A small miracle on ice: Women's pro hockey comes to Montreal — with a bang

Ahead of its home opener at the Verdun Auditorium, Montreal’s PWHL franchise is living a dream — and “ready for the rough play.”

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Kori Cheverie is clear about Montreal.

She loves the place. Loves the food, loves the ambience, loves the culture, even loves the French lessons she is taking two or three times a week.

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“The French lessons are going well and I really like it,” says the 36-year-old native of New Glasgow, N.S. “For me, it’s a break from thinking about hockey. If I didn’t have that, I’d think about hockey all the time.”

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Thinking about hockey is Cheverie’s passion and her profession — a path that wasn’t open to women in the past. She is the first head coach of the Montreal franchise in the Professional Women’s Hockey League, charged with taking a group of disparate talents and blending them into a team in time to compete in a league that did not exist six months ago.

As one of the six head coaches in the newly minted PWHL, Cheverie is a pivotal figure in an idea whose time has come. Nearly 26 years after this scribe covered the first Olympic women’s hockey tournament in Nagano, Japan in which Montreal GM Danièle Sauvageau was an assistant behind the Team Canada bench, a viable, well-funded, well-organized and highly publicized women’s hockey league has finally arrived on this continent, a couple of decades behind the WNBA and the women’s professional soccer leagues, especially in Europe.

Built with a full understanding of the failures of previous attempts at a professional women’s hockey league, the PWHL has all the necessary building blocks: owners with deep pockets, an eight-year agreement with its players’ union, widespread public and media support and the presence of the biggest stars in the women’s game.

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Montreal's PWHL home opener is Saturday.
Montreal players huddle before a Professional Women’s Hockey League game against Minnesota on Jan. 6 in St. Paul, Minn. At this Saturday’s home opener at Verdun Auditorium, they’ll be up against Boston. Photo by Bruce Bennett /Getty Images

The new league has arrived with boffo ratings and a bang — literally. You can’t have a two-sentence conversation about the PWHL without hearing the word “physicality,” a ghastly concoction only a broadcaster could love. Five windy syllables to convey what makes the new league different: Hitting.

They’re hitting in the PWHL. The thud of open-ice hits and the crunch of a player crashing into the boards are part of the soundtrack of a league that has emphatically announced itself to the world. Watch half a period and you’ll forget that you’re watching a women’s game.

I confess that I never thought there was anything missing from the international game that has supplied some of Canada’s brightest hockey moments going back to 2002 — but when you watch the PWHL, it seems that the game is now complete. The skating and skills are elite but now there’s that hard-hitting physical element we’ve been conditioned to expect from hockey.

“For sure, we were ready for the rough play,” says Montreal superstar Marie-Philip Poulin, the woman known as “Captain Clutch” for her heart-stopping Olympic goals. “We knew what to expect from Utica (where the six teams in the league played a series of exhibition games) and from the season opener.”

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From the start, the players have driven the movement for more contact in the women’s game. “We’ve been in constant communication with the referees,” says Poulin, “saying this is what we want. It’s been very physical and that’s what we’re asking from the refs, for more guidelines so we know what to expect.”

Montreal's PWHL team
The stars on the ice have driven the formation of the PWHL since the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2019 — with Montreal superstar Marie-Philip Poulin (29), a fan favourite, at the forefront.  Photo by Justin Tang /The Canadian Press

“We’ve been working on it in practice,” says Cheverie. “Not so much how to hit another player as saying to them, ‘Hey, this is how you protect yourself.’ Most of the players here have not played along the boards where there’s tons of contact since they were still playing with the boys.”

Ironically, it was slightly built speedster Czech Tereza Vanišová who had the hardest hit in the season opener for Montreal — and was duly handed a boarding penalty.

The physical play has drawn much of the early attention but behind the scenes with every one of the six franchises, there’s a small miracle in progress. Although a formal announcement of the six franchises came Aug. 29, the teams had been working on their rosters over the summer — but that still left roughly six months to create a new league out of thin air.

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To an extraordinary degree, the stars on the ice have driven the formation of the PWHL since the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2019 — with Poulin herself at the forefront of the effort.

“It’s been amazing,” Poulin says of seeing her dream become a reality. “I’m so happy. When the CWHL folded, we all got together. We didn’t know it would take this much time but it was all worth it. Being in charge of our own vision is unbelievable.”

For those who wonder why the PWHL has generic jersey designs with the team’s city diagonally across the front of the jerseys, the answer is in the misstep made when the new league submitted an atrocious list of names to the U.S. Patent Office: The Boston Wicked, Minnesota Superior, Montreal Echo, New York Sound, Ottawa Alert and Toronto Torch. 

