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PWHL: A sold-out Bell Centre was host to more than a hockey game as Toronto beat Montreal

Montreal's starting lineup on the blue line before the game at the Bell Centre. (Photo: PWHL)

From the time the players on both teams entered the ice at the Bell Centre on Saturday afternoon, it felt like a playoff game. From the light show, to the sold out crowd – the largest to ever watch a women’s hockey game – singing the anthem, to the towels waving. After PWHL Montreal entered the ice, the crowd cheered only instead of “Fix You” it was “The Power of Love”.

When Toronto jumped on the ice, the crowd instinctively booed like any good Montreal crowd would, but after the huddles on both sides of the ice formed and there was a wait before the introductions and anthems, it’s like the instinct faded and everybody could simply appreciate what was happening.

There was some booing when Jocelyne Larocque, who is listed as a Canadiens fan in Team Canada’s media guide, was introduced but it was quickly overruled by cheers. The same for Renata Fast, and by the time Emma Maltais – who has family in Quebec and surely had a lot in the stands – was introduced, there was no booing. Sarah Nurse, who followed Maggie Conners, had the loudest ovation only because the cheering for Kristen Campbell, Toronto’s starting goaltender, was mixed. Not with booing, but her trademark ‘SOUP’ coming from Toronto fans.

By the time the crowd cheered through Montreal’s starting lineup (and it was a good thing Marie-Philip Poulin wasn’t introduced last because they would have had to delay the game another 20 minutes), and the anthem was sung, the playoff atmosphere and intensity was there throughout the game.

Which is why after Sarah Nurse’s overtime winner only 13 seconds into the extra frame went in, it was ironic that the result, a 3-2 Toronto win, didn’t really matter at all.

Sure there was disappointment heard throughout the 21,105 of primarily Montreal fans, but it quickly turned into appreciation. They knew that the Montreal team would salute the crowd one more time and they were eagerly anticipating giving them one final send off.

The players knew it was a last moment to soak it all in as well. While the full building being the norm is the next objective, you only get one first, and for some it may even be the last. Nurse, the game’s first star who had two goals on the day, also got one last send off from the Montreal crowd.

“I think when we all skated out there, we weren’t sure how we were going to be received,” Nurse said. “Obviously the crowds here in Montreal can definitely be tough on Toronto teams, so the support everywhere has been incredible. I never dreamed of playing at the Bell Centre, but that was one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had. We’re very grateful and it was a great game today.”

While it wasn’t the primary thing on the mind of many, the game did have serious standing implications. Toronto clinched a playoff spot, while the point Montreal earned for the overtime loss put them in a tie for second spot with Minnesota.

As for the game, Blayre Turnbull scored Toronto’s first goal. Montreal responded in the final minute of the first period when Sarah Bujold wired a goal past Campbell to tie it at 1-1 and send the Bell Centre crowd into a frenzy.

After Nurse tipped in a Allie Munroe point shot just 40 seconds into the second period to take a 2-1 lead, Montreal once again responded in the final minute of the period when Erin Ambrose fired a shot from the blue line to tie it at 2-2. It was Montreal’s fourth power play goal in the last two games.

Ambrose, a Toronto native, is one of the out-of-town players to embrace, and be embraced, by fans in Montreal. In Montreal’s starting lineup, three (Ambrose, Kristin O’Neill, and Laura Stacey) grew up in the Toronto area. Kati Tabin is from Winnipeg.

When she first stepped on the ice, she was seen by the cameras looking around as if to take it all in. On the blue line during introductions, Ambrose was wearing the emotion of the moment on her face.

“I didn’t cry. I didn’t cry until after the game,” Ambrose said almost triumphantly. “[Poulin] will testify that I am a very emotional person so the fact that I kept it together was a shocking moment in itself. It was surreal. When I stepped on the ice when [the team] first got introduced, my jaw was on the floor. The white towels… it was insane. To be on the blue line and get that intro, to have this moment as a team was pretty surreal.”

Ann-Renée Desbiens made 30 saves in the loss while Kristen Campbell made 37.

Lauriane Rougeau and Marie-Philip Poulin have known each other since they were teenagers. When Poulin left her Beauce hometown to play hockey at Kuper Academy, with the Montreal Stars and, eventually, Dawson College, she actually stayed with Rougeau and her family. They both played as teammates at the Bell Centre in 2016 when they couldn’t even sell out the lower bowl, with under 6,000 fans.

Although Rougeau is now with Toronto, the Beaconsfield native thought to all the times she attended Canadiens games at the Bell Centre and even her first concert was a Backstreet Boys show in the arena.

“I grew up here, I know what the atmosphere at the Bell Centre is like,” Rougeau said. “Today it was incredible, I felt the vibration, I had tears in my eyes after the game going to the section where my parents and family were.”

It was also a special moment for those close to Poulin, who got by far the loudest ovation.

“I was so happy for [Poulin]. She deserves everything,” Rougeau said. “Growing up with her and seeing her succeed at every level and seeing the appreciation of the fans tonight, giving her the longest ovation, she deserved it. I was getting teary-eyed for her.”

After the game, Erin Ambrose was asked about the reaction that Poulin received and what it means. Ambrose laughed and said it was her favourite question, but probably not Poulin’s, who was sitting next to her.

“What happened today and what happens every time you’re in Quebec specifically but anywhere in Canada when Marie-Philip Poulin’s name gets called that is the recognition that this girl deserves,” said Ambrose. “She is the most incredible human being that I have ever been able to be around, she is the best leader…” At this point Poulin, who was fidgeting awkwardly and reaching for her water bottle, said time was up for Ambrose’s answer. But Ambrose laughed it off, saying she could go much longer, before continuing.

“I think the best part is everyone sees it but on a day-to-day basis, she is who she is. She’s someone who makes you a better person. When someone is able to give her that recognition, I don’t think it could be done enough and if there was a time for me to cry on the blue line it was probably in that moment.”

While the goal is to eventually be able to play and fill NHL arenas regularly, that time will have to wait with Radio-Canada’s Christine Roger reporting that any playoff games in Montreal would not be in the downtown arena. Pat Laprade reported that playoff games will be played at Laval’s Place Bell, which Montreal has sold out for their last two regular season games in the building.

The fact that the Verdun Auditorium ice needs to be melted before the end of May, plus its small capacity, makes it a tricky spot for the PWHL playoffs that will start on May 8. Montreal still needs any mix of three points gained or three points lost by Boston to clinch a playoff spot. Both teams have three games remaining.

Their next game will be Wednesday night at the Verdun Auditorium against last-place New York, who could be eliminated from the playoffs as soon as that night whether they win or lose because of other games scheduled.

It could potentially be the last game at the arena that hosts the team’s practices and is their main hub. Once seen as the perfect size for a professional team’s games, it has been outgrown before the first season even ended.


TOR 21 10 4 0 7 38 54 45 47 X 7 7
MTL 21 8 3 5 5 35 50 51 44 3 10 10
MIN 21 8 4 3 6 35 50 43 44 3 10 10
OTT 20 8 0 6 6 30 54 50 42 8 13
BOS 21 6 4 2 9 28 42 50 37 10 8
NY 20 3 4 3 10 20 40 51 32 3

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