Clarkson Cup Preview: Kunlun and Markham Set to Battle for CWHL Championship
Both Teams Overcome Obstacles to Reach Title Game
TORONTO—It was not an easy ride for either team, with bumps and bruises, trials and tribulations to contend with all throughout the season.
However, for the Kunlun Red Star and Markham Thunder, all roads led to Toronto for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s higher honour: The Clarkson Cup final, to be played Sunday at the Ricoh Coliseum.
“The hard work my teammates have done all season got us in this position,” said Markham defender Jocelyne Larocque. “We’d all just be so ecstatic.”
Markham will play for the championship for the first time since 2012. The team got off to a rough start this season, winning just three of their first 12 contests, including an 0-4 road trip to China. However, since then, the team has been on a roll, boasting an 11-0-4 record since Dec. 2.
The Thunder capitalized on their momentum, sweeping the regular season champion Canadiennes in two straight games in Montreal. The mid-season acquisition of Megan Bozek, coupled with the return of a trio of Canadian Olympians played a large part in the team’s meteoric rise.
“Having three Olympians back on any team is a gift,” said Bozek. They all bring something different to the team.”
“As a team, we’re playing so well lately,” said Thunder forward Jamie Lee Rattray. “We just have to keep rolling into the game. We’ve had some very good games against these guys. We’ve got to keep the energy going. I’m really excited to step on the ice Sunday.”
Markham has also had to deal with the tragic loss of a member of their extended family. Forward Laura McIntosh lost her mother Diane this past week. The team will honor her memory wearing her initials “DM” in red on the backs of their helmets. Her passing has been a rallying cry for the team and an extra incentive to perform come Sunday.
“You go through the ups and downs of a season,” said Bozek. “Losing someone close to us within our team this week has really hit home for a lot of us. It gives us a bigger reason to play for tomorrow.”
“She is so strong,” said Larocque. “She came [to the awards show] last night, she was at practice today. It shows a lot about her character and how strong-willed that she is. Honestly, I don’t know if I would be here if I was in her shoes.”
“We’re just so happy that we can be there for her. We’re going to play hard for her and her mom,” added Larocque.
First Year, First Final
In their inaugural season, the Red Star have been impressive. They finished in second place during the regular season, thanks to a 21-6-1 record. Led by scoring leader and league MVP Kelli Stack, Kunlun defeated the Calgary Inferno in a hard-fought three-game series to make the final. It took three overtime periods before forward Alex Carpenter sealed the win for the Red Star.
“Going into the year, we didn’t know what to expect,” said Stack. “We had a bunch of players that never played on the same team before. Knowing how much we’ve overcome and all the adversity that we faced this season, it would be unbelievable to win and a nice way to finish off the season.”
Stack points to a 3-1 win in November against Les Canadiennes at the Bell Centre without starter Noora Raty in goal as a turning point in their season.
“With all the fans there and Montreal being the best team in the league, we definitely did not expect to win that game,” said Stack. “We wanted to go into it trying our best. We surprised ourselves a little bit and it got us going in the right direction.”
The team has also had to deal with an unorthodox travel schedule, making regular trips to and from China to play the five North American-based teams. The Red Star have been in the Greater Toronto Area for the past week, playing their semi-final series in Markham last weekend. The Red Star will be the official home team for the Clarkson Cup final, despite being 12,520 kilometers from home.
“It’s definitely difficult,” said Red Star defender Jessica Wong. “The travel is grueling. As the year went on, it got easier. We knew sleep patterns. It’s a long grind and we know that.”
Both teams are staying at a downtown Toronto hotel in order to avoid outside distractions. After a morning practice Saturday, activities in the community and media obligations, both clubs had a customary team dinner.
The focus is squarely on the opponent, with the goal of coming away with a championship on Sunday.
“We feel confident and good about our play,” said Larocque. “We are confident that we can bring that into the game.”
“We’re ready for it,” said Wong. “It’s going to be a tough game. We’re going to give it our best shot and hopefully, it will be the outcome that we want.”
Puck drops at 12:00 p.m. and can be watched on Rogers Sportsnet.