Among a distinguished duo of skilled skaters from Atlantic Canada to participate in women’s ice hockey at the 2018 Winter Games, which included Blayre Turnbull, the first Maritimers to compete on the world’s biggest stage since Lesley Reddon and Stacy Wilson, who served as Canada’s first-ever captain at the 1998 Games, Jillian Saulnier has attained cult-like status in her native Halifax. Among the prized offseason acquisitions for Les Canadiennes de Montréal, Saulnier has shone fabulously on their high-powered offense, standing shoulder-to-shoulder among the league’s elite forwards.
Offensively, Saulnier amassed a solid 17 points heading into the All-Star Game. Highlighted by three multi-point performances, including back-to-back performances of three points, taking place against the defending Clarkson Cup champion Markham Thunder on October 20-21, Saulnier quickly established herself as an impact player.
Logging an assist in her Canadiennes debut, collaborating with Hilary Knight on the game-winning goal by Sarah Lefort in an October 13 home date versus the Calgary Inferno, where Saulnier spent her first two CWHL seasons. Seven days later, Saulnier’s first goal in the Montréal paraphernalia was part of a greater performance, taking place in the first three-point output of the campaign.
Once again on home ice, Saulnier shone, as she started her superlative performance with an assist on a first period goal by Knight, which was also her first of the season. Saulnier scored in the second period, providing Montréal with a 3-1 lead against Markham, as Lauriane Rougeau, also a teammate from the Winter Games logged the assist. Scoring the only goal of the third period, Saulnier emerged as the key factor in a convincing 5-1 final at the Complexe Sportif Bell, gaining First Star of the Game honors.
Riding such momentum into a continued series of brilliant offensive performances, including at least nine points in 11 games played, Saulnier not only ranked among the top scorers on Les Canadiennes, she would place among the top ten in the race for the Angela James Bowl, awarded to the league’s leading scorer. The tremendous efforts resulted in Saulnier gaining entry as one of the celebrated participants at the fourth CWHL All-Star Game, the third of her rousing career.
Having also participated in the 2016 and 2017 editions of the CWHL All-Star Game, scoring for Team Black in 2016, followed by a historic hat trick in 2017 as a member of Team White. With Saulnier making her mark in league lore, that memorable day also saw Jess Jones score thrice for the opposing Team Blue, becoming the first women to achieve the feat in All-Star competition. Undoubtedly, the return to the midseason classic represented further affirmation of Saulnier’s status as one of the modern superstar of women’s ice hockey.
Compared to those first All-Star experiences, Saulnier has evolved considerably as a player, leader and ambassador for the game. In addition to making her debut at the Winter Games in February 2018, obtaining a podium finish, she has also switched allegiances. Departing the Calgary Inferno, a team that she hoisted the Clarkson Cup with back in 2016, to join an already strong Montréal team reloading for further glories, Saulnier was certainly one of the most high profile free agent signings of the off-season.
That theme of evolution, and the subsequent, outlook of the future, is also one that defines Saulnier’s perspective on the aura of the All-Star Game, clearly becoming one of the game’s signature events,
“I think that every All-Star experience is different. It is evident that women’s hockey is continuously growing and starting to get the attention it deserves. From the jerseys, to the organization and the behind the scenes, to the apparel and packages we receive from sponsors, it was definitely a memorable experience for me.”
Coincidentally, the roster of Les Canadiennes (also known affectionately as The Fabs) allowed Saulnier a feeling of reunion, as there was no shortage of familiar faces. From the outset, the roster included Erin Ambrose, whom Saulnier has called a teammate more than once. In addition to skating together with the PWHL’s Toronto Jr. Aeros, one of the most successful teams in Canadian junior hockey history, both emerged as key contributors on Canada’s entry at the 2010 IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds; the first Canadian contingent to win gold in tournament history.
It was only fitting that Ambrose and Saulnier were both members of Team Gold at the fourth CWHL All-Star Game. Certainly, every subsequent All-Star Game represents another sensational step forward in the league’s growth, showcasing a gathering of talent that reflects the rapidly improving quality of an already impressive game, its players continue to grow into ambassadors and world-class talents, as evidenced by the tremendous quantum leap that Saulnier’s career has enjoyed over the last 12 months.
Among the other members of the Fabs skating for Team Gold were former Angela James Bowl winner Ann-Sophie Bettez, who was selected by Gold captain Liz Knox in the Frozen Fantasy All-Star Draft to be among the starting lineup, and Hilary Knight, a gold medalist from the 2018 Winter Games and the first American-born player to win the CWHL’s Most Valuable Player Award.
In addition to Knight, other notable players from the Games with sensational international hockey resumes also graced the ice at Toronto’s Scotiabank Centre as All-Stars. Brianna Decker, who has worn the USA jersey at three Winter Games, along with Noora Raty, the greatest goaltender in the history of the Finnish national program, were also garbed in the paraphernalia of Team Gold.
Worth noting, Raty backstopped the Kunlun Red Star (recently rebranded as the KRS Shenzhen Rays) to the 2018 Clarkson Cup finals, while Decker, the recipient of the 2015 CWHL Rookie of the Year Award, signed with the Calgary Inferno during the off-season.
Having engaged in many ice wars against Decker and Raty, battling for bragging rights at notable events such as the IIHF Women’s World Championships, the 4 Nations Cup and Winter Games competitions, the fourth CWHL All-Star Game represented a rare first for Saulnier, calling such distinguished longtime rivals as teammates. Reflecting on this unique milestone, her maturity shines, also recognizing the chance to play alongside them as a positive learning experience,
“I had a great time playing with them both at the All-Star Weekend. The way they both carry themselves is so professional, and any opportunity I have to learn from players of their calibre and excellence is a great opportunity for me to learn and grow as an athlete.”
Taking into account that one of the unique novelties of the All-Star Game involves the possibility of players from the same franchise facing off as rivals, Les Canadiennes were not immune. Marie-Philip Poulin, the first pick overall in the Frozen Fantasy All-Star Draft, along with goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer, were in the starting lineup for Team Purple, while Rougeau was named to the defensive unit.
While Poulin and Rougeau have called Saulnier a teammate for numerous IIHF World Championships, including the most recent Winter Games, Saulnier also holds a unique linkage with Maschmeyer. Having called each other teammates during the 2016-17 Calgary Inferno season, which saw the club finish first overall in the league standings, trying to score on the gregarious goaltender, whose record heading into the event was a sparkling 12-3-0, offered a compelling challenge.
“When you look up and see Emerance Maschmeyer in net, you know it is going to be difficult getting the puck past her. She is such an amazing goalie, and I have had the pleasure of playing with her for years now. But, she is an even better person and a teammate.”
With Team Gold emerging victorious in an 8-4 final, which saw Bettez recognized as the Second Star of the Game, it marked the second time that Saulnier skated for the winning team in an All-Star Game, the first coming in 2016 when she donned Team Black’s jersey.
Regardless of the final score, Saulnier prefers to observe the event’s essence as one which serves to advance the admirable cause of raising awareness of the game and its skillful skaters. Finding a unified victory in this inspiring contest, featuring some of the game’s finest on NHL ice, Saulnier sees celebration rather than the final score as the most gratifying element of this sensational showcase,
“At the end of the day, the All-Star Weekend is about having fun and showing everyone the level of skill and talent we all have together. Like I mentioned, women’s hockey is slowly moving to the forefront of the sporting world, and every day is a chance to prove to the world just how great it is. We always have a wonderful time getting all together.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Winter Games photo obtained from The Blayre Turnbull Collection
Canadiennes action shot by Shanna Martin-Book
Acknowledgements: Safia Ahmad