After expanding to China in June, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League made official Tuesday the relocation of the Brampton Thunder to the city of Markham.
The news, first reported by Scott Wheeler of the Toronto Star, was confirmed by CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress and Markham mayor Frank Scarpitti at a press conference at the Thornhill Community Centre where the Thunder will play out of next season.
“There's long been a strong desire to have a CWHL team in the city of Markham,” said Scarpitti, who joked that his city was stealing Brampton’s ‘Thunder.’ “Having the Thunder here will definitely raise the profile of women in sport, and in particular women's hockey. I think it's an excellent synergy between the CWHL, the Thunder, and the community girls hockey league.”
Markham has a history with the league, having hosted the Clarkson Cup tournaments from 2013 to 2015 -- events that laid the groundwork for this relationship. Scarpitti noted that conversations had begun years before but surfaced again within the last four to five months.
“For Brampton, what we've always looked for is to provide them with the same opportunities that all CWHL teams have, and Markham has the ability to offer that,” Andress said.
For the Thunder, who were defeated in the Clarkson Cup semifinal by the eventual 2017 champions, Les Canadiennes de Montreal, the move means a larger seating capacity for games, larger rink dimensions, and improved facilities such as changing rooms and gyms.
“The way that the rink looks and the change room facilities [is cause for excitement],” said the Thunder’s Laura Stacey. “Our rink in Brampton, it had a lot of character, but here with the increase in rink size, having our own room and facility, the money that the city put towards our team, the gym we now have so we can be at our best; they did a great job. We're in awe.”
For the community, it means the further development of girls and women’s hockey. A girls camp was on hand at the press conference, chanting “Go Markham Thunder, go!” at its conclusion.
“One of the things the CWHL does is continue to look for places for our players to grow, where we can connect with the community and young children as much as the young women in that community,” said Andress. “We make sure that we leave a footprint for the young girls and women.”
“Hosting this calibre of hockey will inspire female athletes,” Scarpitti said. “It's important that young girls see themselves reflected in the sports that are being played in this community at a professional level.”
Chelsea Purcell, Thunder GM, was given much of the credit for initializing and facilitating the move. Brampton was one of the first organizations in the CWHL (formerly called the NWHL) and was created by Olympian Vicky Sunohara (who was on hand Tuesday) and former Brampton mayor Susan Fennell. But the state of the city rink’s facilities, like limited seating for fans and insufficient changing rooms for players, meant a move was necessary.
The Greater Toronto Area will now see its two CWHL teams spread across both ends of the city. The Toronto Furies play in the city’s west suburb of Etobicoke while Markham is northeast of the downtown core. Markham has a large east-Asian community, one that could fill the rink with fans when the Chinese expansion team, Kunlun Red Star, visits in 2017-18. The new 30-game schedule suggests KRS would play in every North American city three times each.
“Markham is the Chinese capital of the GTA, so we'll have great attendance here to watch women's hockey,” said Scarpitti. “Our discussions regarding relocation started much earlier than [the June 5th expansion announcement]. And then out of the blue, I was invited to the announcement and I was grinning ear-to-ear because of the great fit and timing for us.”
According to the 2016 Canadian census survey, Markham has a population of 328,966, with nearly 40% of that total being east-Asian -- the largest demographic in the city.
Moving the Thunder to Markham could have an effect on girls minor hockey too. Mayor Scarpitti said that policy changes with regard to equal ice time between boys and girls teams had already begun to take effect, but that this relocation could provide a boost to interest in girls sports.
“We take great pride in our own policy that has championed women's sports by ensuring fair and equitable access to all fields of play,” he said. “We're making sure the girls gets equal time in our facilities. We've [made changes to ice time availability for girls and boys] already. In fact, a boys hockey league that felt a bit of the [scheduling] impact. The policy was already there but this is a tangible sign that we're committed to making sure there is equity in the system.”
Markham was once reported to have interest in attracting an NHL team, a notion Scarpitti said is only improved with this effort to bring hockey to the city.
“Firstly, Markham's [goal] is to enhance sport in our community,” he said. “Anything we can do to build a capacity for sport, we strongly endorse that. If that leads to other opportunities, which I think it does by virtue of the fact that we're part of the ecosystem, the possibilities could be endless. But nothing will make me happier to see young girls in those seats to watch the Markham Thunder.”