Thursday, 27 November 2014

Canada West and CIS women’s hockey has come a long way

Captain Brandy West-McMaster and the Regina Cougars in 2000.
            At one time the notion that everyone would be competitive and good in the Canada West women’s hockey conference was a dream.
            That dream is definitely a reality, and that reality goes for the entire Canadian Interuniversity Sport women’s league.
            I am one of the few people that witnessed in person the night the two Saskatchewan based CIS squads won, for the moment, their lone respective Canada West titles. Captain Brandy West-McMaster and the University of Regina Cougars claimed the Canada West title in 2001 and won silver at nationals. Captain Cami Wooster and the University of Saskatchewan Huskies won the Canada West title last March and captured a bronze medal at nationals.
            Between those respective conference title victories, I barely got to see any CIS women’s games. I have witnessed a steady diet of games this season featuring the Huskies, and I saw a large number of games in the 2000-01 campaign featuring the Cougars.
            The overall quality of the league now is light years of what it was then. When the Cougars won their conference title, that season marked only the fifth time a CIS title was contested in women’s hockey.
            Over a period of 13 years, a huge minor system has sprung up for girls’ hockey in Canada. The minor system feeds a large number of midget AAA girls’ teams that compete in highly competitive leagues, which have a strong history of regular season play dating back for about a good decade.
            That system has produced a steady stream of skilled players for Canada West and the CIS. Those players have all received top rate coaching growing up, and it shows on the ice.
Captain Cami Wooster and the Saskatchewan Huskies in March.
            The Huskies won their Canada West title in a conference that was vastly superior to what Canada West was when the Cougars claimed their title.
            In the current Canada West season, six teams are in a tight race for first overall. Lethbridge and Mount Royal are sitting on the outside of the playoff picture, but both those teams are good enough to manufacture upsets over the other six teams in the conference. Lethbridge and Mount Royal don’t really look out of place, when they face the teams currently holding playoff spots.
            Everyone’s understanding and execution of systems play is tremendous. The mental toughness the players display and their ability to bounce back when things go bad is also outstanding.
            Back when the Cougars won their conference title, the majority of their players grew up playing hockey in boys’ leagues. The star players almost always had a strong background in boys’ hockey.
            Girls’ only leagues in minor hockey weren’t that established, and it showed at the Canada West and CIS levels.
            There were a number of players on CIS teams that switched over from playing ringette. Others didn’t have that many years playing the sport of hockey and flat out had trouble skating.
             During those days, the Cougars and University of Alberta Pandas attracted the best players, and it showed on the scoreboard.
            In their second last regular season game of the 2000-01 campaign, the Cougars set a then team record for goals in a game blasting the Calgary Dinos 16-1. The Dinos, who had 10 first-year players, were typical of a number of the Canada West teams back then.
Laura Paradis in goal for the Regina Cougars in 2001.
They just didn’t have the players to compete with the Cougars and Pandas, which resulted in a two-tiered conference. As a result, there were a number of lopsided games, where the players on the losing side were crushed on a number of levels.
The Cougars swept the Pandas in a best-of-three Canada West final series in 2001 posting a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 1 and a 3-1 triumph in Game 2 at dungy Exhibition Stadium. Game 2 marked the last time the Pandas would lose a game in four years.
They proceeded to run off a 110-game undefeated streak that included 109 victories, one draw and three CIS championships. The Pandas roster featured former Canadian Olympic team player Judy Diduck for most of that run. For a short time, the Pandas created a third tier being above everyone else.
In the 2013-14 campaign, the Huskies had to be on top of their game almost every night to put together and 18-4-6 regular season record. They met the Regina Cougars in a best-of-three Canada West final that seemed destined to never end.
The series went the distance with every game going to overtime. A total of 17 periods and 296 minute of hockey were played. It finally ended when Kaitlin Willoughby netted the series winner to give the Huskies a 2-1 victory in double overtime in Game 3 at the ancient Rutherford Rink.
It is fair to say the Canada West champion Cougars of 2001 would have had a really difficult time beating the Huskies Canada West championship team of 2014 or the Cougars team the eventually fell to the Dogs in that marathon conference title series.
If you were able to send Huskies standouts like Wooster, who was as extremely special and dynamic player, Willoughby, Sara Greschner, Kandace Cook, Julia Flinton and goaltender Cassidy Hendricks back in time to play in Canada West in 2001, they would have put up insane numbers. Their athletic level is just way better than the players of that time.
Cassidy Hendricks in goal for the Saskatchewan Huskies.
With that said, the 2000-01 campaign was a different time. West-McMaster put up Wayne Gretzky type offensive numbers in that era of the CIS. The Cougars other standouts like Erin Tady, Erin Balfour, Julie Foster, Joell Fiddler, Tanya Hutcheon and goaltender Laura Paradis worked extremely hard at their games and were the class of that time.
The Cougars players also showed a lot of heart coming up through minor hockey. West-McMaster and Paradis both had really good experiences growing up and playing in boys’ leagues.
A number of other players had experiences of being run through the boards. Hitting at all levels then in the boys’ ranks was more liberal that it is today. Any ponytails that were seen sticking out of the back of helmets saw the girls get viewed as targets.
In various instances, the boys would try to hit the girls hard enough to make them quit. A few girls shed tears in the arms of their parents and even admitted they wanted to walk away from the game. The fact those players didn’t walk away was amazing.
As a unit, the Cougars 2001 Canada West championship team showed the potential of what the conference and the CIS league could become.
As a group, the Huskies 2014 Canada West championship team and their modern day conference and CIS rivals have far exceeded what that potential would look like. When you connect everything together, it is an inspiring story to see.

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