Gaels bring new blood to CIS finals

It doesn’t matter whether a team plays in a peewee or a professional league, a run of seven straight titles by one squad is a dynasty in every sense of the word.

But when it happens in one of the top women’s hockey leagues in Canada, the Ontario University Athletics (OUA), something is fundamentally wrong with the structure of the organization.

That’s why the Queen’s Gaels’ 2011 OUA championship, which broke Laurier’s record-breaking run of seven straight titles, is good for the purple and gold.

Once the home-ice, national bronze-losing performance by the Golden Hawks has finished humbling the squad, the Laurier players and coaches will wake up to a new day — and a new league.

No longer a dynasty, but still very much a threat, the Golden Hawks have become a part of a power shift that has seen a rise in talent in rival schools.

The Hawks didn’t “choke” in their OUA semifinal series loss to eventual champions, Queen’s.

Nor did they stumble in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) bronze medal rematch versus the Gaels.

They were simply outperformed.

Sure, the Hawks racked up 24 wins in 27 contests during the regular season compared to Queens’ 15.

But Queen’s took a very different route to their first OUA title since 1979.

As opposed to the Hawks, whose immense school expectations include frequent citations as the top team on campus and a “win or go home” mentality, the Gaels were progressive in their road to the title.

They started small. They evolved.

The Gaels came together as a team halfway through the season to the point where taking down the Hawks was not only possible, but probable.

Throw in clutch scoring from a duo of second-year sisters, Brittany and Morgan McHaffie, a talented sniper in Kelsey Thomson, and timely saves from a goaltender who simply refused to lose, Mel Dodd-Moher, and you have the recipe for playoff magic.

“I’m proud of them,” said iconic Laurier goaltender and recently-graduated, Liz Knox of the Gaels. “That’s what we need. We need teams to represent the OUA, we need teams to show the CIS what kind of talent we’re up against.”

The Gaels are just the tip of the trendsetting iceberg.

The Brock Badgers put up an astounding 22-5 record to finish in second place, with Badgers’ coach Jim Denham recently named the top coach in the country.

The Badgers won the season series with the Hawks, 2-1.

Even the fifth-placed Windsor Lancers managed to topple Laurier in October.

“We deserve to be here [at the CIS championship],” said Gaels head coach, Matt Holmberg. “The team realizes now that they belong in the same breath as [powerhouses Alberta, Laurier, and Manitoba], and that’s giving those teams full respect.”

“I think it’s great having a new team in the championship,” said national champions’ McGill captain and Team Canada veteran, Cathy Chartrand.

“We hope it’s going to stay like that.”

Bronze medal, goal-scoring heroine Kerstin van Bolderen of Queen’s also likes the future of her school’s prospects.

“Hopefully the recruits coming in see that we’ve got a great program… we’re thrilled with the exposure, we’re really proud of the program we’ve got over there.”

A deeper competition pool for coach Rick Osborne and his Hawks guarantees not only a better on-ice product, but a more consistent team measuring stick.

No longer will practice scrimmages be the most talent-laden game the Hawks play in.

Prospects will find schools like Queen’s and Brock just as enticing as Laurier with the advancement of their respective programs.

The Hawks will play meaningful, hard-fought games in both game one, as well as the championship.

It may hurt the purple and gold’s scouting efforts, but the improvement in the quality of the league will reap enormous rewards through these teams’ new-found talents.