By Rob Del Mundo
Brampton - For a fledging league yearning for corporate attention, it was a dream finish.
True to storybook fashion, the championship game of the Canadian Women's Hockey League was decided by an overtime goal. Molly Engstrom was the heroine in the extra session as the Brampton Canadettes-Thunder defeated the Mississauga Chiefs 4-3 before an enthusiastic crowd at the Powerade Centre on Saturday afternoon.
The Thunder claimed the first ever CWHL title, and in a sense "repeated" as champions, having won the title last year in the final season of the league's predecessor, the National Women's Hockey League.
Leading the charge was Brampton's veteran line of Lori Dupuis, Jayna Hefford and Vicky Sunohara, who each scored a goal in regulation time. The women who have been teammates since the Thunder's inaugural season in 1998-99 formed a trio that was a lethal force as a forward line in Team Canada's gold medal victory at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"I can't understand how I get to keep playing with those two, because I think they're just amazing players," reflected Dupuis who was named the game's Most Valuable Player. "We kind of all play our role very well. We try and get (Hefford) the puck and (Sunohara) is a great playmaker, and I try and get them the puck. It seems to work, it seems like it's a great combination. Hopefully it will always work until I'm ready to retire."
Hefford echoed the same sentiments as her linemate. "We've played together for so long, and I think we kind of know what each other is doing." The two-time Olympic gold medalist was also quick to credit the rest of her teammates. "The thing about this team is that we had so much depth that when one line wasn't rolling, the other line was, and that's a nice thing to have."
In contrast to the elation of the Thunder was the disappointment of the Chiefs. The game came one week after Mississauga was victorious in double overtime in defeating Brampton for the Esso National Women's title in Charlottetown, P.E.I. Cherie Piper, who had the game-winning goal for the Chiefs on that day, was gracious in defeat seven days later. "Obviously we'd love to win every game, but it wasn't in the cards today. We're disappointed, but at the same time we're proud of ourselves and what we've accomplished this year."
Piper's competitive spirit, evident as she limped back towards the Chiefs dressing room having sustained an injury, was echoed in her description of the continuous tug-of-war between cross-town foes Brampton and Mississauga. "It's a great rivalry. We play each other a lot throughout the year. We all have the same passion for the sport. It's what drives us."
Meanwhile, with the conclusion of the inaugural CWHL season, hope springs for the future as the league aims to market its product to a wider audience. The restructuring of the women's league from a club-based entity in the NWHL to a corporate-based foundation in the CWHL was necessary for survival. "It was tough," noted Dupuis when assessing the transition. "There were a lot of obstacles to get over. But in the end, the sponsorship stepped up and hopefully we'll get even more for next year."
Chiefs backup goalie Sami Jo Small, one of the CWHL's founders, acknowledges the early struggles, but - like Dupuis - is quite pleased with the end result after the first year. "I think we're really proud of what we've done. It hasn't been easy. We've had to learn about business and whole side of it." Small is optimistic about the CWHL's future and has a vision of how to grow the league.
"I think it's continuing to create a more professional environment for the women to play in. This is where the best should want to play, and it's a matter of convincing all those players to play, and also moving forward and getting more sponsors. We could always use more sponsors and more money, and that's only going to help the program."
Her teammate Jennifer Botterill has the same reflections of the year that was, and the years to come. "It was a learning curve, it's a new process, but I think it's something to build from, and we've got the potential to grow down the road, so we're excited about that.
"I think the feedback from the people who watched the games is really encouraging. People really seem to enjoy the product. "
Botterill, Piper, Hefford, and the Thunder's Gillian Apps will now join the National Women's Team as Canada prepares to defend its title at the Women's World Hockey Championship being held in China in just under three weeks.
Dupuis continues to work full-time as a mortgage broker in Brampton while Small plans to take time off to relax, and rest a sore knee. Although Small's club team came out on the wrong side of the championship game, she'll gladly accept the result considering the effort that has been expended in getting to this point after the NWHL folded nearly a year ago.
"It's been a challenging process. But when you see a game like this, it's all worthwhile."