When Janine Weber scored in overtime of the championship final of the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup, the Sportsnet cameras showed the Montreal Stars bench. There was Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, standing behind the bench, and as the team was trying to deal with the end of their season, Breton-Lebreux was dealing with the end of a career.
It seemed like that moment would be the last in the spotlight for one of women’s hockey’s biggest contributors in a Stars jersey. It wasn’t.
Fast forward a week and a half later, and there was Breton-Lebreux, wearing her No. 26 jersey sitting in the front row of the Bell Centre’s press conference room. She was watching the Montreal Canadiens’ president and chief executive officer Geoff Molson welcome the Montreal Stars – a team she saw from the ground up – into the Canadiens family.
“The moments keep coming and coming. From being able to salute the crowd in my last home game to going to the final of the Clarkson Cup and then this big announcement, it’s almost like all of my accomplishments came true. I’m in heaven. I’m so happy for the CWHL, the team and thankful for the whole adventure.”
One of her goals has always been to win a fifth championship – and she has been stuck on four. You know she would have loved to end her career with a championship. However, being able to witness this historic announcement was as great way to cap off her career.
“The moments keep coming and coming,” she said. “From being able to salute the crowd in my last home game to going to the final of the Clarkson Cup and then this big announcement, it’s almost like all of my accomplishments came true. I’m in heaven. I’m so happy for the CWHL, the team and thankful for the whole adventure.”
Paving The Way
As recently as two decades ago, the road for girls to play hockey wasn’t as paved as it is today. The first World Championships only started in 1994 before the sport first made their Olympic Games appearance in 1998.
For Breton-Lebreux, her hockey career started as most others did for players in today’s women’s hockey world: with boys. At Bantam, which is the 15-18 age group, Breton-Lebreux had to switch to the house league “C” category because the double letter Bantam boy’s teams played with body checking. Breton-Lebreux knew that as the only girl, she would be the target of unwelcome testing from the boys.
She ended up playing on a girls team in Quebec City, but the age group for that team was an unbelievable 9-21.
In between, Breton-Lebreux had her first taste of the path she would be taking.
“When I got to play with the young categories, the team traveled to Chicoutimi and it was a girls-only tournament which was very rare in the province,” she said. “I was good and standing out because I was playing with the guys and I scored four goals.”
After the game, a recruiter for Team Quebec talked to her parents and she was invited to their training camp in 1993 in preparation for the first Under-18 Canadian championships.
Breton-Lebreux made the team. The championships were held at Concordia University where Julie Healy was a coach. She was also Breton-Lebreux’s coach for Team Quebec. Their team got to dress in Concordia’s locker room.
“It was the first time that I was aware there was University hockey,” she said about the time in Concordia’s locker room. “We saw pictures on the walls and I turned to Anne Rodrigue [one of her teammates on the team, and also a future Stinger] and said I will come to Concordia and I will be captain.”
At only 15 years old, Breton-Lebreux had her first goal in hockey.
It was an uphill battle, though. Before university, in Quebec, you have to go to CEGEP, which is essentially a two-or-three year school that transitions students between high school and university. At this time, Concordia University’s hockey team was playing against CEGEP teams as there wasn’t a league mandated by the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU, now Canadian Interuniversity Sport, CIS).
When Breton-Lebreux was in CEGEP, she called then director of athletics at Concordia Harry Zarins asking to be allowed to play for the Stingers. He declined, saying that the team only allows players from the university. But, another team that had a team in the league, the Université de Quebec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR) would be accepting CEGEP players and she played at UQTR for three years while in CEGEP.
When it came time to choose a university, the choice was still clear.
“They were the team to beat,” she said of Concordia. “They had Cammi Granato and Karen Bye and I knew when playing against them that they were practicing five times a week. I came here, trained real hard and made the team.”
In 1998, her first year with the Stingers, she took home the first Canadian University women’s hockey championship. It was the first of many historic moments Breton-Lebreux would be a part of. In her fourth year, she became the captain of the Stingers – a position she would hold for her final two seasons.
