New Montreal women's hockey team a dream come true for players, manager

“There’s no words to describe years of climbing and going down and going sideways and climbing back up … and now everything is just going to go higher,” says Danièle Sauvageau.

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There’s a new hockey team in town and even if it’s not likely to push the Canadiens off the front page just yet, it has already won over loads of hockey fans ici.

The first home game for the Montreal team in the new Professional Women’s Hockey League is Saturday against Boston (3:30 p.m., CBC, Radio-Canada) at the beautifully-renovated Verdun Auditorium, and the 4,000 tickets available for the game sold out in 50 minutes. In an interview Monday, general manager Danièle Sauvageau said ticket sales are going well for all of the home games in this inaugural season, including the four games at the 10,000-capacity Place Bell in Laval.

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The creation of the league and the arrival of the new team in Montreal is great news for hockey fans and great news for the world of women’s hockey. Canada has had unbelievable success at the Olympics with its women’s hockey team, winning gold in five of the last six winter games. But in between Olympics, it’s been harder to establish viable professional women’s teams in Canada and the situation has been even worse since the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2019.

The good news is the new women’s league appears more financially viable than previous ventures and the players are actually going to be making something resembling a decent salary. The first three players signed to the Montreal team were all members of the Canadian team that won gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2022: Marie-Philip Poulin (the most famous female hockey player in Canada right now), Laura Stacey, and Ann-Renée Desbiens.

Danièle Sauvageau with a computer screen showing people attending a news conference via video conference
Danièle Sauvageau attends an announcement of the Montreal PWHL franchise’s first three players at the Verdun Auditorium on Thursday Sept. 7, 2023. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Sauvageau was running between meetings Monday at the Verdun Auditorium as a handful of players from the team ran through drills on the ice, just another hectic day for Sauvageau, who hasn’t stopped running since she was named GM in September.

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A few hours later, she managed to catch her breath long enough to talk on the phone about the adrenalin rush of starting up a new hockey team.

“I can’t even put it into words,” said Sauvageau, who coached the Canadian women’s hockey team to gold at the 2002 winter Olympics in Utah. “Reaching the top of the mountain. There’s no words to describe years of climbing and going down and going sideways and climbing back up … and now everything is just going to go higher.”

Sauvageau admits the sales are better than anyone ever imagined. Montreal’s first-ever game, Jan. 2 at TD Place in Ottawa, had 8,318 people in the stands. Montreal won that game 3-2 thanks to an overtime goal from Ann-Sophie Bettez. There were 13,316 fans at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota Saturday for Montreal’s second game, an all-time record for a professional women’s hockey game. Montreal lost that game 3-0 to Minnesota.

But frankly the scores are kind of irrelevant at this point.

“For me it’s magical,” said Sauvageau. “This is where the word ‘perseverance’ comes in. At times in my life, (I’d think) ‘Should I be doing something else?’ This particular moment, believe it or not, it’s the first time I make a living in hockey after all these years. … What I’m living now, it made every moment worth it.”

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Talking to some of the players as they came off the ice at the Verdun Auditorium on Monday, they sounded just as pumped as their general manager.

“This is huge,” said Montreal goaltender Marlène Boissonnault. “This is the place (where) every girl dreamed to play one day and for everyone to play who has that pro-level status. It’s something exceptional that hasn’t been made yet. So we’re just truly excited.”

Added forward Alexandra Poznikoff: “It’s a dream come true. All these years you’ve always watched the NHL and thought ‘Well that would be so cool,’ and after that first puck dropped in Toronto against New York, you’re like ‘OK it’s here finally.’ It’s a surreal moment for a lot of us and I know we’re going to hold on to that for a long time.”

Fans hold up homemade posters cheering on Ottawa and Montreal's Marie-Philip Poulin
Young spectators hold up signs during the second period in a Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) game between Montreal and Ottawa at The Arena at TD Place on January 2, 2024 in Ottawa. Photo by Minas Panagiotakis /Getty Images

Growing up, girls would see the guys in the NHL on TV but there wouldn’t be any similar female role models for them as high-profile pro hockey players.

“You always had hope but you never saw it, you saw the NHL,” said Madison Bizal, who plays defence for Montreal. “So it’s really cool to have us in a position where younger girls now coming up (can see professional female players).”

Bettez said she didn’t grow up dreaming of this moment just because it was kind of unimaginable.

“When I was a kid, no I did not expect that I would be a professional hockey player,” said Bettez. “But sometimes the best thing happens when you expect it the least. I think it’s a privilege to get rewarded for the sport that you love. I can’t wait for us to be able to celebrate and cheer a goal here. We’ve waited so long for this moment. The excitement is there, for us but also for the fans as well.”

Ann-Sophie Bettez celebrates standing on one skate on the ice
Montreal’s Ann-Sophie Bettez celebrates her overtime winning goal against Ottawa Jan. 2 at TD Place arena in Ottawa. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

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