At the age of 23, Scarborough, Ont., native Natalie Spooner is one of the most accomplished female hockey players in Canadian history.
On the international stage, she was a vital cog on Canada’s gold-medal winning outfit at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, scoring twice in a 3-1 semifinal victory over Switzerland.
She’s laid claim to three silver medals and a gold medal over four years of competition at the IIHF World Women’s Championships.
In 2008, she won a silver medal with Canada at the IIHF World Women’s U18 Championship.
If winning Olympic gold wasn’t great enough, Spooner departed from the Winter Games to join the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), helping the squad to a Clarkson Cup championship.
In doing so, she became the first player in hockey history to win an Olympic gold and Clarkson Cup title in the same year.
“It’s pretty crazy — 2014 was a pretty unreal year for me,” said Spooner, a 5-foot-9 forward, while visiting Cranbrook as a part of the Prairie Toyota Clarkson Cup Tour. “To be able to come back and join the Toronto Furies and win the Clarkson Cup, I think it was pretty unexpected for us. We were the underdogs, but to do it with that team was pretty amazing.
“It was a dream come true winning an Olympic gold medal. I think the next best thing that I could ever dream of is winning a Clarkson Cup.”
The Prairie Toyota Clarkson Cup Tour arrived in Cranbrook on Monday and setup shop in the Tamarack Mall parking lot, complete with Canada’s largest mobile synthetic ice surface, the Clarkson Cup, and two Olympic gold medallists — Spooner and Meaghan Mikkelson.
The Clarkson Cup is awarded annually to the winner of the CWHL.
It was named after former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson, just as the Stanley Cup was named after another former Governor General of Canada, Lord Stanley of Preston.
The CWHL is a professional women’s hockey league dedicated to raising the profile of women’s hockey and providing a place for the world’s best female hockey players to train and compete.
The Boston Blades (winner of the 2015 Clarkson Cup), Brampton Thunder, Calgary Inferno, Montreal Stars and Toronto Furies comprise the five-team CWHL.
With the CWHL’s relatively small footprint in North America, Spooner is hopeful the Prairie Toyota Clarkson Cup Tour brings the women’s professional game into the minds of aspiring female hockey players in smaller markets around the country.
“A lot of people don’t really know what the CWHL is at first,” said Spooner, who also enjoyed a successful and well-decorated college career with the NCAA’s Ohio State Buckeyes. “Telling them that there is a place where the women play and [having] little girls come up and have them think, ‘I’m going to play in the CWHL when I’m older, not the NHL,’ like I used to think. There’s a league now for women to play [in].”
Mikkelson, a member of the Calgary Inferno, might be touring with the Clarkson Cup and promoting the women’s game, but she wasn’t ready to touch the trophy out of superstition, having not yet won the top prize in women’s professional hockey.
Even without a Clarkson Cup title to her name, the 30-year-old Mikkelson has experienced her fair share of success over the course of her career, having won two Olympic gold medals (2010 and 2014), a IIHF World Women’s Championship (2012) and a 4 Nations Cup (2010).
She’s also collected four silver medals at the IIHF Worlds (2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013) and, like Spooner, enjoyed a successful career in the NCAA with the Wisconsin Badgers.
“Getting out and interacting with everyone in the different communities — they’re places that we normally don’t get to travel to for hockey,” said Mikkelson, a 5-foot-9 defender and native of Regina. “A place like Cranbrook, a great hockey town, this tour gives us the opportunity to get out here and interact with all the kids and any fans that want to come out and say hi.”
Though Mikkelson and Spooner have seen great success throughout their careers and watched the women’s game grow immensely, not only in Canada, but globally, they both acknowledge there is still plenty of room for the game to evolve.
“Making a career out of [hockey] — for girls, it’s not always easy to be training and playing on a team and to be working a job,” Mikkelson said. “That’s what the majority of the girls in this league do. They work jobs and they play in the league. That’s just the way it is for now. It’s the way our league is operating right now.
“We’re all very confident that, one day, we’ll get paid. But for now, I think that’s probably the biggest hurdle.”
And Spooner agrees.
“A lot of people tune in for the Olympics and then kind of forget about us,” Spooner said. “If we get more fans in the seats it’s going to help more sponsors want to come on board and help our league out. The growth, in the end, will be able to make a career out of hockey for women. That’s the ultimate goal — little girls wanting to grow up and be a hockey player.”
The Prairie Toyota Clarkson Cup Tour will make 28 stops throughout the summer. After leaving Cranbrook and its only B.C. stop, the tour visited Lethbridge on July 21 before setting off for Medicine Hat (July 22) and Moose Jaw (July 23).
The tour will hit a variety of other prairie towns in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario before wrapping up in mid to late August.
When it comes to a close, Spooner will head back to the Toronto Furies for another run at the Clarkson Cup and she hopes to have inspired other young girls around Western Canada to dream of one day doing the same.
“Dream big — anything is possible if you work hard and set your mind to it. Have fun. I have fun every time I go on the ice and I think that’s the best part of it.”