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Closing the book on Les Canadiennes season

Looking back at what was an incredible, and important year

Shanna Martin

As I sat down at my seat in the press box at the Canadian Tire Centre, I opened my notebook to the last page. I had started that notebook at the beginning of the season when I started covering Les Canadiennes.

The first page was from the first day I spent with the team in August when they held a youth hockey camp, specifically targeted at little girls. It was the first time that I had the chance to meet and speak with Marie-Philip Poulin, but it would be far from the last.

They were still the Stars then, and it isn't only their name that has changed. The newly branded Les Canadiennes franchise has gone from being an afterthought in a Habs obsessed market to a legitimate, viable, competitive and entertaining hockey club.

It all started at the CWHL Entry Draft, when Montreal selected Poulin in the first round. Adding a superstar of her calibre to a line up that already included women's hockey legends like Caroline OuelletteJulie Chu and Charline Labonté was a boost to their star power. Poulin is a household name, something extremely difficult for female athletes to accomplish. But I suppose scoring two Olympic gold medal-winning goals will make that happen.

Then came the rebrand. Along with the marketing machine that is the Habs came a new name, a new logo, and a new jersey.

As their male counterparts started their season with a 9-0 record, Les Canadiennes remained undefeated into November, dropping their first game of the season against the eventual Clarkson Cup champions, the Calgary Inferno. They responded with a 5-0 shutout win over Calgary the very next day.

On New Year's Eve, the league and team made history when they competed in the first ever Outdoor Women's Classic at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. I sat rink side for this momentous occasion, and had the chance to chat with Chu after the game.

"As we were getting ready for the game, we were just a bunch of little kids," she said. "I'd like to say we were completely focused, which we were, but there was probably a big kid in us that came out and it was awesome."

Then came All-Star weekend in Toronto. Chu was voted in by the fans as captain of Team Black. Toronto Furies forward Natalie Spooner headed up Team White. The Olympians drafted their starting lineups, and then went old school, drawing the rest of their team by picking sticks.

The game itself was as fun as they come, and it was incredible to see thousands of people pack into the Air Canada Centre to see women's hockey. I remember a woman playing a game on the jumbotron during a commercial break at one point during the game, and when asked NHL trivia questions, she hadn't the faintest idea of the answers. But she knew her CWHL, because that's what matters to her. Women's hockey matters to her.

Perhaps that has something to do with the accessibility of the players. Following athletes on Twitter is probably the closest most fans will ever get to meeting their favourite players in any other professional sport. But in the CWHL, the players line up after each game to meet with the fans, sign autographs, and take pictures. Les Canadiennes are active in the community, in large part thanks to the hard work and dedication of Community Outreach Director, Fiona Robinson.

"I am incredibly proud of the generosity of our players who, even when we struggled to meet the most basic of financial goals ourselves and they were still incurring considerable cost just to play their sport, spearheaded this initiative to raise money for others," said Robinson ahead of Montreal's annual fundraiser game benefiting the Cedar's Breast Clinic.

"I think it epitomizes the values and character that our organization is built on."

I've spent my fair share of time with professional athletes, but none are as humble and honest as the women that play in the CWHL. And it doesn't stop with the players.

From top to bottom, the CWHL is run by some fantastic people. Commissioner Brenda Andress has been more than willing to chat with me on several occasions about the state of the game, the league, and the sport. She maintains that the CWHL isn't just about creating opportunities for women to play hockey, but that it's about creating opportunities for women in leadership positions.

Sasky Stewart is the league's Director of Communications & Marketing, and does an extraordinary job at keeping everyone in the loop and in check. Former player and one of the league's founding members, Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, now finds herself behind the bench as one of the assistant coaches in Montreal. All five general managers in the league are female.

More and more little girls are growing up dreaming of not only playing hockey, but working within the hockey community. When I was a kid, that wasn't something we aspired to. I was the weird kid who wanted to be a play-by-play announcer when she grew up. That dream became a reality this year because of the CWHL.

I don't know where else I would have gotten the opportunity to provide colour commentary, and even try my hand at play-by-play. This league is creating space for women in fields where females have been severely under represented for far too long.

The CWHL season culminated in the Calgary Inferno's 8-3 win over les Canadiennes at the Canadian Tire Centre on Sunday. It wasn't quite the ending I expected, covering this dominant Montreal team all year long. But I couldn't be more proud of everyone who was involved at every level, from management, to players, to volunteer staff. This team and this league have grown immensely this year, and it isn't just good for women's hockey. It's good for hockey. Period.