Heading into the 2017-18 season, the Toronto Furies goaltending picture was dramatically altered, as impact goaltender Christina Kessler would no longer don the blue and white jersey, absent from occupying her familiar position between the pipes. Valiantly taking on the role of starting goaltender, Sonia van der Bliek, who served dutifully as Kessler’s backup in seasons past, does so with a tremendous respect for her predecessor’s legacy, while looking to keep the franchise’s playoff streak alive.
Gaining the start for the first game of this season, it was one representing a historic emotion for a poignant yet passionate van der Bliek. Guarding the crease against the Markham Thunder, van der Bliek would become part of a new chapter in their franchise lore. Upon graduation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, she would join the Thunder for the next stage of her goaltending odyssey before signing with the Furies, the club’s eternal rival.
Considering that the long-standing Thunder franchise was based in Brampton since its inception, its relocation to the York Region municipality of Markham was an unforeseen one. In addition, the Thunder would abandon its traditional red and black colors, adopting green and silver to commemorate its new beginning in Markham.
While van der Bliek competed for Brampton, the impact of the red and black jersey would take on a highly emotional connotation. Among the most treasured highlights of her career involved her first game against the Thunder. Taking place in early January 2016 following her trade to the Furies, among the numerous fans in attendance for the newest chapter in her CWHL odyssey included van der Bliek’s mother.
With the Thunder hosting a Chuck-a-Puck contest in the second period, whereby fans purchase pucks for charity, and subsequently throwing them onto the ice, with the one closest to the face off circle receiving a prize, the result was nothing short of astounding. The closest on this day was Mrs. van der Bliek, gaining a red game-worn Thunder jersey, which was also signed by the player. With good fortune in her favor, it was a unique element of destiny, which saw her obtain the jersey worn by Sonja, adorned by the number 30.
As the newest chapter in the Battle of Toronto involved the Thunder in their new green jerseys, these distinguished adversaries facing off at MasterCard Centre, it was somewhat fitting that the first game in Markham franchise history involved van der Bliek, a Thunder alum between the pipes for the Furies. Although the veteran goaltender is part of a rare group of women that have seen both sides in this Battle, having suited up for both franchises at one point in their illustrious careers, she approaches each contest with a tenacious intensity, eager to defeat her former team,
“I always like playing against the Thunder. We have a great GTA rivalry going and it is definitely a bit more personal for me as well - they are always intense games. We all kind of know each other since the women's hockey world is a small one, but once we hit the ice that is pretty much forgotten and it's a battle.”
Opposing All-Star goaltender Erica Howe, the rivalry reached a new intensity, as the Furies and their relocated rivals in Markham participated in a defensive stalemate filled with a captivating tension. Logging 31 saves against the Thunder, van der Bliek’s tremendous effort ensured that the first victory in Markham history would be hard-earned.
With Markham emerging victorious in a 1-0 final, as York University alum Kristen Barbara scored Markham’s first-ever goal, the final score could have easily ended in Toronto’s favor instead, as van der Bliek was integral to the Furies remaining competitive. Fittingly, both Howe and van der Bliek were recognized among the Game’s Three Stars.
Recording 14 saves the following day, as the Furies captured the win in the second game of the series, van der Bliek helped the club overcome a 1-0 disadvantage, to mount a comeback in a 2-1 final. Goals by Brittany Zuback and Emily Fulton, who logged the game-winning tally, made a crucial statement, indicating that the rivalry would continue to be hotly contested. Worth noting, van der Bliek would be rewarded for her efforts during such an eventful weekend as she was named Goaltender of the Week, commemorating her sizzling start to the new campaign. As a side note, she would be the first goaltender of the 2017-18 season to obtain such honors.
“It's always nice to start the season off on a good note, and it was definitely an honour. With that being said, I am focusing more on our team goals as we approach the midpoint of our season and push for a playoff spot.”
Another inspiring performance would take place in a Remembrance Day home match with the powerhouse Calgary Inferno. As the Furies were outshot in every period, the Inferno peppering van der Bliek in double digits for every period (including 16 in the second), the effort speaks for itself. With the Inferno registering 46 shots, compared to 15 for the home team, van der Bliek’s 43 saves, a season-high, was crucial in forcing a shootout. Recording four saves in the shootout, van der Bliek’s victory was assured after Julie Allen, the Furies fifth skater, scored the dramatic winner. Definitely, such a valiant performance was also one of the season’s finest.
Following the Inferno, van der Bliek and her teammates crossed the Pacific, engaging in a historic series. With the Furies playing regular season games in China for the first time in franchise history, she was between the pipes for three out of four games, challenging the Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays. Worth noting, van der Bliek was the starter for the Furies first-ever game in China, a November 18 match versus Red Star. As a side note, the Rays had already visited Toronto, with van der Bliek posting 36 saves in an October 28 home affair.
In spite of the opposing team prevailing in all three outcomes in China, van der Bliek recorded a cumulative total of 89 saves. The final game in China would see the Furies force a shootout against the Rays, with van der Bliek providing a series of outstanding efforts throughout the contest.
Looking towards a strong second half, it is an opportunity for van der Bliek’s work ethic between the pipes to continue motivating her teammates. Undoubtedly, van der Bliek’s indomitable spirit has already accounted for significant leadership.
As the current season is one defined by both expansion and Centralization, resulting in an unprecedented number of rookies, the highest in league play since the 2009-10 campaign, it has allowed van der Bliek to rise to the occasion. While the Furies boast one of their biggest rookie classes ever, the veteran presence in the net, highlighted by van der Bliek and Sami Jo Small, is highly valued.
“Our team has more rookies this year than I've ever seen, so it gives all of the vets an opportunity to step into a leadership role. I have been on the team a few years, and in the league for quite a while, so I try to lead by example on and off the ice and be a resource for our rookies.”
While this season has proven to be the finest hour for van der Bliek, there is no question that she finds an invaluable resource in her fellow goaltender. Graceful and articulate, Small is one of the game’s greatest ambassadors. Having once enjoyed the privilege of hearing her speak at elementary school, it would have been unconceivable at the time to believe that she would gain the opportunity to call such a role model her teammate one day.
Coincidentally, Small is also an alum of the Brampton Thunder, having actually scored a goal for the club. Undoubtedly, the opportunity to call her a teammate is one that has provided van der Bliek with a great satisfaction, the culmination of a dream come true.
With a victory against the expansion Vanke Rays, Small set a new benchmark as the oldest goaltender to win a regular league game. At 41 years young, the epic presence of Small, a remarkable symbol of endurance, evokes feelings among the GTA’s hockey aficionados of legendary Johnny Bower, who stood between the pipes for the Toronto Maple Leafs past the age of 40.
For van der Bliek, the chance to share goaltending duties with the Furies co-founder is one based on inspiration, highly motivated to raise the quality of her game, while emulating her strong leadership. Elements that certainly provide a positive example and help strengthen the culture of the proud blue and white.
“Sami has always been someone I have looked up to, she's a legend. When I was in Grade 6, she actually came and spoke at my elementary school, and I have been in awe of her ever since. Having her as a teammate these past few seasons has helped me mature, and also shown me the type of work ethic required to keep competing at this level.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Chris Tanouye, Jersey image obtained from former Brampton Thunder website