by Jesse Calomino
With just two seasons under their belt, the Calgary Inferno have experienced more than a few growing pains in their early CWHL life.
Posting an 8-31 record over the course of that time, the team formerly known as the Alberta Hockey Club has shown itself in previous seasons to be a fair distance from competing for the Clarkson Cup. But that can be said for any team in the midst of a building (or rebuilding) process – and eyeing a championship title.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic though, as more than a few great building blocks are fitting into the foundation of the team’s future. To this point, Calgary’s focus has been on building a strong defensive unit, and the cohesion is starting to take effect.
At the 2011 CWHL Draft, the Calgary-based team selected three defencemen and two goaltenders with their first five picks. Team management then drafted another goalie and two defenders with their first three picks at the 2012 CWHL Draft. This led to the likes of Team Canada’s Jocelyne Larocque, Meaghan Mikkelson, Bobbi-Jo Slusar and Tara Watchorn taking over Calgary’s blue line, while Jillian MacIsaac was between the pipes.
However, it takes time to build a championship-calibre team and while the 2012-13 season may have been tumultuous, there were indeed strides of improvement made. Kathy Desjardins made a strong case to be the team’s No. 1 netminder moving forward, but will be pushed by the top 2013 CWHL Draft pick Delayne Brian.
The Winnipeg-native had a very strong NCAA Division I career as a member of the Wayne State University Warriors and the Robert Morris University Colonials. She holds the record for most saves in a single period with 28 total. Her final NCAA season saw her post an 8-21-2 record with four shutouts, a 2.72 goals against average and 978 saves for a .921 save percentage. She also has some experience at the provincial and national levels, having competed at the 2007 National Women’s Under-18 Championship and played for Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team.
Brian’s talents were quite apparent to Calgary Inferno head coach Tim Bothwell. “Delayne will give us a great one-two punch in goal,” he said. “She is a very welcome addition.”
Alberta’s strength in goal is only part of what could develop into the best defensive core in women’s hockey. The upcoming Olympic Winter Games will only make it a more difficult task, as the aforementioned Larocque, Mikkelson and Watchorn are centralized in Calgary, Alta., with Canada’s National Women’s Team in preparation for Sochi 2014. But that’s why general manager Chantal Champagne has prepared well in advance.
“We are losing four national players this being an Olympic year,” she said. “So, we worked hard in our recruiting and had a good, strong turnout at our tryout camp this September at the WinSport facility.”
With some of their star defenders gone for the year, returnees Madison Haller and Kelsey Webster will be counted on for bigger contributions. Their experience will be a tremendous benefit to draftees Tegan Schroeder of Clarkson University and Jacquie Pierri of Brown University, who have looked good on this ice to this point and should bring plenty of excitement to training camp and the entire season.
First overall pick Jessica Wong is sure to be a mainstay on the blue line this season. Initially a forward, Wong converted into a high-scoring defenceman with the Minnesota Duluth University Bulldogs, where she scored the game-winning goal in triple overtime to seal the NCAA Division One championship for her side. Wong has also won back-to-back gold medals with Canada’s National Women’s Under-22/Development Team at the Meco Cup, an annual international tournament against European senior women’s national teams.
After an excellent training camp and very unfortunately, third-round selection Peggy Wakeham has returned to Newfoundland. The 5’6” defenceman from the University of Vermont had 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 129 career NCAA Division 1 games and would have been a terrific addition, however the marketing job for the Masters of business administration holder (was just too good an opportunity for her to pass up. In her place, Erica Kromm will move back to the blue line. Kromm has extensive experience back there, both during her career at Brown University and before. Returner Erin Duggan, a very versatile player, may also see some time on the back end.
There has been something of a trade-off, in spite of drafting and developing such a strong defensive unit. Building from the net out has left Calgary’s forward ranks as an area that needs improvement. Though they played nine more games in the 2012-13 season than they did in 2011-12, Alberta scored eight fewer goals.
Jenna Cunningham continued to lead the way for the team, but even she had a drop off from the previous season, as there was not a single Calgary player to break the double digit mark in points. The addition of Wong will add some secondary scoring from the blue line, but Champagne has drafted a number of strong forwards who could really develop into a strong contingent around Cunningham.
Danielle Stone, Alberta’s fourth round pick, will likely be one the team looks to for strong scoring contributions. During the last two seasons with the University of Saskatchewan, Stone recorded almost one point per game pace, with 50 points in 51 games total. Her size and scoring touch are something Bothwell is looking forward to seeing on the ice.
“Danny is a big, strong forward who can score,” Bothwell said. “She will really help us up front. She has fit in very nicely along side former University of Saskatchewan teammates Chelsea Purcell and Julie Paetsch. They have been our best line thus far.”
The Calgary Inferno also added some familiarity with their seventh pick, selecting Taryn Peacock along with scoring depth and team speed with subsequent picks. Absent from the team last season, Peacock was tied as the team’s fourth highest scorer and third highest plus-minus in past seasons.
"Returning to us after a year of absence, Taryn will undoubtedly help us be a much more dangerous offensive team this year,” Bothwell said. “We like the way our forward unit is shaping up; she is a big part of that."
“I like our depth and the speed we have added up front this year,” he added. We will have four balanced lines, all capable of scoring.
“Returnees Emily Berzins and Laura Dostaler will provide some grit and tenacity, while newcomers Karolina Urban, Rhianna Kurio, Jess O’Grady and Aby Laking are nice additions. Bianca Zuber, an AP last year, has also looked very good. We are also hoping to get some games from Larissa Roche who played with us in 2011-12 and took last year off to focus on her first year of law school,” Bothwell said.
With a new look and a new identity for the upcoming season, including jerseys in the Calgary Flames colour and a name that also mirrors that of the NHL team they partner with, the Calgary Inferno will be without some of their best defenders for the coming season.
However, they’ve managed to draft some incredible talent in all positions. Bothwell, Champagne and team are building a very dangerous club which will most assuredly be competing for a Clarkson Cup sooner, rather than later.
Players to watch: Jenna Cunningham, Jessica Wong, Danny Stone, Julie Paetsch