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‘It was a long time coming’: Montreal’s PWHPA win represented a lot more than just one tournament

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The foundation had been set, and they finally have a win to show for it.

Dave Holland / PWHPA

The Montreal Canadiens weren’t the first Montreal hockey team to celebrate a win last week, and they weren’t even the first one to do it after a win against a team from Toronto.

The Montreal chapter of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, who practice and train out of the Centre 21.02 in the Verdun Auditorium, won the Canadian leg of the Secret Dream Gap Tour with a win in the championship game over Toronto.

The celebrations were befitting a season-long grind, and not a week-long tournament because this Montreal team has been working together for most of the hockey season, even if they haven’t had games with other teams. It also was a chance to finish what a majority of the group started a few years ago.

“I think it showed how long it’s been since we had, one, meaningful games, and two, just success,” said Montreal defender Erin Ambrose. “I think you look back at the Canadiennes and how we ended and obviously a lot of disappointment the two years that I was there and it was a long time coming, that’s for sure.”

The 2018-19 Canadiennes never could get it quite together that season and had some injuries that meant the full team — including newcomers Hilary Knight and Jill Saulnier, among others — couldn’t show their potential. There was hope that that was the beginning, but the CWHL folded, and that team never really had a chance to play together again in a tournament or league format.

This year, the PWHPA had planned to have set teams for each region as opposed to makeshift rosters at rotating showcases. The schedule was obviously shortened due to COVID-19, but it provided a bit more of a normal ebb and flow, even if it was only a week-long tournament.

“The showcases were fantastic, obviously, and we got to go to some pretty incredible places but to really have it all come down to one week was really special this year and I think that that was a great way to do it,” Ambrose said while acknowledging the circumstances that forced everything to be condensed. “It felt normal that at the end of the day we were playing for something.”

It was something that meant a lot to the players, even ones who have international experience.

“To be able to hoist a trophy and have that gold medal feeling, it’s irreplaceable and I hope it keeps coming,” said Montreal forward Jill Saulnier after the team’s win. “I was on the ice and I was standing on the side and I was starting to get emotional. I see the time and effort that the girls put in at the rink and back in Montreal. Most of our team goes to work 9-5 and then race to the rink for practice for a small stipend. To sit there and watch my teammates celebrate it was really exciting for me.”

Ambrose and Saulnier both represent the shift that started in 2018 with Montreal being a destination for the best players in Canada. Prior to then, it was a local-heavy roster relying on an elite group of club players with a few National team players. Now, they are a part of what Danièle Sauvageau is building with Centre 21.02, the first recognized high performance women’s hockey centre in Canada.

“Obviously the first person who kind of started that was Emerance [Maschmeyer], and her getting out there and she just knew it was a great place for her to be to kind of get herself back on track and that’s what attracted me to coming,” Ambrose said. “Then after that, I think it all just speaks for itself that when you get an opportunity to play with the best player in the world in [Marie-Philip Poulin] that people want to come. And when that starts to happen then it becomes a very contagious thing. We’re very fortunate to get people like [Emily Clark] and [Laura Stacey], [Jamie Bourbonnais] this year and you look at the [Quebec talent] that we still have there like the Cat Daousts and the Karell Emards, those are people that really have kind of created that culture and kept that culture especially somebody like [Emard]. She’s been there for so many years and has really been a staple of whatever team they’ve had. So I think that it’s really great that we’ve been able to kind of create that culture and that’s something that I’m thankful that I got to be part of.”

Emerance Maschmeyer came to Montreal after not making Canada’s Centralization roster for the Olympics that year. Ambrose joined her after not making the Olympic team. Both stayed through the folding of the CWHL and now both are on the 2022 Centralization roster for the Olympics.

“It’s exciting,” Ambrose said about being named to the camp that will shape the final roster. “Obviously there’s a lot to get done in order to make sure that I make my dreams come true. I’m just happy more than anything that I’ve had people around me that have wanted the best for me and somebody like Emerance is obviously the first one that comes to mind. Her and I have talked about it since 2018 and the disappointment of that, and that we wanted to get back there so I’m really happy for both of us and obviously she deserves it a lot and I’m just excited for the journey ahead.”