CWHL season preview: Brampton Thunder ready to roll

by Jesse Calomino

With back-to-back third place finishes in the previous two seasons, and an appearance in the 2012 Clarkson Cup final game, the Brampton Thunder have shown themselves to be a team that is incredibly talented.

Moving from Victoria Park Arena to Century Gardens Recreation Centre for the 2013-14 season, and having recently retired player Lori Dupuis take the reins as general manager, are signs that the Brampton Thunder are ready to elevate themselves to championship contenders once again.

Offensively, the Thunder were something of an enigma last season. There were six Brampton players among the top 25 in CWHL scoring. Captain Jayna Hefford in particular ranked fourth last season, with 27 points in 21 games, and was also tied with Toronto Furies sniper Natalie Spooner for fourth in goals with 15 total. Hefford?۪s teammates Gillian Apps and Laura McIntosh also finished with at least a 1.00 point per game pace, while four other Brampton players finished with 10 or more points on the year.

While these were strong showings, it was a recession of sorts when compared to the previous season, when six Thunder players had 20 or more points and another three notched at least 10 points on the hockey year.

With Cherie Piper and the aforementioned Dupuis retiring this off-season, Brampton will be in a hole when it comes to scoring, and that hole gets even deeper given that Apps and Hefford, along with young stars Vicki Bendus and Bailey Bram, are away Canada?۪s National Women?۪s Team in preparation for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

That also means plenty of playing time available up front for some of the younger, hungrier players who will get more of a chance to show their skills. Laura McIntosh is one player in particular will see plenty of ice time. She finished third in team scoring last season with 24 points (six goals, 18 assists) in 24 games. Of Brampton?۪s top eight scorers, she is the only returning player and will be looked upon to carry the team offensively. She won?۪t be alone, of course, as players such Sarah Moe and as Lindsey Vine and will be expected to contribute more offensively.

Dupuis also drafted four very talented forwards among their top five picks in the 2013 CWHL Draft. Their first pick, taken third overall, was Jess Jones. The former Mercyhurst University standout spent last season playing for Pantera Minsk of the Elite Women?۪s Hockey League overseas, where she had an astounding 53 points (28 goals, 25 assists) in just 19 games.

???We?۪re really happy to have Jess Jones join our team,?۝ Dupuis said. ???She is a very talented and excellent hockey mind.?۝

Dupuis also selected another EWHL veteran with her fourth pick in Becky Conroy. Conroy had a strong Canadian Interuniversity Sport career with the Golden Gaels of Queen?۪s University, before moving on to play for the DEC Salzburg Eagles, where she finished with 18 goals in 20 games and 35 total points. Both Jones and Conroy will be expected to reproduce that offensive success at the Canadian Women?۪s Hockey League level.

Defensively, Brampton has remained at about the same strong calibre for the last two seasons. Though this would suggest a less pressing matter, the defensive unit still requires some tweaking if the Thunder are to truly make a run at the Clarkson Cup.

Brampton allowed at least four goals in eight games, which is a stat the team will look to reduce significantly. Courtney Birchard will be the only Brampton defender on the Team Canada centralization list, leaving the Thunder blue line far less depleted than their forward ranks. Tara French and Tara Gray have shown themselves to be dependable on the back end, but they will be counted on to add some scoring punch to the team this year as well. Brampton will also welcome back Ashley Pendleton to the fold. After taking a year off, Pendleton will bring some added experience and stability to the defensive core.

The team?۪s defensive challenges will likely be felt the most in goal, but there will again be some familiarity between the pipes during training camp. Sonja van der Bliek could be a front runner for the starting job as she began 2011-12 season, but her season ended abruptly with a broken collarbone. She will be joined by Jamie Miller, who has some experience at the national level and was a practice goalie with Brampton last season. Sarah Stevens was also drafted by Brampton. She has an outside chance of making the team, but will certainly compete for a position. She spent last year playing with the Barrie Junior Sharks of the Provincial Women?۪s Hockey League, where she had a 0.935 save percentage, 2.08 goals against average and four shutouts in 30 games.

Regardless of the challenges, Dupuis has made it clear that one of her more pressing matters is making Brampton?۪s hockey community feel like a part of the Thunder contingent.

???I think that my first priority is really forging a relationship with the Brampton Canadettes again,?۝ she said. ???As much as we want to reach out to other communities, which I will be doing to Halton Hills and Georgetown and Orangeville and Mississauga, I think it?۪s important to make everybody happy and forge that relationship with somebody that?۪s right in your backyard.?۝

With such strong community involvement in the works, the Brampton Thunder could find themselves surrounded by tons of screaming fans when they take to the ice at Century Gardens this season. There?۪s no doubt about it ??? the Thunder are ready to roll into the 2013-14 CWHL season.

Players to watch: Tara Gray, Mallory Johnston, Laura McIntosh, Lindsey Vine