OTTAWA (CIS) - The McGill University Martlets will be looking to repeat as CIS women's hockey champions this weekend in Edmonton but the road to a sixth consecutive appearance in the gold medal game and a fourth national title in five years wont be an easy one. The first obstacle: none other than someone who is arguably the best player in the world, Canadian Olympic hero Hayley Wickenheiser. McGill has an Olympic hero of its own however in Charline Labonte, one of the top goalies on the planet.
Championship website: http://english.cis-sic.ca/championships/wice/index
The 2012 national championship kicks off Thursday at Clare Drake Arena on the University of Alberta campus. The top team from each of the two pools at the end of the preliminary round will meet in Sundays gold medal final at 6 p.m. Mountain.
SSN Canada will have live webcasts of all nine games from the tournament at ssncanada.ca.
The seeding for the competition was announced earlier this week with the OUA champion Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks earning No. 1 status for the second time in program history. Following in order is defending title-holder McGill (RSEQ champs), the No. 3 Calgary Dinos (Canada West champs), No. 4 UPEI Panthers (AUS champs), No. 5 Alberta Pandas (Canada West finalists & Hosts) and No. 6 Montreal Carabins (RSEQ finalists).
Laurier will compete in Pool A with UPEI and Montreal, while McGill battles it out with Calgary and Alberta in Pool B.
The initial puck drop is set for Thursday at 3:30 p.m. MST when Laurier takes on Montreal. The Pool B opener between McGill and Calgary follows at 7 p.m.
The Golden Hawks, who captured their lone CIS title back in 2005, look like solid favourites in Pool A as they get set for their ninth straight appearance at the national tourney. The OUA powerhouse posted a CIS-best 25-0-1 record in the regular season and travels to Edmonton sporting a spectacular 34-1-2 overall mark against CIS competition.
On Dec. 30, the Hawks sent a message to the rest of the country when they took McGill to a shootout in the final of the Martlet Holiday Invitational Tournament, before dropping a 5-4 decision.
"When you look at the quality and skill level of the top programs in women's hockey it is a real honour to be going into Nationals as the top seed," says Laurier head coach RICK OSBORNE, who has led the Hawks to eight OUA titles in nine seasons behind the bench. "The six teams who have qualified are all so capable that you must be ready to play hard right from the opening whistle of Game 1."
Laurier's rivals in Pool A are both new kids on the block.
The Panthers will compete for CIS supremacy for the first time in school history, while the Carabins return to the tourney for the second time in only their third year of existence.
UPEI booked its ticket to Edmonton as a result of an improbable showing last weekend at the AUS championship. After finishing fourth in the conference standings with a 13-10-1 mark, the Panthers stunned first-place StFX 2-1 on Saturday to win their pool and advance to the gold medal final, where they blanked Mount Allison 3-0 to claim their first-ever AUS banner.
Championship MVP Kristy Dobson stopped 55 of 56 pucks fired her way in the two wins.
Despite playing in the large shadow cast by McGill in the Quebec conference, Montreal has quickly made a name for itself since joining the RSEQ in 2009-10.
Two years ago, in their inaugural campaign, the Carabins qualified for the CIS championship and gave the Martlets a scare in the tournament opener before losing 2-1 in overtime. This season, on Oct. 29, Montreal defeated their cross-town rivals for the first time, 3-2, to put an end to McGills mind-boggling streak of 107 consecutive wins against RSEQ opponents.
The U of M players don't have to look far for inspiration. The general manager of the program is none other than former national team head coach Danile Sauvageau, who guided Canada to gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Also, Dominic Roussel, their goaltender coach, played over 200 games in the National Hockey League.
On the other side of the draw, in a stacked Pool B that could easily be considered the 'Pool of Death', McGill will have to go through a hockey legend and the most decorated team in CIS womens hockey history to make it to Sundays title match.
While they showed sign of being human this season, losing a game apiece to conference rivals Montreal, Carleton (4-3 OTS) and Ottawa (2-0 in their playoff opener), the Martlets also showed they could be as dominant as ever, avenging those three losses with 10-1, 10-0 and 8-0 victories, respectively, in the next rematch against each of those teams.
"I don't think that it has been our most consistent team but its probably the most skilled team that I've had over my years," says 12-year bench boss Peter Smith, who was an assistant coach with the 2010 Olympic gold medal team. "The tempo and pace that we play at is pretty good and the beauty is that if you compare our best games this year, to our top games four or five years ago, its quite a step up in terms of the tempo, pace and skill level of the players that we have in our lineup."
