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‘I have shivers just talking about it’: How a new step in Montreal’s women’s hockey history started with honouring its past

Photo: Montreal PWHL/Twitter

Wednesday morning at the Centre 21.02 in the Verdun Auditorium, the focus was on the present and the future. The first training camp of the Montreal team in the Professional Women’s Hockey League officially started. Despite the focus being on the future, and despite being in a completely renovated arena, there are nods and winks to the past everywhere.

First, there’s the name of the Centre itself. 21.02 represents February 21, 2002. The day Canada claimed their first women’s hockey Olympic gold medal. Immediately to the left of where members of the PWHL team met the media is a glass case. In it are relics of the past, including game pucks, jerseys, plus replica banners representing every one of the Clarkson Cups won by Les Canadiennes, née Stars.

There is perhaps no bigger wink from the past than how this whirlwind week started. On Monday in Toronto, there was an unofficial Montreal Stars/Canadiennes reunion. Lisa-Marie Breton, the pioneer behind the team’s creation was there. So was Kelly Sudia, a big part of the team’s early years. Kim St-Pierre was there, Charline Labonté, Noémie Marin, and others. They were all there to celebrate Caroline Ouellette’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Marie-Philip Poulin was also in Toronto for the induction ceremony, and while she was in Toronto to celebrate her friend and mentor, she couldn’t help but take in everyone else she was surrounded by.

“It’s funny. I was sitting there and I couldn’t believe it. Those are the ladies that, when I moved to Montreal at 17 years old, helped me tremendously,” Poulin said. “They were big sisters for me and having that group there on Monday, and they were all saying ‘good luck. Have fun. That’s what we’ve been dreaming of since we were kids,’ it goes a long way. I have shivers just talking about it, because they’re the reason why we’re doing it. They paved the way for all of us. And now we get things started. They are a big reason why we’re here.”

Ouellette was supposed to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Instead she was inducted in her second year of eligibility, and maybe, just maybe, that’s the way it was supposed to be. Maybe the week where the new PWHL team opened camp was always supposed to start with Ouellette’s induction. Maybe the person pulling all the strings has a sense of the moment. More likely, it’s just a happy accident. Either way, it was perfect.

“It couldn’t have started a better way, with Caro getting inducted,” Poulin said. “She’s done so much. She’s doing so much for the game and having that group there, saying how happy they are for all of us, it’s quite special.”

No player represents the past, present, and future of, not just Montreal, but Canadian women’s hockey than Ouellette. You can draw a direct line from her to any number of players, from France Saint-Louis, to Poulin, to Montreal training camp invite Brigitte Laganière, who Ouellette coached at Concordia University. Her ties to Concordia, the Quebec girls team that played in the Quebec City Pee-Wee tournament, and her Girls Hockey Celebration in Montreal ties her to any number of future players. She coaches present players with Team Canada’s senior national team as well. Of course, it doesn’t end with the players. Ouellette played for Montreal GM Danièle Sauvageau, and even coached with her in the final season of the CWHL.

The team will have their first on-ice practice on Saturday, and for Poulin, it will be her first league practice since 2019, when she was with Les Canadiennes. Poulin, although officially dressed for that year’s final, did not play a shift with an injury that kept her out of the playoffs that year and most of that year’s World Championships. It means she has waited longer than most for a return to league play.

“I think when the first game is going to happen, and finally play for championship, finally, have that in mind, finally practicing all together as a group where you can practice the power play, the PK as a line, I think that’s going to be believable,” Poulin said. “It’s going to be exciting. It’s finally here. I don’t know how to put into words. It’s so exciting. We’ve been working for so many years for that moment. When the first game is going to happen, I think there’s going to be quite a feeling inside. I think it’s going to be ‘Well, we made it.'”

Cheverie will be a head coach of a professional team for the first time, but she has plenty of coaching experience at the University and national team level.

“I’m excited because for a lot of these players, NCAA aside and PHF aside, the PWHPA players have been in this kind of constant flux for the past four years where, aside from all the individual skill development that they’ve done, they haven’t had a ton of team development and time together to practice as a team,” Cheverie said.

“I think we all take that for granted that just because they were with Team Canada, Team USA, that they received that type of environment, but honestly, more often than not, they’re not receiving that environment. So now we finally get to provide that for them and get on the ice together, learn together. I mentioned in our first meeting that gone are the days of “Show and Tell” coaching, it’s now we do it together. So I can learn just as much from players who have played overseas, as they can learn from me as a coach. And I want to know what they what they’ve done, what worked, what didn’t, what was cool, a certain face off. I think that’s the type of environment that we’re going to create, that it’s really a collaboration and a partnership between staff and players. Because that’s the way the world is, that’s the way it operates. That’s how you get best results.”

Cheverie in her own right has seen the other side as well. She played in the CWHL and had to practice after working during the day, something that is no longer needed with the PWHL’s pay and structure.

“I think about it all the time,” Cheverie said. “I think about where the game has come and how much it is grown and the level of professionalism that is happening. It’s really cool to have seen all of the stages of hockey evolve and be a part of it as a player, and it’s so exciting that they can play hockey for a salary. Back in the day, we didn’t have to pay to play but we were not making any money. But at that time, all that effort that was put in back then it just keeps paving a little bit, a little bit, a little bit. And obviously, over the past four years, some of the players that you see in this room today have put in so much time and effort so now for them to finally have this, it’s an incredible feeling for myself. I’m very proud that I was a part of it way back in the day. And now I get to continue on as a coach and be a part of it now.”

One of the other players speaking to the media on Wednesday was first-year professional player Maude Poulin-Labelle. The 23-year-old just graduated from Northeastern University and was drafted in the 10th round, 55th overall by Montreal.

“We’re just coming out of college and we have all of this, it’s great,” Poulin-Labelle said. “We are grateful that the people before us worked for this. If they weren’t there, we wouldn’t be able to be here.”