As Les Canadiennes de Montreal wound down their regular season, there was an intriguing subplot, a watershed moment that added an intriguing new chapter to the history of women’s ice hockey in Quebec. Two unique clubs intersected paths at the Centre Etienne-Desmarteau, representing the proud future and potential for growth for elite female hockey in La Belle Province, both stand-up and sledge.
The result was the meeting of Les Quebecoises, the first provincial all-female women’s ice sledge hockey team, and Les Canadiennes de Montreal, who were the first dynasty in the history of the CWHL when they were known by the sobriquet Stars. As Les Quebecoises hope to emulate their stand-up sisters and forge a similar legacy, it was truly a validating and well-deserved moment for them.
Prior to Les Canadiennes thumping the hapless Boston Blades by a convincing 14-0 tally, the pregame skate saw Vanessa Racine, the captain for Les Quebecoises, take to the ice. Getting the chance to participate in such an eventful skate was a proud moment for Racine. Garbed in her Team Quebec jersey, mounted in her sled, she was situated beside Charline Labonte during the singing of the national anthem.
Considering that Labonte is an icon in Quebec women’s hockey, and Racine, also a member of the Canadian national ice sledge hockey team holds the potential to become one also, fans on-hand were witness to a unique moment, as two prominent players in their respective sports shared the ice. For Racine, she was thrilled by the excitement of it all, shining in a well-deserved spotlight, while raising awareness about women’s ice sledge hockey with such a significant fan base,
“Wow, I was so impressed to (be) beside her on the line! She is a tall girl and to be sitting next to her made her look like a giant! She also played an amazing game and it was really an honor to be a flag bearer. I felt like a child skating at the Bell Centre! I could not believe I was right beside her, probably the best female goalie out there…I do not really have any words, it was like being part of the Olympic team.”
While many members of Les Quebecoises were in awe of the world class talents on the ice such as Ann-Sophie Bettez, Caroline Ouellette and Marie-Philip Poulin, all three having won the Angela James Bowl, along with Charline Labonte, who holds the rare privilege of having served as one of the first two captains in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game, the truth is that such feelings were reciprocal. In reflecting on the chance to meet the members of Les Quebecoises, Bettez was proud to see the women’s game expand into such an exciting dimension, admiring their efforts and determination,
“It was very interesting to have them at our game. Sledge hockey works on different skills. I hope they were able to enjoy our game. Women’s hockey needs to get more attention but so does sledge hockey. It seems like a very challenging sport, (would) like to try it sometime!”
Part of the legacy of elite women’s hockey in Montreal has involved the chance to give back to the game. Among such notable events is Caroline Ouellette’s Girl’s Hockey Festival, which provides junior players with a remarkable venue to showcase their skills. Perhaps in the future, an ice sledge hockey demo could be part of its empowering schedule.
There is no question that Les Quebecoises find inspiration in Les Canadiennes, and on the day that the two clubs met each other, such inspiration was reciprocated. Among them was first-year player Karell Emard. Having established herself as a scoring superstar with the St. Lawrence Skating Saints, the chance to return home and skate for Les Canadiennes signified a proud benchmark in her career. Being introduced to Les Quebecoises provided her with the chance to meet a group of motivated and determined women that add to the importance for the growth of female hockey in La Belle Province, while each becoming mutual fans.
“They sure are tremendously inspiring yes, the passion and love of the game they have is something remarkable and so contagious when you’re around them. Hearing them talk about their practices and the opportunity to play for team Canada and see the fire in their eyes was truly the best. I even mentioned that it would be awesome to go try out and practice or play with them.”
Considering that women’s ice sledge hockey shall be a demonstration sport at the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympic Winter Games, Racine is among a group of accomplished players with the potential to don the Maple Leaf and be part of such a historic chapter in the game’s overall growth. After the game, Racine and the remainder of Les Quebecoises gained the opportunity to speak to several members of Les Canadiennes. In getting the chance to speak to one of her hockey heroes, it proved to be a defining moment for Racine.
“I remember during the presentation of the players, one of them was asking questions about our team, and at the end of the game a few of them came up the stands to talk to us, that was when we got the group picture. They were super nice, and then they went to sign autographs as it was ‘fan day’. When I got to Marie-Philip Poulin, I told her I was wearing her number on the national team, she stood up, said ‘Nice to meet you’ and shook my hand. I was very surprised and touched by her gesture.”
Currently in her debut season with both Les Quebecoises and the Canadian national women’s ice sledge hockey team, goaltender Sophie Forest is one of the game’s rising stars. Although she could not help but feel like a fan when meeting the likes of living legends such as Labonte, her goaltending counterpart in stand-up hockey, and Poulin, she saw something else in them too.
