Canadian Olympian Laura Stacey scored the overtime winner as the Markham Thunder beat the Kunlun Red Star 2-1, claiming the Clarkson Cup as champions of the Canadian Women's Hockey League on Sunday.
Hoisting the Clarkson Cup, often called the Stanley Cup of women's hockey, eased a little of the pain for Stacey and Markham teammates Laura Fortino and Jocelyne Larocque, also members of the Canadian women's team that lost the Olympic gold-medal game to the United States in Pyeongchang.
Stacey, like many Olympians who missed most of the CWHL season to train for and play in the Olympics, struggled to decide if she wanted to return to the league this year after coming home from South Korea. Saying yes landed her in front of the net at Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum on Sunday afternoon, one-timing a pass from Nicole Kosta into the top corner of the KRS net with 2:11 left in four-on-four overtime. Jubilant Markham players spilled onto the ice to celebrate with her.
"At first, I was kind of done, really upset about the Olympics and exhausted. But I went to watch Markham play and was surrounded by all the girls, and it was really hard to say no to such an amazing group of girls," Stacey said. "I knew we had a chance to chase that Clarkson Cup and to be able to put a smile on my face with this group."
Markham won its last seven games of the regular season and then swept Les Canadiennes de Montreal – reigning Clarkson Cup champions – in last week's best-of-three semi-final playoff series. It was the team's first season in Markham after relocating from Brampton.
Sunday, the Thunder topped KRS, one of two expansion teams the CWHL added in China this season. Based in Shenzhen, China, KRS joined the CWHL in an effort to boost that country's women's hockey programs before Beijing held the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Markham matched up well with KRS, a roster made up of Chinese national team players, former U.S. Olympians, Finnish Olympic bronze-medal-winning goaltender Noora Raty and North American players with Chinese heritage who may qualify to play for China at the 2022 Games.
"I'm really proud of my team; probably not a lot of people thought we'd make it to the final," said Raty, who saved 37 of 39 shots on Sunday, a week after her 66-save shutout in triple overtime helped KRS win its semi-final series over the Calgary Inferno. "This was their first time in the league, and until the last week these Chinese women hadn't been in a championship game. So hopefully this shows them to dream big and get in these championship games, and some day be able to win these games."
Before the game, the ice was jam-packed with local girls' hockey teams lining each faceoff circle to stand for the anthems of both Canada and China.
Roughly half of the 7,779 seats in Ricoh Coliseum were full. There were a few hundred fans clustered in one section waving tiny Chinese flags as members of the Chinese media fixed their cameras on them.
The game was broadcast on a couple of secondary channels in China – despite it being very late at night – as well as streamed online. Journalists from many major Chinese outlets were in the house.
"I think definitely this is inspiring kids in China to play hockey. We have high hopes and we still have four years to go until the Olympics," said Billy Ngok, the founder of KRS, who also founded China Environmental Energy Holdings, an energy-trading firm based in Hong Kong. "Also we have a program to track all the North American Chinese players to play for the country, and I think they are strong, and this is very positive."
Nicole Brown opened the scoring for the Thunder in the first period.
Kelli Stack, a two-time Olympic silver medalist from Ohio who didn't make the 2018 U.S. Olympic roster, scored the lone goal for KRS in the final minute of the second period, deflecting a shot by fellow American Zoe Hickel. Stack had been the pre-eminent star of this CWHL season, becoming the league scoring champion with 49 points (26 goals, 23 assists).
Markham goalie Erica Howe, who made 17 saves, was chosen the Clarkson Cup MVP.
KRS awkwardly waited around and then left the ice as Markham got distracted in celebrating and taking team photos, and did not take a moment to first do a handshake line. Then, in the back hallways of the arena, the CWHL had to rush its players through interviews as Ricoh Coliseum staff hurried fans, players and media out of the building. The Toronto Marlies and Springfield Thunderbirds were trying to prepare for their 4:30 p.m. AHL game.
Stacey, for one, was glad this game didn't go into a shootout, as was the case with the Olympic gold-medal game.
"It definitely was a sting at the Olympics. It's never great to come home with a silver," Stacey said. "I don't know if it necessarily eases that pain but it's a really special moment and I'm so happy to be part of it."