Scott Stinson: Canadian and American CWHL stars put national loyalties aside for Clarkson Cup final

Scott Stinson: Canadian and American CWHL stars put national loyalties aside for Clarkson Cup final
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TORONTO — Katia Clement-Heydra offers a blunt assessment of Hilary Knight, the Team USA star who became her teammate on Les Canadiennes Montreal this season.

“She has so much skill, she has the size, she has everything,” she said. “I hate, you know, practising against her.”

Clement-Heydra continues: “She’s one of the hardest players to defend, but at the same time I’m happy because she makes us so much better and she pushes us.”

Knight’s move to Montreal this year was part of a tectonic shift in the women’s hockey landscape. Her fellow Olympic gold medallists Brianna Decker and Kacey Bellamy came north to play for the Calgary Inferno. In leaving the U.S.-based NWHL for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the American stars gave the CWHL clear bragging rights for having the best depth of talent in the world.

The move also created a couple of powerhouses. With Decker and Bellamy playing with Canadian national team members like Rebecca Johnston and Brianne Jenner, and Knight on a team with Team Canada superstar Marie-Philip Poulin, Calgary and Montreal were dominant all season: they were a combined 44-10-2, with the Inferno finishing just ahead of Les Canadiennes in the standings. They will now face off on Sunday afternoon in Toronto in the Clarkson Cup final.

She has so much skill, she has the size, she has everything. I hate, you know, practising against her

Decker, who decided together with Bellamy — she says she’s her best friend — to make the jump to Calgary and the CWHL, said that given the high-level experience on the two squads, “It’s honestly, no surprise to me that both our teams are meeting in the finals.”

Johnston says much the same thing, noting that while playoff hockey is unpredictable, “I just assumed that it would be them (in the final).”

The Canadian and American women’s hockey teams have had one of the more incredible rivalries in sport in recent years, and Johnston acknowledges that suddenly having some of those rivals on her pro team required a bit of an adjustment.

“At first, I had never played with any of the Americans before,” she says. “For me, it was weird at first that they were on our team. But I was also really excited to play with them and learn from them.”

Jenner echoes that enthusiasm. “We’re really excited we have that calibre of player in our league,” she says, while admitting that the feelings can get intense when the national-team jerseys are on. “You hate them when you are playing against them between the whistles,” she says, “but we are all professionals, and you’re friends off the ice.”

Jenner adds that there will be no doubt where loyalties lie when she plays with Americans and against her Team Canada allies in the CWHL title game, especially with training camp for the world championships in Finland beginning next week. “We’re all really competitive, and you don’t want to get to camp a couple of days later and have been on the losing end,” she says. “It makes for really fun, exciting matchups.”

Coming the winter after Team USA’s stirring shootout win at Pyeongchang 2018, this could have been expected to be a quiet year for women’s hockey. Instead, it has been the opposite, with Decker and Kendall Coyne-Schofield dazzling in appearances at the NHL’s All-Star Skills Competition in San Jose, and basically everyone involved in the sport talking openly about moving, somehow, to a system with one professional league.

And as much as the arrival of some key Americans made two good teams even stronger — this will be the third Clarkson Cup matchup in four years for Calgary and Montreal — it also exposed an imbalance in the CWHL that is an awkward look for a pro league. There were the two elite teams at the top, three that played around .500 hockey, and then the Worcester Blades, who went 0-28 with a goal differential of -133. Something — a merger, a new league, maybe one with formal NHL assistance — is going to have to give for the women’s game to advance. And while the people running both pro leagues have said they want to move to a one-league model, the process by which they might accomplish that remains perfectly opaque.

But for now, there is a championship game to play between two teams that are shot through with world-class talent. In February, they split a pair of games in Calgary that Clement-Heydra describes as epic.

“At the end, both teams, we kind of looked at each other and it was, ‘wow, I don’t think we’ve ever played that level of hockey in the CWHL’.”

“Hopefully we can recreate what happened in (February) in the Clarkson Cup,” she says. The final is at noon at Coca-Cola Coliseum, home to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

It is pointed out to her that it is just the one game this time.

“Yeah, we can go even harder,” she says. “Empty the tank.”

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