NRL Season Preview

It has been a very busy off-season this year in the National Ringette League. We have a new team (of sorts) many new, exciting players and a new schedule for the west. What remains the same is that everybody has the NRL championship in mind. It all started in July 2009 with the draft and it will all end on April 10, 2010 in Saskatoon with the NRL championship game. We can expect that a lot will happen between now and then. 
To start, we preview the Eastern Conference:
Capital Division
The division that went down to the wire last year looks like it will do so again this season. Ottawa Ice won the division and headed to the NRL championship tournament and Cyclones de Quebec joined them after earning a spot through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Now that Quebec has gotten a taste of the NRL championship tournament, it is not likely they have any intention of giving up their spot at any cost. Gatineau acquitted itself very well as an expansion team and was only eliminated from the playoffs in the last weekend of play. The Gloucester Devils suffered from an off year that is not likely to be repeated. They have added Nepean Belle AA player Alison Biewald and still boast a strong core led by Team Canada veteran Colleen Hagan.
Montreal Division
The Montreal Mission ran away with this division last year and while they look to be the favourites again this year, they certainly will be looking over their shoulder more often this season. BLL will be led by last year’s rookie of the year, Jessica Pepper and with BLL making huge strides last season, only a few more points will get them in the playoffs in the coming year. Lac St Louis will also be building on a great improvement from last year, adding Sarah Bernard-Lacaille, a member of Team Canada East’s world junior team.
Southern Ontario Division
There was an earthquake in this division in this off-season, with Cambridge Turbos captain Jennifer Wakefield moving to British Columbia and signing with the Fraser Valley Avalanche. It’s likely the impact on the Turbos will be significant as no one can lose a player like Wakefield and not feel the effects. Wakefield did miss some games last year (she played in 22 games for 113 points) but she was always there when the chips were down. The Turbos still have plenty of weapons left in Sharolyn Wouters, Jacqueline Gaudet and goalkeeper Megan Pittaway, but Wakefield’s absence will certainly be felt. All eyes will be on the Turbos to see how they will react without #4 patrolling centre ice.
Richmond Hill made strong use of the summer, coming off of a year without an appearance at the NRL Championship tournament. Waterloo Wildfire hopes to return to the championship tournament with some key veteran players along with some new rookies and a reorganized coaching staff.
So, what does all this mean? We can expect closer games and closer playoff races. The Eastern Conference has likely tightened up quite a bit and teams that did not advance to the championship last year will do so this year. Look for a real horse race to win the Southern Ontario Division and an absolute dead-heat between Gloucester, Ottawa and Quebec in the Capital. You can also expect that both Whitby and Gatineau will be much improved coming off of expansion seasons.
Now we’ll take a look at the Western Conference:
Winnipeg is a toss up. Alberta is close, BC is much better and Saskatoon is already qualified as the host of the NRL Championship.
The battle for the City of Winnipeg is going to be no less heated this year than last. It went down to the final game of the year last season to qualify for the NRL Championship and we can expect that the same will happen this time around. Both the Jets and the Prairie Fire will benefit from an extra season under their respective belts and from the influx of talent from an outstanding Manitoba corps on Team Canada West at the world juniors in Prague this past summer. This could be the first time that both Manitoba teams make it to the big dance.
In Alberta, the WAM! and the RATH are both a mix of experience and youthful enthusiasm. The WAM! will be able to rely on the always-reliable goalkeeping of Keely Brown and the RATH can expect strong performance all season long from their backstop Stacey McNichol (incidentally, McNichol and Brown will be among those battling for spots on the 2010 National Team while contesting the NRL season).
In BC, the changes are big – new team, new name, new players and a new identity. Last season was one that the BC ringette community would rather forget, with only one win all season. But this season, the BC Reign have become the Fraser Valley Avalanche, and they have added one of the great players in the history of the NRL, Jennifer Wakefield. Wakefield will bring her ability to generate offence, her defensive presence and immense leadership skills to a team that was looking much better by the end of last season. To shore up the back end, the Avalanche will also be brining back goalkeeper Shannon Anderson a member of Team Canada in 2007. Add this to Team Canada defender Jill Lange and a youthful core and the Avalanche will start making some waves in the west this year.
So, getting to the big dance is the objective, and while making predictions is risky, we can certainly outline some of the possibilities:
1 – Saskatoon is going. As the host team, Saskatoon is already in the event. This will be a great help for them in getting ready this season, but they would prefer to qualify in their own right, so there is still much work to be done.
2 – Three more teams from the western conference are going. If BC is better and both Manitoba teams are better, the two Alberta teams (Edmonton and Calgary) should expect to see their dominance at least seriously threatened this year.
3 – Five teams from the east are going, with the top eastern team getting a bye and the other four teams being decided through four best of three series. The best of three series will include the champions of the remaining divisions, the second place teams in each division and the next top three teams. Therefore, the tight race for the Capital division crown and the ever-closer races in Montreal and Southern Ontario will be for much more than bragging rights.
4 – Rounding out the ten-team tournament will be an Atlantic entry.