Firth, Calder help Voyageurs nab back-to-back titles

Joey Payeur

Eight skaters. One goalie. One dream realized.
The Rainy River Community College Voyageurs, with former Fort Frances Muskie Hannah Firth and Couchiching First Nation resident Melissa Calder on their miniscule nine-player roster, didn’t play like a shorthanded crew on their way to winning their second-consecutive American Collegiate Hockey Association national women’s hockey championship this past weekend in Rochester, N.Y.
Firth, who hails from Emo, had two goals and an assist while Calder made 17 saves as the International Falls-based Voyageurs doubled the St. Scholastica Saints (Duluth) 4-2 in the championship game—the last in the collegiate careers of both Firth and Calder.
“It was tougher to repeat than to win it for the first time last year,” admitted Firth, who was on last year’s RRCC squad along with Calder that went 4-0 at the nationals in Bensenville, Ill., then posted the exact same record in Rochester to finish the 2008-09 campaign at 20-3-2 overall.
“We knew everyone was coming after us because we were the best-rated team in the country. But we didn’t let our ranking go to our heads,” Firth stressed.
“We weren’t as big a team [roster-wise] as the other teams we faced all year, but we had almost all veterans,” added Calder, who allowed only six goals in four games over the weekend.
“It’s better to have a smaller team, anyway. It’s easier to manage,” she reasoned.
In the final against St. Scholastica, Firth not only had to overcome a painful in-grown toenail she had been nursing all season, but a severe case of nerves about playing her collegiate swan song which couldn’t be contained even during the game.
“I was throwing up in a bucket on the bench,” she admitted. “Then I’d go out and have a good shift, and come back and feel a little better.
“Then I just got sick all over again.”
But Firth didn’t let her butterflies limit her effectiveness on the ice. After Brooke Rundell gave the Voyageurs a 1-0 lead, Firth whipped a backhander past Saints’ goalie Rachel Borchardt for a two-goal edge.
“Hannah has two sticks she uses, one for slapshots and one for backhanders,” chuckled RRCC head coach Evan Amdahl. “I’m not sure why she needed the other stick.
“I asked her in practice the other day how many goals she’s scored this year with a slapshot. She said, ‘None.’”
Co-captain Megan Pinette made it 3-0 in the second period before the Saints finally got on the board.
But Calder held her ground between the pipes and Firth salted away the victory with an empty-netter with 1:45 to go. St. Scholastica added a meaningless goal with 30 seconds left to round out the scoring.
“When the buzzer went, I was sad because [my college career] was all over, but happy because we won,” Firth remarked.
“It was mostly just excitement,” noted Calder. “It was exciting to know the last game I would ever play in college would end with a win.”
The Voyageurs began their quest for a repeat title with a 22-0 annihilation of the University of Pennsylvania Quakers in their opening game Friday.
Calder made all of two saves to post the shutout while Firth collected a hat trick to go along with four helpers as part of a seven-point outing.
The Voyageurs faced a much tougher test against St. Scholastica in their second game, trailing 1-0 late in the third period after a fluke goal that caromed in off the skate of Rainy River’s Kylie Harala and past Calder.
“That was a horrible goal,” said Calder, whose squad has beaten the Saints seven times in nine tries this season.
“That’s the only way [the Saints] ever score on us is when it’s something stupid like that.”
With 2:42 remaining, the Voyageurs called a time-out before starting a power play to plan their attack. Whatever Amdahl designed at the bench worked to perfection as Firth won the draw deep in the Saints’ end back to co-captain Stevie-Lee Langford, who eventually found Pinette in the open.
Pinette’s shot bulged the twine for the equalizer, which was officially (though mistakenly) credited to Firth.
After a scramble following the subsequent face-off, Firth headmanned the puck to Langford, who split two St. Scholastica defenders for a breakaway and put the puck home with 1:54 left to give Rainy River a 2-1 victory.
“As it turned out, that was the game we needed to win to make the final,” said Firth, who then notched a goal and an assist (and two more helpers she didn’t get credit for) in a 4-3 defeat of the Northeastern University Huskies (Boston) in the Voyageurs’ last preliminary-round game.
Amdahl, who took over behind the RRCC bench this year after Jeff Wickstrom left the team at the end of last season, lauded Firth and Calder for their play throughout the campaign.
“Hannah and I had some philosophical differences in the first half of the season,” admitted Amdahl, who watched Firth go from taking an average of two penalties per game early in the year to receiving just one in her last eight games.
“We’re both very competitive and we didn’t see eye-to-eye on some things,” he noted. “But she came back after Christmas and said, ‘Whatever you want, I’ll do. You’re the coach.’ And it paid off.
“Melissa was our quiet leader,” Amdahl continued. “She didn’t say much, but when she said something, you listened because she meant what she said.
“She was always at practice and always on time.
“I was scared to death because she was our only goalie,” he admitted. “She even played through a [knee] injury midway through the year that, if we had a back-up goalie, she probably wouldn’t have played.”
The Voyageurs had six Canadians on their nine-member squad, including five who were former NorWOSSA adversaries. Calder and Pinette played their high school hockey with the Dryden Eagles while Stephanie Desmeules and Lynsey Pitura used to wear the colours of the Red Lake Rams.
“We were the ones that wanted to be here and we knew we could do it,” said Firth. “We were nine players, but with one goal in mind.”
Ironically, Calder’s favourite sports movie happens to be an adjective which many would use to describe this undermanned but over-achieving Voyageurs squad—“Miracle.”
“I think 10, 20 years from now when I look back, I think these championships will mean more to me because we did it with so few players,” said Calder, who was part of last year’s RRCC team which only had two more skaters than they did this year.
“When people say something like this can’t be done, we can say otherwise because we’ve proved it can be done.”