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Long Live Les Canadiennes

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During the CWHL’s first eight seasons (2007-15), no team compiled as many wins or as many Clarkson Cup championships as the Montreal Stars. Also the first CWHL franchise to reach 100 wins, the Stars were undoubtedly the league’s first dynasty.

Heading into the upcoming season, the proud franchise has reinvented itself with the new sobriquet, Canadiennes. Taking into account that this season marks the first in which these women’s hockey heroes shall be engaging in a partnership with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, one of the league’s signature franchises, the name change is an appropriate homage to a new era in Montreal women’s hockey.

In addition, the name also taps into the proud Quebec women’s hockey roots from the Great Depression. First formed in 1933, Les Canadiennes were among one of the most competitive teams in the province. Coincidentally the 1933 and 2015 versions of the team share more than a name in common. Both teams feature a player named Blais. Of note, Germaine Blais was the goaltender for the squad in the 1930s, while Emmanuelle (Manue) Blais, an NCAA Frozen Four champion and two-time Clarkson Cup champion is part of Les Canadiennes for the 2015-16 season.

As a side note, women’s hockey in Montreal has undergone several makeovers since 1999. Beginning with the Montreal Wingstar, which featured Manon Rheaume standing between the pipes, competing against Cheyenne de la Metropol, Laval le Mistral and the Quebec Avalanche, the club was rechristened in 2003 as the Axion (pronounced as Action). A predecessor for the Stars, which featured players such as Gina Kingsbury and Angela Ruggiero, the Axion played in three straight league finals from 2005-07, claiming a title in 2006. From 1999-2007, women’s hockey teams representing Montreal assembled a sterling 141-84-32 record.

Considering that a tumultuous offseason saw the announcement of a rival league, some online were already preparing an obituary for the CWHL. The Stars/Canadiennes would help inject some excitement for a league determined not to become moribund. Beginning with the long overdue partnership with the Canadiens, such a landmark moment strengthened a relationship that began with the club inviting the Stars to the Molson Centre in celebration of their Clarkson Cup wins in 2011 and 2012.

In 2014, several Stars members, including Red Bull Crashed Ice champions Fannie Desforges and Dominique Thibault graced the ice in a practice open to the public. Perhaps a regular season game for Les Canadiennes shall follow on Molson Centre ice in the near future. A matter of greater urgency may be the mission to reclaim the Clarkson Cup in 2016. Considering that the last three postseasons have resulted in postseason heartbreak, including two visceral finals losses to Genevieve Lacasse and the Boston Blades, a new look and new leader in Poulin may be the solution to ailing their near-championship woes. Championships definitely have a special way of easing past disappointments and the new look may also bring about a new confidence, signifying the beginning of a championship journey for Les Canadiennes.

While the agreement made years of struggle for the franchise vanish, ushering in a new era of stability, the momentum continued with the announcement that Marie-Philip Poulin, the first-ever CWHL Rookie of the Year, was returning to her roots (she was part of the first Clarkson Cup winner with the Stars in 2009), providing a major league feeling for the league.

Coming full circle is the team’s rebranding, a new name and logo poised to increase the team’s profile in Montreal hockey circles. While the logo of Les Canadiennes is a large red-colored C, adorned with white and blue trim, an important element is the multi-colored star in the middle. The star is an essential symbol meant to preserve the Stars’ legacy, a fitting tribute to what that previous incarnation meant to women’s hockey.

The heartbeat of those Stars teams was Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, whose efforts were punctuated by the likes of Patrick Rankine and Meg Hewings. Not only was Breton-Lebreux a co-founder of the CWHL, her vision brought about an era in which pro women’s hockey grew by a quantum leap. Although Nancy Drolet was the first player in Quebec to blend business acumen and strong playmaking skills into the gift of elite women’s hockey for Montreal, with the Sainte-Julie Pantheres as her legacy, Breton-Lebreux never forgot that hockey was about the players first.

From the Clarkson Cup becoming the signature event of the CWHL, in which Breton-Lebreux became the first captain to hoist the Cup thrice, to the arrival of the All-Star Game in December 2014, where she also scored a goal, it was a tremendous body of work. Breton-Lebreux now extends her impact by serving as a member of the inaugural coaching staff for Les Canadiennes.

While players such as Blais, Julie Chu, Nathalie Dery, Annie Guay, Carly Hill, Caroline Ouellette, Kelly Sudia and Kim St. Pierre, among others, helped the Stars develop a bond with Montreal hockey fans, winning the heart of a city, Les Canadiennes are ready to create a vivid portrait, in which the beginning of a new legacy may change the game itself. Led by a new generation of players, including Ann-Sophie Bettez, Cathy Chartrand, Charline Labonte, Lauriane Rougeau and Poulin, their leadership will awaken fond memories of the Stars glory years, while bringing in a fascinating new era that is destined to build new memories.

Photo credit: Jess Dejardins

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