As one of the signature clubs in Canadaian women’s hockey, Les Canadiennes de Montreal have weaved their own legacy into the city’s hockey fabric. Such a legacy only continues to grow as was evidenced on December 31, 2015 when the club gained the opportunity to compete in the first-ever women’s professional hockey game contested outdoors.
Playing against the Boston Pride, marking the first time that the CWHL and the NWHL faced off, the historic backdrop was Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Occurring the day before the iconic Bruins and Canadiens renewed rivalries at the eighth annual NHL Winter Classic, part of a fascinating addition to modern NHL lore, it was only fitting that Les Canadiennes had a presence. Of note, the first-ever outdoor game in NHL history involved the Canadiens on November 22, 2003 in Edmonton.
On the surface, the expanding legend of modern women’s hockey in Montreal is truly larger than life. From early roots as the Wingstar de Montreal, the Montreal Axion (pronounced Action) and the Montreal Stars, who have evolved into Les Canadiennes de Montreal, such history mirrors the growth of men’s hockey in Montreal where teams such as the Maroons, Shamrocks, Victorias and Wanderers all graced the ice.
From Manon Rheaume, Hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero and Kim St. Pierre, who retired from hockey as the all-time winningest goalie in IIHF women’s hockey history, the names of the players who have donned such jerseys in those early years is equally impressive. Their legendary contributions have been extended by the likes of Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, Julie Chu, Charline Labonte, Caroline Ouellette and Marie-Philip Poulin, among others.
Although she may not have been in uniform, retired from active play during the offseason, Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, also a co-founder of the CWHL, was at the Women’s Winter Classic as an assistant coach. Undoubtedly the soul of the Stars/Canadiennes, she was spiritually on the ice, every one of the participating players an extension of her glorious hockey dreams. Considering that her career is synonymous with firsts, from winning the first Clarkson Cup, to being the first captain to lead her team to three Clarkson Cups, along with a memorable performance in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game, her presence at this historic game was not just fitting, but truly gratifying.
“The CWHL brought me so many great experiences in my life. I feel blessed that I was able to be part of so many historic strides for women’s hockey. The Winter Classic was one of the best experiences of my hockey career. Was had such a rush of joy when we entered Gillette Stadium. It was great! We were all smiling.”
While the history of women’s hockey in Montreal dates back over a century, with McGill University forming its first women’s team in 1894 (male students were not allowed to watch them play), it was only fitting that a modern group of women’s hockey heroes from McGill added to not only their school’s proud history, but to the lore of Les Canadiennes. Among an amazing generation of women that transfornmed the modern-day McGill Martlets into a national power, Carly Hill was proud to add to the city’s women’s hockey legacy,
“It was an honour to play in such an amazing event. I felt that is was a great stepping stone for women’s hockey and I am glad I was able to be a part of history.”
Such McGill alumnae sharing such an honor with Hill as teammates on Les Canadiennes included Ann-Sophie Bettez, Cathy Chartrand, who has served as captain with both McGill and Montreal, Charline Labonte, Leslie Oles and Chelsey Saunders. Currently in her second season with Montreal, Saunders enjoyed a pair of Canadian Interuniversity Sport national championships with McGill.
The privilege for Saunders of being able to extend her hockey career with Les Canadiennes has brought with it many memorable moments for Saunders. Appearing in the 2015 Clarkson Cup finals, the fact that this Ottawa-raised blueliner has been able to keep playing with several former teammates from McGill has proven to be satisfying. Sharing the frozen surface at Gillette Stadium with so many McGill alumnae was part of a Women’s Winter Classic experience that was truly a win-win situation.
“Playing in the first Women’s Winter Classic was amazing, a little girl’s dream come true. Being able to share the experience with my teammates, some who I have known from McGill made it even better.
I feel very lucky to have gotten the chance to play and it makes me feel excited and hopeful for women’s hockey. I hope that the sport can continue to grow and that next year the women’s winter classic will be even bigger.”
For Ann-Sophie Bettez, whose McGill career included the Brodrick Trophy and a BLG Award, her prolific scoring skills have translated into an Angela James Bowl at the CWHL level. One of the league’s current superstars, determined to bring a Clarkson Cup championship to the franchise, the experience itself of playing in the outdoor game set the stage for what stood out as an enjoyable element,
“My favorite memory was simply being able to play on an outside NHL rink, beautiful weather, with my second family, Les Canadiennes.”
To look at the roster of Les Canadiennes on this day was to see several names that have stirred Canada’s sporting zeitgeist, subsequently inspiring a generation of girls to play the game. From Caroline Ouellette, quite possibly the greatest French-Canadian player ever, powerful but graceful, influential yet compassionate, she evokes memories of Jean Beliveau, another classy hockey icon.
Marie-Philip Poulin, who Winter Games heroics stirred a nation in a way reminiscent of Paul Henderson, humble yet dominant, has inherited the torch from Ouellette. Clearly one of the greatest women’s hockey players in the world today, ready to become the very core of her sport, she is also one of its happiest faces.
With such world-class talent, there are also a collection of overlooked stars. Quite possibly the greatest player from Quebec to have never competed in a Winter Games, Emmanuelle Blais has assembled a remarkable career truly deserving of status as a living legend. In a career that has featured a pair of NCAA Frozen Four titles, Clarkson Cup wins in back-to-back seasons along with the privilege of competing in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game; she also wore the Hockey Canada jersey in international play, including a golden outcome in the MLP Nations Cup.
Blais has blossomed into an integral part of the franchise, a key component in a high powered offense, whose approachability and friendliness has endeared her to a generation of young hockey players in Quebec, all who would be proud to emulate her sterling career. The chance to compete in the Winter Classic was one where her exceptional talents shone on a much bigger stage, hoping to set the stage for future generations to enjoy,
“I loved playing in the Winter Classic as it was an extremely important moment for the sport we all love to play. We are hoping young girls can one day benefit from that. I think it comes close to one of my favorite moments, alongside winning two Clarkson Cups (smiles).”
With the game ending in a 1-1 tie, with goals scored by 2015 CWHL Draft first-round pick Kim Deschenes and Pride blueliner Blake Bolden, no one can deny it was a beautiful contest. With an impressive level of talent on display by both teams, perhaps such an event was eclipsed only by the passion these players had for the game. For so many players, both male and female, their first exposure to hockey is one that takes place outdoors, traditionally on a frozen pond or a backyard rink, both staples in the game.
As multiple world champion and Winter Games gold medalist Charline Labonte was between the pipes for Les Canadiennes in this contest, with Sindey Aveson, one of two Americans on the roster, occupying the back-up role, the Women’s Winter Classic may be part of a denouement to a legendary career, one where she was destined to shine as a superstar.
Providing the final reflections on this iconic event, Labonte is one of those players whose efforts makes those appreciate the extent to which women’s hockey can empower young female athletes. For Labonte and her teammates, Gillette Stadium served as a frozen fountain of youth, a portal to their earliest roots, where the game compels, subsequently representing a fascinating potential where a powerful stirring of the emotions of happiness and innocence shall endure.
“It just took us back to our roots where our passion for hockey started. Playing outside, with your friends, winter hats on in the warm up, you cannot ask for much better than that. It was an incredible opportunity and we are all very grateful to have had the chance to be a part of the original game.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Getty Images – Brian Babineau and Olivier Samson-Arcand
NOTE: In the contest, Pride player Denna Laing tripped over a stick and crashed into the boards suffering a spinal cord injury. While members of the women’s and men’s hockey communities have shown an outpouring of support, a foundation has been established in her name. To learn more about the Denna Laing Foundation, please visit: http://www.dennalaing.org/