From the rink to the diamond:

Former CWHL player and coach Ashley Stephenson representing Canada at 2015 Pan Am Games

by Mark Staffieri

As the city of Toronto plays host to the 2015 Pan Am Games, the Canadian contingent can boast a proud connection to the CWHL.

Ashley Stephenson, a former player with the Brampton Thunder and Burlington Barracudas, and coach with the Toronto Furies, will compete in women?۪s baseball, which is making its debut at these Games.

Being contested for the first time in a major multi-national sporting event, the inclusion of women?۪s baseball marks a significant breakthrough in athletic equality. A member of the Canadian National Women?۪s Baseball Team since 2004, Stephenson, who is currently employed as a high school phys-ed teacher, is one of several two-sport stars in Furies history.

In addition to Stephenson?۪s heroics on the diamond, former Furies blueliner Amber Bowman broke many of her own records as a champion in the World Firefighter Challenge. A member of the Furies?۪ Clarkson Cup-championship team, Carolyne Prevost is a nationally-ranked competitor in Cross Fit. Prior to her CWHL career, Prevost was also a provincial champion in taekwondo. And just this month, Furies players Lexi Hoffmeyer and Kori Cheverie competed in the ISBHF World Ball Hockey Championship in Zug, Switzerland.

Selected 23rd overall by the Brampton Thunder in the inaugural 2010 CWHL Draft, Stephenson spent two seasons with the Burlington Barracudas (2010-12), including their last in league history.

Prior to the CWHL Draft, Stephenson spent two seasons with the Thunder (2005-07), before moving on to the now-defunct Mississauga Chiefs for three seasons. Competing in the CWHL?۪s inaugural season of 2007-08, Stephenson registered 12 points, finishing ninth in team scoring, while appearing in the CWHL?۪s championship game.

During the Barracudas final season, Stephenson ranked sixth on the club in scoring, while ranking second among blueliners, trailing only Shannon Moulson. Of note, the final goal of her CWHL career was a historic one for several reasons. Scored on Dec. 18, 2011, against Erika Vanderveer of the Toronto Furies, not only did it stand as the game-winning goal, it signified the final win in Barracudas franchise history. In addition, Stephenson earned a third period assist on a goal scored by Joanne Eustace, representing the final multi-point game of her career.

Her final point was registered on Jan. 18, 2012, an assist on Samantha Shirley?۪s power-play goal in a 4-1 loss to Toronto. The following day, Stephenson stepped onto CWHL ice for the final time in her career. Coincidentally, Toronto represented a new chapter in her hockey career.

Stephenson made the transition to coaching (while balancing her obligations as an elite baseball player) in the autumn of 2012, joining the coaching staff of the Furies. Sommer West, who played with Stephenson in Mississauga and Burlington, had been appointed as Furies head coach, signifying the first time that a former CWHL player would serve in such a capacity. Making their coaching debut on Oct. 20, 2012, the two celebrated a win as Natalie Spooner added to her own legend with the game-winning goal in a 4-3 triumph over Brampton.

Coincidentally, West also experienced her own glories on the diamond. At the 2000 Olympic Summer Games in Sydney, she was a member of Canada?۪s softball team, playing alongside Hayley Wickenheiser. Other CWHL players with experience on the softball diamond include Brampton Thunder goaltender Cindy Eadie, who played with the Canadian team at the 2004 Olympic Summer Games in Athens. Four years later, Noemie Marin, who holds the CWHL record for most points in a game with 10, competed at the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing. Laura MacIntosh, selected by Brampton in the 2012 CHWL Draft, played for Team Ontario at the 2009 Canada Summer Games.

Stephenson is not the only former hockey player on Canada?۪s baseball team. Joined by Kate Psota, the two have been teammates on the diamond since 2004, playing on the corners of the infield, Psota at first base, while Stephenson manned the hot corner at third base. Stephenson and Psota played CIS hockey with the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, which also produced the likes of Olympic gold medallist Cheryl Pounder and CWHL goaltender Liz Knox. Pitcher Autumn Mills is a former competitor for the York Lions women?۪s ice hockey program, having played for head coach Dan Church.

Following the 2008 IBAF Women?۪s World Cup, Stephenson was named to the tournament All-Star team at the third base position and was recognized as the Canadian national team?۪s MVP, an honour she also received in 2005.

With a proud CWHL legacy behind her, Stephenson is a leader during an exciting time for women?۪s sport in Canada. Having worked towards bringing equality to the rink, she is poised to show that women have rightfully earned the chance to play baseball at its highest levels.

With the Canadian team making their Pan Am debut on July 20, the feelings of national pride and a drive for the gold medal are a source of inspiration that will definitely see CWHL fans rooting for Stephenson.

Photo Credit: Baseball Canada