Driving along First Avenue in downtown Saint-Georges, you get the feeling that the emphasis of the road funnels towards the Centre Sportif Lacroix-Dutil. There are restaurants, bars, banks, and shops, but when you finally go around the last left turn, you see the arena.
The arena looks relatively new and it dwarfs the surrounding area. There is a huge electronic sign that flashes events across the street to the left of the arena in the middle of a parking lot. The lot was full more than an hour before the game was set to start.
The sign showed that night’s game between Les Canadiennes and the Boston Blades, but the teams were secondary to what was beneath it. In big, red letters: “MARIE-PHILIP POULIN”
There was no question who the star of the weekend was.
This weekend was all about Marie-Philip Poulin.
“It’s amazing. It’s so special every time I come back here,” Poulin said. “The people I have surrounding me, my family, my friends... It just shows the support I have every time I come back here and they showed it again tonight.”
As the players walked into the arena, groups of girls held signs and welcomed the players but they all knew who they wanted to see. Canadiennes veteran Julie Chu joked afterwards that it was important to walk in front of Poulin because otherwise it got quiet fast.
Make no mistake, for the town of Saint-Georges, and the region of Beauce, the CWHL wasn’t just an event. It was the event.
“[The kids] don’t get the chance to come to Montreal, it’s an almost four hour drive they aren’t going to come up just for one game,” said Canadiennes forward Ann-Sophie Bettez. “The fact that we’re able to come here and play, for the girls it’s amazing because it gives them a dream.”
The minor hockey association in Saint-Georges don’t have girls-only teams. The girls play with the boys and the organizers of the game called each girl registered individually to make sure they would be there. They also had girls teams coming from all over the area.
“Young girls came here to watch the game,” said Canadiennes assistant coach Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux. “They don’t know it exists. They don’t know the calibre. They’ve never seen the players live. To have it here in their home town or close to their home town, it’s special.”
When both teams lined the blue lines to be introduced, each player had a girl stand with them. Only, on the Canadiennes blue line, every girl seemed to gravitate to Poulin.
Before the introductions started, she needed to skate around and tell the girls to spread out to the different players. Still, it seemed like an extra one or two got to stand with the Montreal captain.
Poulin, from Beauceville, wasn’t the only Beauce native to make a homecoming. Breton-Lebreux was the one instrumental in creating the Montreal Stars when the CWHL started 10 years ago. She was the captain, general manager, and founder of the team. Breton-Lebreux is from Saint-Zacharie, about 30 minutes from Saint-Georges.
Breton-Lebreux was behind the bench and as she watched Poulin get introduced followed by a loud standing ovation, she took a second to remember.
“I had a moment when they presented Marie-Philip [Saturday] night because I remembered the first year of the league,” Breton-Lebreux said. “We called Marie-Philip... she was so young only 15, and we brought her to Montreal to play for the Stars,” she said. “To have her back here and being applauded like that it was...” she paused. “We’ve come a long way.”
“I know that [Breton-Lebreux] especially was really emotional about it,” said Caroline Ouellette. “I think she’s so proud to see how much the league has grown and for us to be able to come here and pack the arena is certainly a lot due to what she has created with this league and I’m so thankful for her and [Montreal GM Meg Hewings] for bringing us here in this great city.”
“It was really special,” said Breton-Lebreux. “All week I was a bit excited. I had butterflies in my belly and then we got here and there were 2,400 people [Saturday] night and they were screaming and we offered a good performance and it was very exciting to come back here to Beauce and to show Les Canadiennes, something that I helped build... I was really proud.”
These two games were the first two home games the Canadiennes have played outside of the Greater Montreal area. While Montreal has a rich women’s hockey history, the sport is not as visible outside of the GMA. One of the key talking points from the team’s partnership with the Montreal Canadiens was to grow the sport to girls all over Quebec.
The players all agreed: this could be the first of many games around the province.
“For me, one thing that makes me so proud is to see all the little girls on the ice and to see their smiles and to see how young they get to start playing hockey. Especially to see that it’s completely normal for them to play hockey and to make their way to our sport,” said Ouellette. “To see them dream of playing for Les Canadiennes one day I think that’s what this is about and that makes me very proud.”
“I think we have to do it more often,” said Breton-Lebreux. “Hopefully we offered some good role models and maybe some day these girls are going to dream of playing for Les Canadiennes.”
“Outreach games are really important,” said Chu. “We talk a lot about being in the communities and being involved not only in Montreal but within Quebec. Having the advantage of doing that is really special to us.”
“It’s nice because all the kids get to see [Poulin] physically and it makes such a big difference,” said Bettez. “That sometimes might be the trigger that makes them say ‘I want to play hockey. I want to be like her’ and we need those things in order to grow the game.”
Les Canadiennes play their next games at home on November 26-27 against the Brampton Thunder. This weekend they play the Toronto Furies in Toronto.