As women’s ice sledge hockey continues to work towards raising awareness and hoping for sponsorship opportunities, there is plenty of encouragement to be found in their stand-up sisters. While elite women’s ice hockey in Quebec has existed since the late 1990’s, when the Sainte-Julie Pantheres, Laval Le Mistral and Montreal Wingstar were the predecessors to the current Canadiennes, there were many years of silent struggle, playing in relative anonymity in comparison to the almost overwhelming presence of the men’s game at numerous levels. The sometimes hard path taken towards today’s glories is one that Forest acknowledges, providing her with hope,
“For me, the Canadiennes players are courageous and talented girls who are not afraid to be part of the first women’s professional league because they went trough many obstacles to be where they are. I know that women sledge hockey can grow as much as women stand up hockey and those girls are a beautiful example to follow.
I was pretty excited to meet Charline Labonte and Marie-Philip Poulin for different reasons. I am a sledge hockey goaler and I always like to meet other goalie and Charline Labonte is a very good goalie. I was also excited to meet Marie-Philip Poulin because she is a great woman who made history with her winning goal in Sochi in 2014.”
While there is no question that the members of Les Quebecoises are worthy of admiration, having played with a strong sense of unity and courage, their importance can also be seen in the number of two-sport stars that are making their presence felt.
Among them is an athlete who first established herself in the national spotlight as a gold medalist in the ParaPan Am Games, Myriam Adam. Although she is in her first season with the Canadian national women’s ice sledge hockey team, Adam cannot be classified as a rookie.
With her exceptional sporting background, Adam exudes grace, confidence and achievement. One of Canada’s scoring leaders during their three-game exhibition series against the United States last autumn, she is quickly joining Racine in the pantheon of superstardom among the members of Les Quebecoises. Along with Veronique Major, she serves as one of the alternate captains. Definitely a role model for the younger players, she was happy to share in the jubilation of her teammates at meeting such iconic hockey luminaries,
“There was not one particular member of the Canadiennes roster that I was excited to meet. All of them are great players and I was looking forward to see the game and enjoying all their talents.
I found that the members of Les Canadiennes were very encouraging and welcoming. We also had the chance to talk to some of the players that came to see us after the game. They were all very enthusiastic and appeared very supportive of the idea of women’s ice sledge hockey.”
Raised in Ottawa, blueliner Chelsey Saunders saw the game of ice sledge hockey grow by a quantum leap there. During her preteens, Ottawa-area residents such as Todd Nicholson and Herve Lord were among the hockey heroes for Canada’s national team at the 2006 and 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. As a side note, Ottawa was also the site of the first game for the Canadian women’s ice sledge hockey program.
Coming from a region that also boasts the nationally prominent Ottawa Sledgehammers ice sledge hockey team, Saunders is proud to see the impact of an all-female team making inroads for ice sledge hockey in Quebec. Having been among the group of Canadiennes players that greeted them after the game, she hopes that Les Quebecoises can emulate the heroics of her hometown stars,
“Yes I am very happy to see that (growth)! I am very impressed with them and hope that it continues to grow!”
Part of the growth for Les Quebecoises shall involve an increased self-esteem and confidence among their players. The chance to be surrounded by such influential women of hockey as Les Canadiennes sets the stage for many of the players to blossom into more than just leaders, but role models who will help encourage the next generation of women to mount the sled and take up the game.
Among such players who comprise that next generation includes Raphalle Tousignant. As the youngest player on Les Quebecoises, Tousignant has seen her game grow by a quantum leap during this season. In knowing that her and her teammates were held in such regard by Les Canadiennes provided a great sense of momentum, and more importantly, knowledge that they bring tremendous worth to the game.
"Yes, it was very exciting as I saw some of the greatest women’s ice hockey players from Quebec. To meet these inspiring women after the game was great, one player that really inspires me is Marie-Philip Poulin.”
While men’s ice sledge hockey, and to a degree, the vast majority of disabled sports in North America, are slowly gaining acceptance by a mainstream sporting audience, there is an overall feeling of confidence that such acceptance will continue to increase. In the aftermath of Les Canadiennes meeting Les Quebecoises, there is no question that such increase definitely took place.
Although there will likely be other opportunities in the future for such accomplished and exceptional women to meet again, there is no question that the initial meeting between Les Quebecoises and Les Canadiennes has sparked a friendship. Both teams are highly influential to the future of women’s hockey (stand-up and sledge) in Quebec and it was a shared victory in which a mutual love of hockey served as a vessel that allowed both of them an opportunity to gain a profound respect for one another.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Images obtained from: https://www.facebook.com/lesquebecoisesHL/photos