One month ago, Les Canadiennes played the Calgary Inferno at the Bell Centre in front of 5,938 fans - the most fans to ever watch a CWHL regular season game. The game was a huge success, and the most notable part was how serious the Canadiens took it.
From Michel Lacroix announcing to Mme. Diane Bibeau playing the organ, it looked and felt like a Habs game.
Eyes on the Prize had a chance to talk to Shauna Denis shortly after the game took place about the game, and about the partnership itself.
Denis has become the unofficial liaison between the Canadiennes and the Montreal Canadiens, where she is the Group Manager of HabsTV and Editorial, which includes the Canadiens website.
Denis also has a hand in women’s hockey history. She won a Clarkson Cup with the Montreal Stars in 2009 - the first time the Cup was awarded. She also captained a McGill University team that went undefeated in 25 league and playoff games in 2007, on their way to a National Championship. That McGill team included six current members of Les Canadiennes and several more who have played in the CWHL.
How did the game at the Bell Centre compare to your expectations?
When we set out to do it, obviously we wanted to run it like we run a Canadiens game. So the expectations in terms of the execution were what we were expecting because I think the final result, that’s what you got was a very polished, very professional game.
But in terms of attendance and atmosphere and the reaction from fans, I think it blew all of our expectations out of the water, to be honest. If you look at almost 6,000 people at the game... There are only 7,000 girls playing hockey in the province so that was impressive to us to see that there really is that appetite for it and it was really nice to see the support the girls got.
How important was it for it to feel like a Habs game and not just a game at the Bell Centre?
You can rent the ice and play your own game there as a corporate event. We wanted this to be a special event. They are professional hockey players. We wanted it to be a professional game. We wanted them to get a taste of what the Canadiens get 41 times a year in the regular season and in the playoffs. That was really important to us when we were planning the whole thing, we had the same logistics going on that we do for a major event at the Bell Centre.
I don’t think that most people know quite how many people within the Canadiens are implicated in this. And how involved everyone is from every department. There’s marketing, there’s graphic and creative services, building operations, everything that we are doing is exactly how we would run things for a Canadiens game for that exact reason.
We want everything to be what you would expect from the Montreal Canadiens. Whenever we do anything in this building we understand that fans have a certain expectation for an event or for the kind of things that we do and this one was definitely not an exception for us.
[...]I know a lot of the girls pretty well and a girl like [Caroline Ouellette] had mentioned how this was a childhood dream so there was another element that we knew how special this was for them as well. We wanted this to be as big of a deal as possible for them and we wanted to make sure that everything was taken care of so that when they came out here they got the true experience of living the childhood dream and playing at the Bell Centre in a professional hockey game in front of a huge crowd.
A game at the Bell Centre is an obvious step. How did this game come about? A year in the making? Since the partnership was announced?
Even as we were developing the partnership agreement before it was announced in March , it was something that had been discussed. Playing a special event there, maybe the Clarkson Cup... What could we do at the Bell Centre to host a game.
So we’re in the second year now of the partnership and for us, we wanted to see in year one… You have to walk before you could run. We wanted to make sure we had all the wheels in motion, we had everything we needed set. The branding needed to happen, we had to help them grow their social media… I wouldn’t even say the game at the Bell Centre was the end goal. We’re still growing and there’s still a lot more that we want to do but it was definitely something we didn’t want to rush.
We wanted to make sure that we gave them as much exposure beforehand, there was as much promotion as possible that we could do, and then before the season started this year we brought it up again, with potential dates. It made sense with their 10 year anniversary that they are celebrating this year, they had their Heritage Classic, it was a nice fit so that was how we decided that we would be doing it and then in terms of the date we had to work around their schedule so that’s the other thing: They had their schedule already made and our building is pretty busy.
It was decided a long time ago that we wanted to do it but to me, the worst case scenario would be to host this game and have 1,000 people show up. If you’re going to do it, you want to make sure that it’s a successful event that gets the attention that it deserves. That people see it and they’re exposed to women’s hockey, maybe people who maybe haven’t been to the Bell Centre before get their first taste of professional hockey in a very cool atmosphere. You want to make sure it was done as big as we could and the timing seemed good for that but certainly I don’t expect this to be a one off kind of thing and it’s not the finish line for us by any means. It’s just the beginning and there’s a lot of momentum that hopefully the girls and the CWHL can pick up off of that and continue growing even into the Clarkson Cup in March.
What’s the next step? Is it the Clarkson Cup? The All-Star Game?
It’s not something that’s currently in the plans but I don’t think anything is necessarily off the table. It would be nice to host some games at Place Bell in Laval. With that, you have a 10,000 seat arena that would be very cool to come close to capacity in that building and I think you have a different market out in Laval as well.
For us, our partnership is with Les Canadiennes. What we want to see is that team really grow and get that exposure that they deserve. It’s a team with five Olympic hockey players on it. I’m not even going to qualify that by saying some of the best women’s hockey players in the world. There are some of the best hockey players in the world on that team. For us, being able to work with them, growing women’s hockey is mostly our goal. It’s both their team and grassroots hockey initiatives that we’re looking to grow with that.
