When the Road to the Esso Cup started back on Feb. 14, 103 teams had visions of spending the end of April in Stoney Creek. Only half a dozen navigated their way to southern Ontario and a place in Canada’s National Female Midget Championship.
Here’s how they got there:
HOST TEAM – STONEY CREEK SABRES
If the results of their 2013-14 season are any indication, the Sabres will be anything but a gracious host in their first appearance at the Esso Cup. The Sabres finished atop the Central Division in the Lower Lakes Female Hockey League (LLFHL) with a 19-2-1 record. Dominating? Yes, especially when you consider the team scored 80 more goals than it allowed (93-13). Goaltenders Hannah Miller (seven) and Serena D’Angelo (five) combined to shut out opposing shooters in more than half the team’s games.
The Sabres rolled through their regional playdowns (7-0-1) to advance to provincials. At the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA) championship, Stoney Creek swept aside the Scarborough Sharks, Aurora Panthers and Ottawa Ice on its way to claiming the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. There, it defeated Clarington in the quarter-finals and Thunder Bay in the semifinals. (Historical side note: Thunder Bay defeated Stoney Creek in the 2010 OWHA final, en route to winning the Esso Cup). In the final, the Sabres fell 3-0 to the Sudbury Lady Wolves. With Sudbury now in town as the Ontario representatives, the rematch awaits.
ATLANTIC REGION – MONCTON ROCKETS
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” – and might we add ice – would keep the Moncton Rockets from traveling the Road to the Esso Cup. On the trip to the Atlantic Region championship in Deer Lake, N.L., the ferry carrying the team – as well as the P.E.I. and Nova Scotia reps – got caught in ice and delayed the teams’ arrivals by a day. The Rockets finished the preliminary round with three wins and one tie to earn a spot in the final. Moncton found itself trailing the East Hants Penguins 1-0 after the first period, but would tie things up against the Nova Scotia champs in the second, and Brooke Murphy scored the game-winner 6:38 into the third. Player of the game Hayley Reid was with the team when it made its only other trip to the Esso Cup. That 2010 team finished fifth.
This year’s team handily won the NBFMAAAHL regular season title with a 15-1-1 record. When your team features seven of the league’s top 10 point-getters, games are bound to go your way. The Rockets swept the Fredericton V-Reds in the playoffs, outscoring them 18-4 over three games to book their ticket to Deer Lake and, now, Stoney Creek.
ONTARIO REGION – SUDBURY LADY WOLVES
The Sudbury Lady Wolves may not have had to travel as far as other teams to get to Stoney Creek, but
their players are true road warriors. In its first year in the LLFHL, Sudbury played its home games in Parry Sound, Ont., a two-hour drive south. Playing in the Central East Division, the team finished with a mark of 18-2-2, good for second place behind the Whitby Wolves.
In the regional playdowns to advance to the OWHA championship, Sudbury got by a second Lady Wolves team, as well as long-time nemesis the North Bay Ice Boltz, last year’s Esso Cup runner-up. It was Sudbury’s first trip to provincials since 2010.
The long-awaited journey was worth it, as Sudbury posted a perfect 6-0 record. It easily beat the St. Catharines Chaos, Hearst Voyageuses and Kanata Ottawa Senators in the round robin. The Lady Wolves shut out the Scarborough Sharks 2-0 in the quarter-finals and took down the Wolves of Whitby 1-0 in overtime in the semifinals. A 3-0 win in the final over the Stoney Creek Sabres gave the team the OWHA title.
PACIFIC-ALBERTA – EDMONTON THUNDER
You know you’re good when your team has two players making their fourth appearances at the Esso Cup. Both Amy Boucher and Brett Campbell came to the 2011 Esso Cup in St. Albert, Alta., as affiliated players. The Thunder is making its sixth straight trip to nationals. It has four medals (one silver; three bronze) and a 20-14 record to show so far.
Edmonton led the AMMFHL in both goals for and goal against on its way to finishing first in the North Division and claiming another regular season title. In the playoffs the Thunder swept the St. Albert Slash in three games and beat the Lloydminster Steelers in four. The South Division champ Highwood Raiders awaited in the final. Averaging nearly five goals a game, the Thunder turned aside the Raiders in four games.
The offence is led by Alexandra Poznikoff, who, along with finishing fourth in league scoring (27 goals, 28 assists), was also named the AMMFHL’s most sportsmanlike player. The leader on the blue line is Jessica Healey, who recently won a gold medal with Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship and was named the league’s top defenceman.
PACIFIC-BRITISH COLUMBIA – FRASER VALLEY PHANTOM
The Fraser Valley Phantom is making its second straight appearance at the Esso Cup, having hosted last year’s event in Burnaby, B.C. The team finished 1-4, good for fifth.
The Phantom finished atop the BCFMAAAL (22-1-7), its only loss a 1-0 setback to the West Coast Avalanche. Forwards Shannon Morris-Reade (38 points) and Kristen Martin (35 points) paced the league’s most potent offence, which also featured the top-scoring defenceman, Michelle Toor (24 points).
In the semifinals, West Coast once again took a 1-0 game from Fraser Valley; however, the Phantom would win the other two games by a combined 11-3 to move on to the final. Goaltender Valencia Yordanov backstopped two straight shutouts over the Thompson-Okanagan Rockets to send the Phantom back to nationals.
WEST – WEYBURN GOLD WINGS
For the fourth time in six years, the West Region will be represented by a team from Saskatchewan. The Weyburn Gold Wings join the Notre Dame Hounds (2010, 2011) and Regina Rebels (2013) in representing its province at Canada’s National Female Midget Championship.
The Gold Wings come to Stoney Creek on a roll. The team won eight straight games to close out the SFMAAAHL regular season, good for second behind the Rebels. In the playoffs, Weyburn swept the Melville Prairie Fire in three games and knocked out the Prince Albert Bears in four. Weyburn met Regina in the finals, and proving that regular season results don’t always matter – the Gold Wings finished 16 points back of the Rebels – the team won the championship, and its first Fedoruk Cup, in four games.
The Gold Wings then hosted the Pembina Valley Hawks, the Manitoba champs, in a three-game series to see who would be going east to be West. After dropping the opener, 3-2, Weyburn would win the next two, 4-1 and 3-0, to book its ticket to Stoney Creek. Weyburn’s roster includes the youngest player at this year’s Esso Cup; forward Raine Smith won’t turn 14 until July.