Eight Calgary Inferno players made the trek to the Air Canada Centre in Toronto for the 2016 CWHL All-Star Weekend, and four of them were on the winning side Saturday as Julie Chu’s Team Black beat Natalie Spooner’s Team White, 5-1.
Hayley Wickenheiser and Jill Saulnier each scored for Team Black, while Jessica Campbell broke through for the lone goal for Team White. Brittany Esposito, Brianne Jenner, and Jacquie Pierri were also on Team White, while Elana Lovell and Delayne Brian rounded out representation on Team Black.
Saulnier was part of Team Black’s high-impact line centered by Marie-Philip Poulin and also featuring Poulin’s teammate on Les Canadiennes de Montreal, Caroline Ouellette. This line was all over the ice early on, creating great chances, making beautiful passes, and crashing the net when necessary. They combined for five points on the afternoon.
Poulin had high praise for her linemates after the game.
"I had great teammates," she said. "They make me look good out there… I play with Caro often, but with Jill, she’s such a great player… I think it’s quite fun, to be able to play with the best in the league, that’s what we look forward to every time."
Brian was also solid in net for Team Black in relief of Toronto’s Christina Kessler, allowing just the one goal (by her Inferno teammate Campbell) late in the second period.
"I was a little nervous going in after Kessler because she did such a great job," Brian said of her time in net. "The puck was bouncing a lot, and I just tried to get in front of it whenever I could. My teammates were blocking a lot of shots too, which was nice."
Of course, there was the one goal by Campbell to put a damper on things, which Brian joked about afterward.
"Maybe she’ll be a little more confident for the rest of the season," she said, laughing. "It’s just a lot of fun though [to play against your teammates], especially joking around, giving a little hack on the shin pads."
The All-Star Game is old hat for Brian and Campbell, as they also attended last year’s, but for Wickenheiser, it was her first opportunity (along with Elana Lovell) to experience the festivities.
"It was fun," she said. "It’s good for the game. We just try to keep it entertaining and fun, because that’s what these games are about, to showcase the talent in the league."
Wickenheiser’s goal came on what she called a "pretty simple 2-on-1," receiving a good pass from Brampton’s Jess Jones and getting past Genevieve Lacasse of the Boston Blades.
"It was fun to score one," she said. "That’s what people come to see, is lots of goals and lots of plays."
It was a little bit of a lopsided outcome, with Team Black finishing far more chances, but the crowd was still engaged and excited. Plenty of children’s voices rose up to the rafters of the ACC, a reminder of the family-oriented fun the CWHL endeavours to put forth.
"These are the kids I’m going to be watching on TV one day," Wickenheiser said. "This is the next generation of the game, so it’s important that they have a good experience when they come, and that they see the skilled part of the game that we want to showcase."
Brian also spoke to the desire for a mix of fun and finesse.
"It’s on TV [for the All-Star Game], and it’s not on TV for our regular-season games," she said. "We want to show fans that we can play hockey, and we can still have fun doing it."
That was definitely achieved, as players joked around, mock-fought and posed for selfies with fans on the other side of the glass. But it was still a game filled with excitement and skill, and while it provides a break within a tough season, it’ll be back to business by the end of the weekend -- and with two teams nipping at the Inferno’s heels for first place, every game will count.
"On my team, we had a bunch of Montreal girls, and you make friendships with them, but come Monday, it’s back to business," Brian said. "So, practice Tuesday and Thursday, we’ll be ready for them."
The Inferno also have plenty to focus on as they enter a key stretch in their season heading into the Clarkson Cup playoffs. Brian said the team "plateaud" toward the end of the regular season last year, leading to a lackluster postseason performance, so the focus will be on continuing to score and keeping things on a high heading into March.
Staying disciplined and defensively minded will also be key.
"We don’t get a lot of games together, so we have to clean up some of our habits in our own end, take fewer penalties, and just continue to play quick and fast all over the ice," Wickenheiser said.
The Inferno will look to do that as they return to action Saturday, Jan. 30, heading to Montreal. Puck drop will be at 3:30 p.m. MST (5:30 p.m. EST) Saturday and 11:30 a.m. (1:30 p.m.) Sunday at Arena Etienne-Desmarteau. The Saturday game will be streamed on CWHLLive.com.