Is Montreal's PWHL team the hottest sports squad in the city?

PWHL Montréal’s first appearance in the Bell Centre on April 20 sold out in less than 20 minutes and will set an attendance record for the pro league’s inaugural season.

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It is often said, with good reason, Montreal is a one-team sports town and, obviously, it’s the Canadiens. But there’s a new hockey club on the block, PWHL Montréal, and they’re the hottest ticket in town.

Of course, the Habs aren’t about to be toppled from the No. 1 spot on the local sports hit parade, but with the CH in the midst of yet another losing season and no hope of making the playoffs, many Montreal hockey fans are turning to the Professional Women’s Hockey League to get their live hockey fix.

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That was underlined Wednesday morning when tickets for the Montreal team’s first-ever appearance at the Bell Centre sold out in less than 20 minutes, to the dismay of some fans who ended up empty-handed, or worse at the mercy of resale sites, which are already charging top-dollar for these tickets.

Capacity at the Habs’ home rink is 21,105 — making it the biggest in the National Hockey League — so that means the PWHL game against Toronto on April 20 will set the new record for the biggest attendance at a women’s hockey game. Until now, that record was held by Toronto, which hosted 19,285 fans at the Scotiabank Arena in the Big Smoke when Toronto shut out Montreal 3-0 on Feb. 16.

It’s great news for the Montreal team that has sold out all of its games at its home arena, the Verdun Auditorium, which has a capacity of 3,245, and has also done well at its four games at the 10,000-capacity Place Bell in Laval, with the last two selling out.

“The Canadiens are not having their best season, they’ve been trailing of late, the last few years,” said Bruno Delorme, a lecturer at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. “So there’s an opportunity in the Montreal landscape for another team to arise. We saw that with the Alouettes. They won the (Grey) Cup and had the big parade. The soccer’s been lagging a bit. So now there’s a place in the panorama and the women take it over. Good for them.”

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The other thing the women’s team has going for it is the tickets aren’t as expensive as those for the Canadiens. The bottom line is your average family — say two parents and two kids — can much more realistically afford to go see the women’s team than taking in the Habs.

Laura Stacey, a forward with PWHL Montréal, said she and her teammates have been overwhelmed by the reaction of Montreal fans. She couldn’t believe the Bell Centre game sold out in less than half an hour.

“I heard a lot of rumours, (people saying) of course, it’s going to sell out, that there’s so much excitement about it,” Stacey said. “After seeing Scotiabank sell out, all of us in Montreal were like: ‘We’d love to see the Bell Centre sell out,’ but I don’t think we ever imagined, a) that it would and b) that it would happen so fast.

“I think we’re all just shaking our heads, saying: ‘How is this happening and how is it happening so fast?’ But I also on the flip side think it’s about time, it’s about time that things are colliding and that this league is opening so many eyes to what women’s hockey truly is. If you talk to the fans who come out to a bunch of games, whether it’s at Place Bell or Verdun, they’ve had amazing experiences and they love the game, and they love the atmosphere of the buildings.”

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If anyone can really savour the sweet smell of the success of the PWHL’s Montreal outfit, it’s the team’s general manager, Danièle Sauvageau. She’s been at the forefront of women’s hockey in Canada for decades. She led the Canadian women’s team to gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah and she was also general manager of the Montréal Carabins, the women’s team at the Université de Montréal.

Sauvageau said the most important explanation of the success of the new Montreal team is “No. 1, the product is great.” But she’s also aware it’s a women’s league with more solid financing than ever before.

“Most people said: ‘Oh, you did so much in a few months’,” Sauvageau said. “And I said: ‘It wasn’t a few months, it’s like 40 years.’ It’s like making a cake. There’s different ingredients. And there was always one or two missing. Then when the one that was missing was there, the other one was gone. I think it’s timing. I think everyone arrived at the same place and everyone started to dance together.”

Sauvageau has been at the Bell Centre innumerable times — she’s worked often as an analyst on TV for Habs games — but knows walking into the building on April 20 is going to be different.

“I know I want to feel it as much as possible,” Sauvageau said. “You know I go there (a lot), but this is going to be my team.”

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