Four years ago, a new team entered the CWHL fray. Dubbed "Team Alberta," they had losing records in each of their first two seasons before getting a name, finally breaking the .500 mark in 2013-14, and making the Clarkson Cup playoffs. However, once there, they got swept by their opponents, retreating to the drawing board for 2014-15.
Now, with the regular season about to come to a close, the Calgary Inferno find themselves about to have their best season yet (provided they can get past Brampton this coming weekend) and set for another crack at hoisting the silver cup for the first time. Much of their success this year can be owed to a core of new players, including eight rookies, who have each found a place in the lineup.
Perhaps the biggest impact has been on offense, where two first-year players in particular have been impressive up front. Alongside Olympians Rebecca Johnston and Haley Irwin (who scored 20 points before being injured in mid-January) are Brittany Esposito and Jessica Campbell. Usually on the same line, these two players have filled out the scoring in Irwin's absence, Esposito with 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) and Campbell with 14 (11 goals, three assists). Campbell's efforts during January earned her the Gongshow Gear Player of the Month, and she credited her linemate Esposito's puck skills and ability to find her anywhere on the ice for her success.
For her part, Esposito has found the transition easy and her fellow rookies to be a big help with that.
"We work off each other, just trying to get our bearings," she said. "It's been great transitioning -- I was really quiet and shy coming in, and everyone helped me out of my shell. They [the veterans on the team] really get you to a place where you're comfortable."
She added that there was never any feeling of "hierarchy" or rookies vs. vets coming onto the team.
"It was not a 'we have to stick together' kind of situation with the other rookies," she said. "Everyone was very supportive."
Aside from the overwhelming support comes a wealth of experience and leadership, particularly when it comes to players like Johnston, whom Esposito says has proven to be a great role model from the jump.
"She's been an awesome teammate," Esposito said. "She hates to lose in anything, and when you see that kind of competitiveness, you realize that's the work ethic you need to stick in this league."
A new face on the Inferno (she was originally drafted by Toronto in 2012, the same year as Irwin), the 25-year-old forward is familiar with many of the players in this league from playing either with or against them, and that familiarity coupled with a tireless work ethic has inspired rookies and fellow veterans alike.
"She brings in not only a ton of skill but experience, especially to our new girls," said Jenna Cunningham, a forward and alternate captain who has been with the team since its inception in 2011. "Any time you bring in a player like that, it's a big help to your team."
Johnston is in good company on the Inferno. Many of its players are products of Hockey Canada, including Campbell, fellow rookies Hayleigh Cudmore, Louise Warren and Sarah Davis, Bailey Bram, and Jessica Wong. Olympic and international talent can be found within every CWHL roster, which has elevated the level of competition and made for more parity within the league.
"So many of these girls are now coming to play just out of college, with the capacity to make a career out of hockey," Cunningham said. "In the past, players were here because they still love and want to play the sport, but they had other priorities."
That shift has also led to greater interest in the league and in Calgary's team in particular, which can be considered a legitimate Clarkson Cup contender at this point in the season. Cunningham noted seeing larger crowds at games, adding that the game has become more exciting to watch.
It has also led to better experience and competition for newcomers to the league.
"It's a way faster game," rookie goaltender Camille Trautman said. "The shots are better, the players are stronger and smarter. It's a really good experience to play with these girls at the highest level."
Trautman got to see that firsthand in her last start against Boston, a team rich with Olympic-level talent in Brianna Decker, Monique Lamoureux, and Tara Watchorn. She made 33 saves in a 4-3 shootout loss, and she said that she doesn't let herself get too intimidated by the elite names.
"They're just like any other players out there," she said. "I don't really think about it."
Esposito is also used to this level, having played against many of her opponents during university at Northeastern, but she admits feeling a bit of trepidation.
"It can be intimidating initially, but playing with and against them is definitely a level-up in the talent pool," she said.
More of a challenge is the schedule. Calgary is far removed from the rest of the teams in the league, and three-game weekends are the norm, presumably to cut down on travel costs. That means plenty of rest and preparation, physically and mentally, for the long weekend ahead.
Also a challenge for some, like Trautman, is the travel to and from Calgary. While Esposito, Cunningham and others either hail from or have family in and close by the area, Trautman has to travel over two hours each way from her hometown of Rimbey, where she farms. Still, all things considered, she has considered this run with the Inferno a valuable experience.
"I told myself I would try this for a year, to see if I could do it, and I think I've proven that," she said.
Meanwhile, Esposito is looking forward to growing her team and the league, saying she wants to play for as long as she can. And Cunningham, looking back on four years of growth for the Inferno, says this team has good things still ahead for it.
"There's a lot of energy and optimism now," she said. "The last two years were a building process, but now we've got a strong core."