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PWHL Montreal is a mix of unfinished business and new beginnings

Photo Credit: Shanna Martin

Erin Ambrose is in a different place than where she was in December of 2017 when she was traded from the Toronto Furies to Les Canadiennes. Well, figuratively, at least. She’s back in Montreal, but in the six years since, she has become an Olympic gold medallist and has used her platform to talk about her own mental health struggles to help others.

It’s somewhat fitting that her professional career – on hold since the CWHL folded in 2019 – restarts in the same place it ended. Seventy-one months to the day she was acquired in a trade by Montreal in the CWHL, her three-year contract with the PWHL team in Montreal was announced. The contract itself was only a matter of time after she was drafted in the first round (sixth overall) in September’s PWHL Draft.

Ambrose, who was part of one of the greatest what-if stories in sports with the 2018-19 Canadiennes, gets a chance to, in a way, pick up where she left off alongside four other members of that team: Ann-Sophie Bettez, Marie-Philip Poulin, Catherine Daoust, and Sarah Lefort. A sixth member, Mélodie Daoust, is on the team’s reserve roster.

“I think it’s kind of crazy to think about,” Ambrose said. “I think we all look back. And, it was disappointing to lose in that final game at Coca Cola Coliseum. I remember sitting there after. In the CWHL, I played a lot of games in that league. I felt like that was a special group, and it was disappointing. And there was all this excitement for me to come back to Montreal. But I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet that I get to play here again. Because those were some great years, and some much needed great years in my life.”

As much as this team can bring back memories or invoke a sense of unfinished business, it’s also a completely new start. This is the Montreal PWHL team. It’s not Les Canadiennes, or the Montreal Stars. This isn’t the team that was built on the backs of Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, or Kelly Sudia, or Nathalie Déry, or Caroline Ouellette, and Kim St-Pierre. This isn’t the team that won four Clarkson Cups.

“It’s different. I talk about it with Marie-Philip [Poulin] and Laura [Stacey], about how none of us have ever been a part of a team that you literally build a culture from the ground up,” Ambrose said. “We get to decide where the ship goes. And it’s exciting, but it also means it’s a lot of work. You go to a college team, there’s already people that have been through everything. Whereas here, we’re all figuring it all out together, which also makes it a lot more special. And a lot easier to kind of create that culture, because we’re all going through it together.”

The team has plans around the holidays to get together as a group and to gel as a team. It helps that so many high-level women’s hockey players have leadership experience. It’s not unique to Montreal, either. You go up and down the rosters in the PWHL, and odds are most players have had a letter on their jersey at the international, pro, or college levels.

One player who is as decorated as any is Jillian Dempsey. Dempsey is a huge part of women’s hockey history and has been in the pro game for 10 years, all of them until now with a team from Boston.

“Because everybody’s new to this group, and there’s nothing pre established, in some sense, everybody’s a rookie in that regard,” Dempsey said. “[Everyone is t]rying to feel out where it’s not that you’re defined in one role on a team, but really trying to find where everybody fits amongst each other and what the group dynamics are. We definitely do have more of a veteran presence and I think everybody’s just trying to do what they do best and it’s falls into place from there.”

Dempsey was captain of the Boston Pride in the PHF for six years. The natural ability to be a leader has warmed herself to her new teammates.

“I think Demps is a great example of you can never not learn new things,” Ambrose said. “I think she has been the most eager, most excited to be here. She’s so vocal. Like, I’ve caught myself just being like, ‘I love this girl.’ I actually was standing in the hallway in Utica, with [Ottawa goaltender Emerance] Maschmeyer. And Demps walked down between periods and was like, ‘just one more, we got to just get one more’ and I turned to Masch and she goes, ‘she’s great, isn’t she?’ They knew each other from Harvard. Dempsey has been that consistent person since she was at Harvard. I played against her there my freshman year, you always know what you’re gonna get from her. That’s something that I have a heck of a lot of respect for as a fellow competitor.”

Although Ambrose is from Keswick, Ontario and unapologetically a Toronto fan, she understands what it means to be part of a team from Montreal. It’s not just her. Fellow Ontarian Laura Stacey has said it, as has Nova Scotia native Kori Cheverie, the team’s head coach, and Dempsey as well.

“I think it’s important to the fan base of Montreal that there is that homegrown talent, which we very much have,” Ambrose said. “I think somebody like [Drummondville native Gabrielle] David is going to exemplify that extremely well, she’s going to be so well loved by the fans here. And it is important, but it also goes to show you the strength of hockey in Quebec. And that is a hard thing for me to say as an Ontario kid, but it’s something that I appreciate immensely as a player myself, to see the people love back. And it also makes a lot of us feel a lot more welcome. I would say you look at, especially the Czechs and the Americans, it’s different for somebody to come from Ontario. But for people that come from the States that come from overseas to be welcomed into the City of Montreal by this team, I think that starts with people that are from here.”

Montreal’s season starts on January 2 when they take on Ottawa at TD Arena. The game is going to set a new attendance record for a professional women’s hockey regular season game in North America with close to 8,000 people expected. Montreal’s home opener is January 13 against Boston and already sold out at the Verdun Auditorium. Tickets for other games at the Auditorium are available here. Tickets for four games at Place Bell can be found here.

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