We have our all-girls camp that we had in August last year, I think that’s something that we’ll bring back and also our skills camp at the Bell Centre, they’re run exactly the same that the co-ed camps are but Les Canadiennes come and they help run those clinics and it’s nice to see the growth in registration and the girls being more excited about joining hockey. That to me is our end goal because this is about growing the game and supporting the game and it’s not specific to women’s hockey, it’s just hockey.
There’s a lot of behind the scenes work with the partnership. The players take part in camps. The blood drive. The team’s media day was held the same day. But was it important to make that next step with a big event for the public and the team itself?
I think so. To me, [CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress] and [Canadiennes general manager Meg Hewings] have both been very thankful to our group for doing this and to [Canadiens owner Geoff Molson]. I know Geoff said to me, they’re thanking me but you guys are the ones that did this. But to me, what Geoff did was show how much he believed in their game and in women’s hockey and Les Canadiennes by hosting this event because it’s not even a question of money, it’s a question of showing that we support them, it’s showing our belief in them by opening the doors and basically flipping the switch to make this a huge event.
So like you said, having a marquee event that you could really bring people in to watch the product… A huge part of the partnership for us is helping them grow their brand. There are very few times, for this game in particular we were posting quite a bit on our platforms, but for the most part what we’re trying to do is amplifying their messaging so we’re trying to drive people to their platforms. To try and have them grow their YouTube base and their social media base so we’re doing a lot of that kind of stuff.
But I think that you’re right when you say that having an event like this, a big marquee event that people can rally around and you can show highlights and you can check out their YouTube channel to see the highlights on a very professional, slick feed, that’s important.
We’ve done a ton in terms of marketing, in terms of getting sponsorships, in terms of all that stuff but this one is a big one for getting media attention, especially. Which if you’re talking about growing the CWHL, that’s what it’s going to take. You’re going to need the game on TV. Which, to be honest, if I were to say that there was one thing that I was disappointed in, it’s that we weren’t able to get a broadcast partner for that. But that’s only a case of timing because their schedules had already been set but that would be the one thing for next year, I think it’s important to have that. I think it’s important for people to be able to come in and see Caroline Ouellette and Marie-Philip Poulin on TV.
Especially in French. There are games on Sportsnet, but obviously a big part of the Montreal market wouldn’t necessarily watch Sportsnet, so I guess that’s kind of the next step...
Yeah, getting it on RDS or TVA. It got quite a bit of media coverage after the fact which is great. A lot of highlight shows were showing it, I saw it on RDS. And Hockey Night in Canada showed it Saturday night as well. That was key for us. I think it’s important that they’re buying in and doing that but just to have that in the market.. Even for us in terms of streaming, the CWHL has just the English feed so that’s tough for us as well.
Because what’s great about Les Canadiennes is that their biggest stars are also home grown. Those are some Quebec-born star players that if you’re a young, Quebec female hockey player, those are your role models. That’s what you want to do, you want to make it to the Olympics and play for your country and you can come in for 15$ at Etienne Desmarteau and watch them live, that’s a pretty cool experience so I think that’s important to get them more exposure locally.
Obviously you have a connection to this team, you did a lot of work leading up to it, you were in the post-game media scrums, did you have a chance to sit back and enjoy it and have it soak in on a personal level?
Yeah I did. This is my ninth season with the Canadiens so I’m used to being around big events so being able to soak in that kind of atmosphere comes with time but in the tunnel before the puck drop, I was standing with Geoff and Brenda before they went out when the video was playing on the big screen and that was one of those moments where you can look around and soak it in a little bit more too. How big the event is and how important it was for the girls and you can see how much it means to Meg and Brenda. They came up after to say how special it was for them and that was the part that I thought was particularly special to see.
You were around near the beginning of the CWHL as a player and now you’re organizing games at the Bell Centre for this partnership. Does the speed of the growth surprise you?
I don’t think it surprises me because working with the team now very closely with Meg and her team, it doesn’t surprise me because you see how hard they’re working and you see how much passion they put into this. That’s why everyone is playing, that’s why everyone is doing this. It’s a lot of volunteers, it’s a lot of hours, it’s a lot of struggling and trying to make ends meet, to try and figure everything out logistically. When you’re working with that much passion, you’re going to be successful.
To me, it’s not as much of a surprise. I’d love to see it grow even faster than it is [laughs] and hopefully our partnership and the game at the Bell Centre is a launching pad for that and we see a spike and we saw last year they had a huge spike in attendance and their social media following and that’s great to see and that makes me proud and it makes Geoff and the organization proud.
I don’t think it’s a surprise because this is not going to be an overnight success story. It’s been a slog for them as the pioneers and they’ve worked relentlessly, girls like [league co-founder Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux] and Meg and Brenda to make this work. There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into it. I’m not surprised but I’m definitely happy to see how it’s growing.
Les Canadiennes will play their first home series since the game at the Bell Centre this weekend, January 14 and 15, also against the Calgary Inferno as the two teams battle for first place.
Saturday’s game will be at the Complexe Bell in Brossard, and Sunday will be at the Civic Centre in Dollard des Ormeaux.
Tickets for both games and the other remaining home games are available here.