Photo by Heather Pollock
If you’ve followed the Thunder for a while, Liz Knox and Dania Simmonds are familiar names. Both just completed their sixth season with the organization, playing together for five of those campaigns (Knox’s rookie year was a season before Simmonds’, but she took a year off to play overseas in Australia). During their tenure the Thunder’s level of success has fluctuated, but the passion for the game and the commitment to their teammates has never waivered.
“Coming to the Thunder was somewhat intimidating,” remembers Knox, “The team was star-studded and had a culture of respect that I knew was particularly unique to putting on that Thunder jersey.”
With names like Hefford, Apps, Dupuis, Fox, and Piper still playing, new players needed to maintain the competitiveness that defined the organization explained Knox.
“Over the years, especially since the retirement of the main core by 2013, we’ve progressed immensely,” says Simmonds. “We developed our team chemistry, systems, and attitude. It’s paid off.”
The past four seasons are a true testament to this. The Thunder went from missing out on the playoffs, to back-to-back seasons getting knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual Clarkson Cup champions, to claiming the organization’s first Clarkson Cup in franchise history.
“Since last season’s loss in the playoffs, we were determined to play for each other and focus on what we could control,” recalls Simmonds.
Timing was everything – the team bought into the systems and grew stronger together as the season played out.
“It’s like a quiet confidence that comes every-so-often to a special group of people,” says Knox. “It’s hard for me to put into words, but I just knew we had what it would take.”
Of course, before the 2017-2018 season even started, a huge change came to the organization as it moved from Brampton to Markham. Both Knox and Simmonds are from York Region (Stouffville and Aurora, respectively), which added an extra dimension of significance.
“Having played my minor hockey here, it is nice to give back to this community,” Simmonds says.
Knox agrees, “My childhood hockey memories were made here. For Erica Howe to say that she wanted me to play our first game at home…it was a classy move by an amazing teammate. It kind of felt like my career came full circle.”
The City of Markham had hosted the Clarkson Cup before when the playoffs were still a tournament style, and had remained eager to bring a CWHL team into the area.
“It’s something we wanted for a long time, and as soon as the door opened a bit we blew it wide open,” says Mayor Frank Scarpitti. “Having the team here is a positive influence for girls hockey in the region; having the access and to be able to see these women first hand, to have the interactions with them, shows that if you work at it you too can play in the CWHL. It makes it real.”
The team feels the love right back.
“It’s incredible what Markham has done for us,” notes Knox, “From the support of Mayor Scarpitti to loyal fans and families that return every weekend – it’s surpassed our wildest dreams.”
Simmonds echoed this sentiment saying that the city has adopted the Thunder as a professional group of athletes, and has been along for the ride every step of the way.
Those last steps? Making the final push to the playoffs and the 2018 Clarkson Cup.
“We were crossing our fingers as they went into the playoffs against Montreal,” recalls Scarpitti. “We knew it would be a tough go, but they knocked them out!”
Simmonds, who was bestowed the honour of alternate captain this season, knew that in order to have success in Montreal during the playoffs some veteran advice was needed.
“Having been through a lot over the past six seasons, I told everyone to focus on the things we do well – thinking about things we couldn’t control had not worked out in the past,” Simmonds says. “The team kept a calm, disciplined demeanor which really impressed me.”
The win in Montreal meant that the Thunder would return to the Clarkson Cup Final for the first time since Knox’s rookie season.
“I was so young! On a personal level, I had a particularly hard year,” remembers Knox. “I went to Lori Dupuis, feeling somewhat defeated and asking her how I could possibly perform? I’ll never forget what she said, ‘Because you’re a world class athlete and that’s what we do.’”
So what advice did she give before the penultimate game of this season?
“Everything that brought each of us to this moment – every disappointment, heartbreak and obstacle that we faced as a team and as individuals happened for one reason. The reason was that game. We knew what we had to do.”
Everyone watching from the stands or on Sportsnet across the country was on the edge of their seats, including Mayor Scarpitti.
“What a way to end the season, to finish it the way it started, against the Kunlun Red Star. To win in overtime in the way the goal was scored…I didn’t appreciate it live – I just jumped when I saw the light come on – but having gone back and watching the video, it was a beautiful pass and an amazing goal!”
For the Thunder, winning the organization’s second championship, but first ever Clarkson Cup was, “Indescribable,” says Simmonds. “After six years, with the support of all of Thunder Nation, from Brampton to Markham, it’s been a long time coming. I’m so happy to have reached our goal. ”
Has being a Clarkson Cup Champion sunk in yet?
“The thought stops me in the middle of my day sometimes,” Knox shares. “We’re Clarkson Cup Champions — Incredible.”