McGill's all-star cast includes, to name only a few: goalie Charline Labonte, a two-time Olympic gold medallist; rearguards Cathy Chartrand and Gillian Ferrari, both former national team members; and forwards Ann-Sophie Bettez, a four-time all-Canadian, and Melodie Daoust, a member of the Canadian under-22 squad who was named rookie of the year in Quebec after winning the leagues scoring crown with a whopping 43 points in only 18 games.
Unfortunately for the defending champs, they will be missing the services of Katia Clement-Heydra this week. The sniper, who centred the top line and finished third in the RSEQ scoring race with an 18-14-32 record in 20 games, suffered a season ending injury in Game 3 of the Quebec semifinals and missed the league final a two-game sweep against Montreal.
"We do have a young team with 13 players in their first or second year but our expectations for the Nationals is to go there and play our three best games this season," says Smith. "The beauty of what we have and how we develop this team is that we really focus on peaking at the right time. We had a little blip in our first game of the playoffs but in our last four games we've looked real good and strong. We are well rested, sharp and have been able to stick with our game plan one that we kind of deviated away from a couple of times over the course of the season."
Thursday night's Pool B opener should be a dandy.
Labonte once again led the country this season with a .944 save percentage and eight shutouts in 18 games, upping her CIS record total to 45 whitewashes in 85 career starts. She might face her biggest challenge of the campaign against the Dinos and all-world forward Hayley Wickenheiser, her long-time Olympic teammate.
Wickenheiser, the three-time Olympic gold medallist and six-time world champion, is of course the centerpiece of Calgary's rapid rise as a national power. The Dinos returned to CIS in 2009-10 after competing for seven seasons in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference. They claimed their first-ever Canada West banner two weeks ago with a two-game sweep of Alberta, after going 20-4 in conference play.
After being named CIS MVP in her university debut a year ago, Wickenheiser dominated once again with 17 goals and 32 points in only 16 league matches.
"I think Wick had a better season in CIS this year than last," says Calgary head coach Danielle Goyette, who played alongside her current pupil at three Olympic Games, including triumphs in 2002 and 2006. "She's a more complete player now, not thinking just about offence but being there for the team and making sure the team was ready to compete in big games. She was such a leader for the players in our dressing room."
"It's huge for the program," adds Goyette about winning the Canada West title. "When you think about where we've come from, you really have to give credit to the players. They showed this year and through the playoffs that they were hungry. Going to Nationals is great, and we have to be proud of what we accomplished winning Canada West, the first time it's ever happened at the University of Calgary, and it's something we have to celebrate. But as a coach, I want more all the time and I know we still have more to give, and we know well need to play our best hockey this weekend to have success against the best teams in the country."
Not to be outdone by McGill (Daoust), the Dinos have an impact recruit of their own in forward Iya Gavrilova, a member of the Russian national team since 2003 who represented her country at the last two Olympic tournaments. She was named a first-team Canada West all-star in her U of C debut thanks to 27 points in 21 contests.
Kind of flying under the radar due to the star power of McGill and Calgary is the third contender in Pool B, the Alberta Pandas. The role of underdog must feel a little strange for the Pandas and head coach Howie Draper, who have captured a record seven national titles since women's hockey was added to the CIS program in 1997-98, the last one two years ago.
Strangely enough, this will be Albertas first crack at the trophy on home ice.
"I think the time is right for us to host now, at this point in our program," notes Draper. "I personally believe that, in the past, there were other conferences and other schools that could benefit by hosting the national championship, and bringing that attention to their programs. Now, I think we're at a point where all the other conferences are competitive and strong, and more and more teams are becoming competitive for the national championship, and certainly with the success our program has had in the past, I think the time is right for that attention to come our way."
No. 1 Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks
CIS championship sequence: 9th straight appearance
No. 2 McGill Martlets
CIS championship sequence: 10th straight appearance (5 straight in gold medal game)
No. 3 Calgary Dinos
* Returned to CIS in 2009-10 after 7 seasons in ACAC
No. 4 UPEI Panthers
CIS championship sequence: First appearance
No. 5 Alberta Pandas
CIS championship sequence: 2nd straight appearance (10th in 11 years - missed 2009)
No. 6 Montreal Carabins
CIS championship sequence: Return after 1-year absence (2nd appearance in history)
NOTE: Live webcast of all games on SSN Canada (ssncanada.ca)
Wednesday, March 7
19:00 All-Canadian Banquet (Crowne Plaza Chateau Lacombe)
Thursday, March 8
Friday, March 9
Saturday, March 10
Sunday, March 11