Cathy Chartrand was sitting at a table in the new players lounge of the Michel Normandin arena, Les Canadiennes’ new home, before the team's practice.
When asked to look back at her hockey career, she didn’t have to think long about whether she ever envisioned preparing for a second game at the Bell Centre - against a team from China.
“Of course not,” she said in a tone that was as if she still couldn’t believe it. “The NWHL... it's a long way behind us. We wouldn't even dream of playing one game [at the Bell Centre] so a second one against a team from China? It's even farther than we would have thought.”
Chartrand started playing in the original NWHL - the CWHL’s predecessor - in the 1999-2000 season. The Montreal team was known as the Wingstar and then the Axion. She was 18 years old. She played in the league until the 2006-07 season - the league’s last before disbanding - before going to McGill University.
She then went to the CWHL (which started in 2007-08) in 2012-13, the same year her McGill teammates Ann-Sophie Bettez and Charline Labonté made their CWHL debuts (yes, McGill was stacked). Since then, she has become the highest scoring defender the CWHL, now in its 11th season, has ever seen.
And now, approaching 400 career NWHL and CWHL games at the age of 36, she might even be better than ever.
Like many women's hockey players in her generation, she didn't even know women's hockey existed. She grew up with the game through her brother and the Montreal Canadiens.
“I did figure skating and I didn't like it, I did alpine skiing and I didn't like it but I was following my brother every weekend to the rink and my dad was a hockey player as well and I just asked my parents,” she said. “They were like 'Are you sure? You're going to play with boys.’”
Chartrand was sure. She played with boys and then at a regional tournament, her team faced a team with a girl in goal. Her dad was approached by this girl’s father and he was asked why she wasn’t playing for the region’s girl’s all-star team.
“I was like... ‘What? There are more than two girls playing hockey?’ And that’s how it started.”
Her path went through the all-star team into Team Quebec and the Canada Games, then her path went into the Canadian National Development program and the under-22 team before culminating in two 4 Nations Cup gold medals in 2002 and 2006.
Chartrand grew up playing in Nominingue, a small town about 200 kilometres north of Montreal of about 2,000 people.
She says playing with the boys helped her development. Her uncle was the team’s coach and the boys pushed her to be better.
Now, it isn’t the boys but younger players who are forcing her to push herself to stay at a high level.
“Physically you have to keep up,” she said. “On ice is one thing, but off ice you need to do everything right. Especially getting older, kids are coming in [and] they’re younger, stronger, faster, more skilled. So you need to keep up with their fitness.”
Luckily she has a friend, teammate and all-around fitness beast in Emmanuelle Blais who keeps her prepared physically with a workout plan, and it’s a mix of physical preparation and a new mindset that helps her perform at the level she’s currently at.
“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to play so I’m just trying to enjoy every moment, enjoy every shift,” she said. “Every time I made a mistake I used to be down on myself but now it’s just ‘OK let’s turn it around, have fun and enjoy the moment.’”
She has played 122 CWHL games, scoring 28 goals and adding 78 assists for 106 points. Chartrand set the CWHL record for most points by a player who spent their entire career on the blue line on January 9 against the Boston Blades.
Chartrand was chosen as captain and has a special place in the team’s lineage. She was chosen as captain after Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, one of the league’s co-founders and then passed the ‘C’ over to Marie-Philip Poulin, one of the game’s true superstars.
“It’s a great honour,” she said of being captain. “All the girls who play on this team were leaders where they played before. They were captains or assistant captains or leaders in the role they were playing so being chosen captain is a great honour.”
In the Clarkson Cup playoffs last year, she was tied with Poulin for the league scoring lead with six points in three games. This season she has six points in six games and leads the team in scoring but she’s still focusing on the task at hand and hasn’t thought about her place in history.
“Looking back at my career now... not yet,” she said. “I’m not far from it but I’m not there yet. I’m just trying to be in the moment.”
Chartrand won her first Clarkson Cup this past season, and won the CWHL’s defender of the year award in 2013-14. She is a high school teacher and she says that some of her students know what she does, and she even crosses paths with some of them at arenas.
The second appearance at the Bell Centre didn’t go as planned. The team fell to the Kunlun Red Star 3-1 after beating the Calgary Inferno 1-0 at the arena last year. The team bounced back with a 5-3 win on Sunday to even the series.
The third game of the regular season series goes Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. at the Michel-Normandin arena. It is expected that Kunlun will be joined by the two Finnish players - goaltender Noora Räty and forward Annina Rajahuhta - who were representing their country at the 4 Nations Cup in Tampa.