After receiving immediate negative blowback from the hockey world, the league sensibly decided there wasn’t sufficient time to properly brand the teams and design and produce all the gear to fit, so the names were shelved and the PWHL will operate only with the city names through this 24-game season.

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Behind the PWHL are the very deep pockets of Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter and his wife Kimbra, team president Stan Kasten and tennis legend Billie Jean King — who drew so much attention from the TV crews on opening night that it appeared she was running the league.

Billie Jean King cheers as she holds a puck high in the air while walking arm in arm with Jayna Hefford on a carpet laid on the ice
Billie Jean King, left, and Jayna Hefford walk to centre ice for the ceremonial puck drop before Toronto played New York in their PWHL hockey game at the Mattamy Athletic Centre on Jan. 1, 2024 in Toronto. Photo by Mark Blinch /Getty Images

What the Walter family investment has done is to provide adequate funding to give the league a real chance to succeed. Herself a veteran of the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League that folded before the pandemic, Cheverie said that she learned from that experience what players need to succeed as professionals.

“I learned a lot about the environment and culture of a team, the things players need to do the job. Now we’ve got the resources and funding to get the ice time so that practice can happen during the work day. We’re still a young, young sport. Before we were expending so much effort when we didn’t have the resources. Now we have the resources.”

On paper, at least, Montreal also has the players, beginning with Poulin and all-world goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens. Poulin was off to a somewhat slow start but scored a hat trick in Wednesday’s win over New York. Desbiens was outplayed in goal in a 3-0 loss to Minnesota in Montreal’s second game of the season.

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Ironically, on a night of firsts in Montreal’s opener before 8,138 delirious fans in Ottawa, it was Poulin who drew the first penalty for her team and Poulin who had the first penalty shot stopped. None of that mattered after Poulin fed linemate and lifemate Laura Stacey for the tying goal and Ann-Sophie Bettez pounced on a loose puck and whipped a wrist shot home for the overtime winner (3-2).

Ann-Sophie Bettez raises her fist into the air on the ice
Montreal’s Ann-Sophie Bettez (24) celebrates her winning goal against Ottawa in overtime action on Jan. 2, 2024. Photo by Justin Tang /The Canadian Press

The energy that night in Ottawa wasn’t matched by a larger but much quieter crowd in Minnesota — but it will be Saturday afternoon when Montreal plays its home opener against Boston at the 4,100-seat Verdun Auditorium (3:30 p.m., CBC TV, Radio-Canada Télé). Verdun will host at least seven games and four will be played at the 10,000-seat Place Bell in Laval, with the site of the one game against Toronto as yet undetermined.

For all the participants, that home opener is the culmination of a dream. Sauvageau, the former Montreal police sergeant who won a gold medal as head coach of Canada’s team in Salt Lake in 2002, says “there were times when I thought, ‘Are we ever going to get there? Am I going to see this in my lifetime?’

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“Now we can really believe. So many people are talking to me, everywhere I go. It’s like 1998 and 2002. It’s like when you roll a snowball up a mountain and it’s getting bigger and bigger and it’s so hard — but when it’s over the mountain and it starts going down it’s so much easier.”

Easier — but not easy. There remains so much to be done. The day we spoke, Sauvageau spent the afternoon helping to choose office furniture, then hurried to the airport for the team flight to Minnesota.

Young PWHL fans cheer as they hold up posters to the camera
Young fans showing their support for the PWHL at the season opener in Ottawa, where Montreal won 3-2 in overtime. Photo by Justin Tang /The Canadian Press

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Nevertheless, Sauvageau is very much in her element. “I’m so proud and happy,” she says. “I’m very privileged to be able to create this environment. Our job is very dual, to build the team and to make the public aware of what we’re doing.”

It is a startup, Sauvageau points out, and as such she has to hire people who can work in a startup. People like Kori Cheverie, who is very aware of the special nature of the job. “We have a whole new staff,” she says. “We’re learning to work together, figuring out who does what, who is responsible for what. We spend countless hours behind the scenes, not just at practices. We work with the video coaches to make sure every detail is fine-tuned so that we can come to the players with a finished product to answer any questions they may have.”

Everyone involved is aware that in a city where the Canadiens have set an unmatchable standard by winning 24 Stanley Cups, the best marketing tool is to win.

Poulin, the woman with three Olympic gold medals and three world championships on her resumé, puts it simply: “I want to win a title.”

The next step comes Saturday afternoon, before what is sure to be a delirious crowd in Verdun.

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