As the holiday season also represents elite hockey, one that has been defined for generations by elite tournaments, highlighted by the IIHF World Junior Championships, it is only fitting that women’s hockey begins to enjoy such prestige. The last decade has seen members of Canada’s Women’s U22/Development Team compete in the Nations Cup (formerly known as the Meco Cup) during the week of New Year’s.
Adding to such momentum is the Caroline Ouellette Hockey Festival, quickly becoming an integral event in the Montreal women’s hockey calendar. Hosted at the Centre Etienne Desmarteau, also home to Les Canadiennes de Montreal, in the final weekend before Christmas, the event is a gathering of young female players competing in various age groups, ranging from novice (6-8 years), Atom (9-10 years) to Pee-Wee (11-12 years).
Registration was open to teams and individuals (who would be assigned to teams), all able to enjoy the opportunity of an on-ice practice session with members of Les Canadiennes. Goaltenders also enjoyed sessions with both Charline Labonte and Kim St. Pierre, who boast six Winter Games gold medals combined. Autograph sessions and photo sessions, along with a demonstration match featuring Les Canadiennes and a group of hockey enthusiasts.
While there were tournaments for all age groups at the Festival, one of the key values that Ouellette wishes to instill is fun. Complemented by fair play and sportsmanship, Ouellette is also working towards ensuring that the Festival can serve as an enjoyable environment, free of judgment, where players can try the game for the very first time and do so where friendship is fostered,
“To see the girls having so much fun is great. They want to win as a team and many of them are experiencing feminine hockey for the first time. To see them bond for the first time, especially as it can be their first experience in feminine hockey is wonderful.
One element that was enjoyable was the RBC Try Hockey Session. It offered more opportunities to more girls to try the game. They were loaned approximately 25 sets of equipment, which I think it made it more fun for the girls.
To have all female coaches on the ice was also exceptional. Without them, we cannot do this event. It is so important to provide our young girls with feminine role models in hockey, but also academics.”
While the Festival features all-girls tournaments for every participating age group, the impact of the tournament is just a small sampling of what adds to the jubilation of such an event. In addition to tournament play, there were classroom sessions with world class players such as Julie Chu and Marie-Philip Poulin.
On-ice practices with members of Les Canadiennes, such as Emmanuelle Blais, Cathy Chartrand and Lauriane Rougeau, among others, represents some of the most enjoyable aspects of the Festival. As participating teams take to the ice to sharpen their skills, the chance to skate alongside their idols and enhance their skill set in the presence of greatness proves to be just as fun for the instructors as the players.
For Melodie Daoust, currently in her fourth year with the McGill Martlets, she understands both sides of that phenomenon. In 2014, she was the youngest member of the Canadian national team that captured the gold medal at the Sochi Winter Games. Considering that Ouellette was the team captain in Sochi, she was in awe of someone that she grew up idolizing. The chance for Daoust to earn the status of hockey hero and help forge a new generation of elite female hockey stars is a great point of pride,
“This event really helps to develop the game. To see the joy in the kids’ faces when all of us take to the ice together is great. They look at us with such big eyes. It is great to see such admiration and know how happy they are.”
Considering that everyone involved volunteered their time, it was not uncommon to see Ouellette’s parents proudly participate. Both volunteers with Les Canadiennes as well, their presence represented a true labor of love. For proud mom Nicole Ouellette, she continues to be amazed at her daughter’s growing legacy,
“We are extremely proud of her. She is a girl with a heart of gold and super generous. She never stops making us happy and proud. It is always happiness with her.
To volunteer comes natural for us. Since she was very small, we would volunteer in her hockey events. To this day, we do so and it is a pleasure for us. When she won the gold medal in Sochi, as Canada’s captain, we were in tears. She has worked so hard over the years, and her resilience, until the final second is amazing. She always plays for the team first.”
Another key theme at the Festival was the sense of empowerment. Adding to the excitement of the event was the fact that an All-Star Team was selected. The opportunity to be named to such a team extended beyond honor. Said team would earn the opportunity to make history by competing at the prestigious Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament from February 10-21, 2016.
Competing in the Pee-Wee AA Boys Division, this All-Female team shall feature Ouellette, Poulin and St. Pierre on the coaching staff, led by Valerie Bois. Such an event will also represent a significant milestone for Poulin, as it shall signify her first foray into coaching,
“I was truly excited about picking the All-Female team to participate at the Quebec Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. I have watched many matches at this event and there was a lot of talent to choose from. With Caro and Kim, I will be learning a lot about coaching as we will be at the Quebec Pee-Wee tourney, encouraging the players.”
While Poulin has already established herself as a hockey legend at such a young age, another young player that has carved a solid legacy is Lauriane Rougeau. Having both played at all three levels of Canada’s national women’s team (U18, U22/Development, Senior), this dynamic duo are shining examples of the new generation of female hockey superstars in Quebec.
Both articulate, gracious and university educated, the presence of Poulin and Rougeau at the Festival helped to exemplify the type of goals and dreams that a new generation of young girls in Quebec can aim for. It was only fitting that both were part of classroom sessions during the first annual Festival last winter. At this year’s edition, Rougeau was highly prominent on the ice, and the results were rewarding for both teacher and student alike,
“I think the Bauer First Shift Program was the most enjoyable. The girls were playing on a team for the first time and to see what it meant for them was fun. I just did the RBC Try Hockey Session and all the players here (from Les Canadiennes) are glad to help. You can see that they want to help and make practices and games enjoyable. It is great to see everyone support each other.”
The final game of every tournament at the Festival was made even more special by the presence of two Canadiennes and/or national team players at the trophy presentation, such as Chartrand, Chu, Labonte, Ouellette, Poulin, Rougeau and legendary goaltender Kim St. Pierre. In addition to a trophy, competitors from the finals receive a commemorative puck, with the winners gaining a gold-colored puck.
Prominent at the majority of the trophy presentations was Ouellette, providing words of encouragement for both teams that successfully qualified for the finals. The impact for these young players, to receive an award from such accomplished female hockey superstars, is one that is not lost on Ouellette, who is very proud to provide inspiration and instill a love of the game. It also represents one of her favorite moments at the Festival, rekindling some of her fondest memories from youth hockey,
“I think it is a very special moment. I still remember tournaments when I was very young. I give them the gold puck but then we have a celebration later with a cake. They worked hard enough to enjoy it. I remember playing with Team Quebec at a tournament in Ontario and we won. Someone brought us a cake and I remember we all ate it with spoons. I still remember that today and it was a fun moment. By having a cake now, I hope that the players can remember those little moments after winning, something that can be so meaningful to them, they will keep those moments with them for a long time.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Images obtained from: https://www.facebook.com/celebrationhockeyfeminin/?fref=ts