best team ever feature

Best team ever?

Ten years ago, Ontario Red dominated on its way to gold at the National Women’s Under-18 Championship

Wendy Graves
November 8, 2015

Ten years ago a convincing case could be made that Ontario Red would be tough to beat at the November 2005 National Women’s Under-18 Championship. After all, the team had eight players who only 10 months earlier won gold at the then-winter event.

But by the time the final horn sounded no one likely predicted this: a run of 291 minutes and 52 seconds of shutout hockey; 19 goals for, one goal against; and not one split second spent needing to mount a comeback.

“I think the talent pool that year was just phenomenal,” says Christina Kessler, now a goalie with the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. “A lot of players went on to play at the university level and with the national program.”

Consider that of the 20 players in Salmon Arm, B.C., that fall:

  • three would win gold medals at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games: Rebecca Johnston, Natalie Spooner and Jennifer Wakefield (Johnston adding to her five-ring medal collection from 2010);

  • seven would play for Canada’s National Women’s Team in international competition: Kessler, Johnston, Spooner and Wakefield, as well as Vicki Bendus, Courtney Birchard and Mallory Deluce;

  • and 10 would play for Canada’s National Women’s Under-22 (now Development) Team: the above seven, as well as Cristin Allen, Jasmine Giles and Britni Smith.

“You look at that roster and there’s a ton of offensively-gifted forwards who could put the puck in the net,” says defenceman Smith, now an assistant coach at Clarkson University. “Our defensive core was a unit that could shut down another team’s offence but also provide our own team offence if needed.” Goaltenders Kessler and Jamie Miller could win games on their own. “It’s hard to pick out one aspect of what the team’s strengths were because I think we were just a really well-rounded team that year.”

Talk to the players now and even they shake their heads at the names on the roster.

“Just from all the players we had I’m sure we were a fast team and I think just very talented,” says Johnston, a member of Canada’s National Women’s Team since 2007. “I think our speed was a major attribute.”

Competition at the selection camps alone showed the players that skill would not be an issue.

“I think we knew right away we had something pretty special,” says Smith. “I don’t think we would’ve forecasted only allowing one goal against and having a pretty dominant tournament like we did, but I think we knew we had what it took and it was just a matter of putting it together in the right moments.”

How quickly team chemistry formed – a crucial element of success in a short-term tournament – was also key, says Birchard. “You can have the most skill you want but if you’re not going to play the systems like a team then you’re going to break down.”

“We were able to come together quickly,” says Smith. “I would say we were a close-knit team even going in.”

Ontario Red, and Ontario Blue, spent a weekend ahead of time at Teen Ranch in Caledon, Ont. “I think the girls today are a little more exposed to knowing the other teams,” says Birchard, then a forward but now a defenceman with Team Canada. “When I played we didn’t really know a lot of the other girls on the other [club] teams.” Bonds were made, pranks were pulled (pots and pans as the soundtrack of an early wake-up call courtesy of Ontario Blue still ring in Birchard’s ears), and both sides headed west feeling like a part of a larger Team Ontario.

Familiarity also played a roll. The roster included three members of the Durham Lightning, three members of the Etobicoke Dolphins and six members of the Toronto Aeros. (The Aeros, with Kessler and Birchard, finished that 2005-06 season undefeated, winning both the PWHL championship and a gold medal at the OWHA provincials.)

“How you come together as a team is almost as important as your team’s systems and how you execute on the ice,” says Smith. “We knew each other somewhat so coming together quickly was easy for us and it bode well for how quickly we started the tournament and kind of started running right through.”

The November 2005 tournament was only the third National Women’s Under-18 Championship, but a pattern had already formed. Ontario Red won the inaugural event in 2001. It defended its title four years later in January 2005. The team was clearly going in as the favourite.

But everyone loves an underdog.

“The crowd support and the number of fans we got was great, but definitely everyone wants Team Red to lose,” says Birchard, laughing. “I do remember that.”

Ontario Red coasted through the preliminary round, shutting out Manitoba (4-0), Saskatchewan (5-0) and Alberta (3-0). Eleven players got on the scoresheet in the 5-0 semifinal win over Atlantic.

Before the gold medal game against Quebec, the coaching staff gave the players letters they had asked the girls’ parents to write for each of them.

“I was in Grade 10 at the time,” says Smith. “As a younger kid it’s a bit of an eye-opener [to learn] how proud your parents are of you. It was just something before the final game to bring everyone together and have a bit of that heartfelt moment, and then recognize it’s go time.”

Johnston scored in the first and Bendus in the second. With 8:08 to play in the third, Audrey Cournoyer finally beat Kessler to make it 2-1, which would be the final.

“The highlight was being able to play a close game like that when it was the most important,” says Smith, “to have the team handle that adversity because we weren’t necessarily tested with that type of challenge until the final game.”

Johnston was named Top Forward and Kessler took home Top Goaltender honours.

Ten years later, many players find themselves still connected to the event. Birchard, an assistant coach with the Oakville Hornets Midget AA team, is seeing now Junior player Brooke Jovanovich, a member of Ontario Blue this year, go through the same stages she did as an 18-year-old. Kessler runs a goaltending school, where one of her students is Stephanie Neatby, herself now playing for Ontario Red.

As an assistant coach with Canada’s National Under-18 Women’s Team this season, Smith has already worked with many of the players in Huntsville, both at Hockey Canada’s Summer Showcase and during the team’s three-game series this summer against the United States.

And provincial pride continues to follow the players, even when wearing national colours. It’s not unusual, says Birchard, for Team Ontario or Team Quebec alumnae to take a picture together after a Team Canada has been named.

The cheering continues even when the players are at camps or competitions of their own.

“We all cheer for our province and chirp each other,” says Johnston. “We like to follow [the event] because it’s definitely an important step in women’s hockey and developing at a young age.”

Having some harmless fun at the expense of friends doesn’t hurt either.

“We may brag a little bit, yeah,” says Johnston, laughing. “Ontario may rub it in a bit.”

For more information:

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 284-6484 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 777-4567

Jeremy Knight
Manager, Corporate Communications
Hockey Canada

(647) 251-9738

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