWHL and NWHL merging. Finances are always a concern in both leagues and the feeling is that if the NHL were able to put its might behind one unified league, the game would be better off.
“We need to eventually merge the leagues,” Johnston said. “You would have all the best players playing in one league and that’s our end goal and hopefully it comes sooner rather than later.”
“I’m hoping for one league,” Decker said. “Having played in both leagues, I think it will be important for us to have one league. Hopefully, the NHL will back us up a little bit. They’ve been a great supporter so far and invited us to the All-Star Game, which was a huge step in the right direction for us. Hopefully by next year we can have one league and it will be as competitive as heck.”