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The CWHL is more than a game; it's an experience

The opportunity not only to watch the best, but to be close to them is what sets the CWHL apart.

Shanna Martin

Monday night, RDS had a great look back at the events leading up to the women's hockey gold medal game at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

In that documentary, front and centre, were interviews with members of Team Canada. Among them, Les Canadiennes stars Caroline Ouellette and Marie-Philip Poulin.

In that pair, you have two of the best women's hockey players the sport has ever seen. You have the captain of the Canadian National Team and the player who scored the tying and winning goals in the game in question ... oh and she also scored the gold-medal winner in Vancouver four years prior.

We've talked about the quality of play in the CWHL, and about some of the players who deserve more attention. But there's something about watching the absolute best doing what they do, and Poulin and Ouellette represent that.

They're not alone, as other key members of that Sochi team — Lauriane Rougeau and Charline Labonté — also have big roles with Les Canadiennes.

Getting to watch these players in a tiny arena where you are close to the ice for a reasonable price is an amazing part of the CWHL. You just need to watch these games to get an appreciation for it.

The atmosphere is just fun. There's no big screen to get you to play pretend drums or tell you when to cheer. The crowd is full of kids who know exactly when to scream all on their own.

And the fun doesn't stop when the final horn sounds.

Photo credit: Shanna Martin

Players are always around for autographs. And I don't mean you wait at the exit of the parking garage hoping for one of the players to stop, roll down their window and take a minute to take a picture.

After every game, the players go in the locker room for a quick meeting with coaches. Then, they go upstairs to sit and sign autographs, take pictures, and actually talk to fans. A lot of the hundred or so fans (the line has been growing larger as the season has gone on) are kids who look up to their idol, whether she be a superstar or a role player.

But there are some adults there too. Some are simply fans looking for a unique piece of memorabilia. But there's also the opportunity to talk to players. The players I have spoken to love hearing from people who come up to them and say that they couldn't believe the pace and skill of the game.

But the real fun is seeing them interact with the youngest fans. A lot of them are repeat customers. They stay for every game. The players know some of them by name. Ask how their games went. Ask about their school. It's almost as fun to watch that interaction as watching the game.

These players are members of the community and they embrace it. I'm sure the last thing they want to do after a long game is sit for 45 or so minutes signing autographs before having the chance to change and go home but they do. And with a smile on their faces.

There was one game where there was more of a media presence than usual. As a result, Poulin was among players delayed to get to the autograph signings but they went on. However, when some people got to the end of the line, they stopped and waited for her.

It ended up creating a logjam in the autograph line, so one of the players pulled a table to the side to allow people to wait for Poulin while allowing others to walk through.

Poulin ended up with Ann-Sophie Bettez at a table all by themselves surrounded by fans.

Photo credit: Shanna Martin

The experience extends to the exit where the visiting team's bus waits for players. That day, Calgary was in town and Hayley Wickenheiser was outside of the bus swarmed by people. And she was taking the time despite the team headed to the airport momentarily.

We used to do media availability after the autograph line which I didn't mind because I enjoyed just watching the fans have that experience. It was fun just to watch the interactions.

There are also opportunities to skate with the players after select games where they do all of this on the ice like they did this past Saturday in Boisbriand.

All in all, it's another reason to not only see amazing athletes do amazing things but to see them up close and taking the time to meet with fans.

I'm sure at some point it there will be a point where there will be too many fans for them to continue doing this but as it stands, it's just about as good as it gets.