I wrote about the basics of the partnership between the Montreal Canadiens and Montreal Stars yesterday. Now, let’s talk about what this really means.
Women’s hockey in Montreal has always been quite strong. From the history of the Concordia University women’s hockey program, to success of the Dawson College CEGEP program that was the launching pad for Canadian Olympians Catherine Ward, Marie-Philip Poulin and Lauriane Rougeau plus Stars players Ann-Sophie Bettez, Sara Dagenais, Emmanuelle Blais among others.
The McGill Martlets took the mantle from Concordia and has built one of the more successful women’s hockey programs in the CIS along with the Université de Montréal who didn’t even have a women’s hockey program six years ago. The Quebec conference of the CIS has always been one of the strongest in the country.
The Stars used the talent coming out of these programs to their advantage to win three of the first four Clarkson Cups.
So, with all this, I was shocked when Charline Labonté said at yesterday’s press conference that Ontario has about four times the number of girls playing hockey as Quebec (approx 30,000 to 7,000). It is what makes this partnership so important.
Sure, girls in Montreal or Quebec City might be able to play hockey, but Quebec is a big province and the Montreal Canadiens reach every part of it. What was announced yesterday could be a blueprint for young female hockey players out of Quebec for years to come.
“You can definitely see growth and that growth has happened even without this partnership,” said Bettez who played at Dawson, McGill and now with the Stars. “We’ve worked so hard to get where we are and there’s so much more that we can do and having that big marketing machine that they talked about will be incredible,” she said.
I was at Concordia in 2007 when, for the first time, the annual Corey Cup (an annual game between Concordia and McGill men’s hockey teams, named after former Canadiens president Ronald Corey) was held at the Bell Centre. In 2007, the CWHL as it is today didn’t even exist. The Clarkson Cup – the women’s hockey equivalent of the Stanley Cup – wasn’t played for until 2009.
Now, the CWHL or the Montreal Stars will possibly have a presence at the Bell Centre.
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Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux remembered the first meeting she had with CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress with other players and coaches for what they wanted the league to be, even as it was being created.
“Following the model of the WNBA is something that we said we would like to have happen,” Breton-Lebreux said after the announcement. “Starting off with nothing it seemed so far and it seemed like a big dream but now the dream is coming true. It means that we are making huge strides and making history in Quebec and Canada because the Canadiens are an institution and we’re so proud of the association, what it means and what it could bring.”
To imagine a partnership that the Canadiens are taking as seriously as they seem to be taking it is huge. This is the Montreal Canadiens we’re talking about. The gold standard of professional hockey teams and one that, since Geoff Molson took over, is making huge strides in the community.
Molson has already said that the Stars could benefit from improved facilities and maybe a new home rink. And, if the Canadiens are serious about opening the eyes of young girls and the hockey community in general, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see a future CWHL All-Star Game or Clarkson Cup in the city.
It has always been in the Toronto area with the furthest exceptions being Kingston and Niagara Falls due to the sports media and company sponsorship hubs being there. However, if the Canadiens are involved in a serious way, they will get the sponsors and the coverage to come to them. That’s just what the machine of the Canadiens is able to do.
The conversation among mainstream media about the CWHL has been about players not getting paid, owing their teams money or not having equipment to send historic artifacts to the Hockey Hall of Fame. It is similar to Olympic coverage but on steroids. They think the CWHL is a professional league. It’s not. It’s a non-profit “professionally-run” hockey league.
I will be interested to see if the Canadiens can mix the things the Stars do in the community with the exciting brand of hockey they offer on the ice. Get people to try women’s hockey, then they can have girls look up to them. You need to get kids to come to the games. But you need their parents to be aware of it and want to go.
“When I was growing up I didn’t have any female role models,” Bettez said. “I wanted to be like Martin St. Louis or another small player. Now we’re giving the opportunity to little girls that they can look up to us. We’re building dreams and giving them a good example and a role model.”
“Just to get us known, that’s what we need,” said Breton-Lebreux. “We already have fans coming and they love us but so many people don’t know we exist. It was a dream and it’s still a dream and it’s still possible to get paid. We’re getting closer and closer.”