From The Ground Up
Breton-Lebreux would play, like many other university graduates, in the National Women’s Hockey League. However, just after her Montreal team lost to Brampton in the final in 2007, the owners of the teams had a meeting and decided to end the league.
After that, former Olympian Sami Jo Small contacted Lisa-Marie because she was Montreal’s captain. She said that they were starting a new league for the players by the players. They would have to change the team’s name, buy new uniforms, find coaches and she asked if Breton-Lebreux would be interested. The CWHL was born.
“I loved to play in the NWHL, I loved to play for Team Quebec at the ESSO Nationals,” she said. “I loved to play with the best in the world. I wanted to play at a high level and I wanted my friends to have a place to play. We met with [CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress] in Toronto and talked about how we were going to proceed.”
“It’s like somehow I was being rewarded for what I did.”
-Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux on her goal at the CWHL All-Star Game
Breton-Lebreux was in charge of everything from finding coaches, to getting uniforms and even booking ice time. As a team, the players needed to raise $15,000. Every player had to pay, or find sponsors to raise the money. As the CWHL was a non-profit, every donation was tax deductible. On top of that, she was on the phone every week for two hours for a meeting of the league’s board of directors. They had to decide everything from disciplinary committees to overtime rules.
Breton-Lebreux was on the board of directors for the league’s first four seasons. She was also the general manager for the Montreal Stars. Eventually, Meg Hewings took over as general manager as, after following the team and helping with the team’s communications, she realized the team needed one.
Breton-Lebreux also needed a break.
“I was at the end of my road,” she said. “I was having a hard time getting to the beginning of the season,” she said adding that she was on the verge of burning out.
She also has seen the league grow, and says the improvement in the university game – both in Canada and the US – has raised the level of the league. National team members stand out less, and it provides an avenue for more women’s hockey players after graduation from university hockey.
“Only 20 players make it to the national team, but you can make the Stars,” she said.
When the league had its first All-Star Game at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, it was the first sign of the respect this league was starting to get. Breton-Lebreux and Small, the two architects of the league who were still active were the first two picks in the All-Star Game’s draft. Breton-Lebreux was selected by her teammate Charline Labonté for Team Red.
Entering the third period, Team Red was trailing 2-0. Breton-Lebreux was starting the period at center with Ann-Sophie Bettez and Alyssa Gagliardi on her wings. Breton-Lebreux won the faceoff and Bettez brought the puck into the zone. She passed it back to Bolden who fired a wrist shot into the slot. Breton-Lebreux was there, got a stick on it to tip the puck and it went past Team White goaltender Genevieve Lacasse just 13 seconds into the period.
“Scoring that goal was just crazy,” she said. “We gathered at center just before the period started and I turned to Ann-So [Bettez] and the girls from Boston and said ‘Come on, let’s go score’ and we were laughing. Then the next thing you know, there was the shot and I got the tip on it,” she said. “It’s like somehow I was being rewarded for what I did.”
Team Red ended up winning the game 3-2 on three third period goals.
Making The Most Of Disappointments
Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux never got the chance or opportunity to represent Canada at a world event in ice hockey, but got the chance to represent Canada at the World Roller Hockey championship.
She was a member of the National team program for Ice Hockey in 1998 but didn’t make the roster. Instead, she was on the B Team practicing against Hayley Wickenheiser, Cassie Campbell-Pascall and others as they went to Nagano for the first women’s hockey competition at the Olympics.
In 2006, she was informed that she would no longer be in the program. That same year, she was playing roller hockey and was invited to the Team Canada training camp for the World Championships to be held in France. She ended up making the team and then winning the gold medal.
For Breton-Lebreux, it was a big moment.
“I got to go to an international event and win representing my country,” she said. “And if I had made Team Canada, I may have never had the need to start the league. That’s the thing with destiny: you never know.”
– Montreal Stars GM Meg Hewings on Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux
The CWHL, and perhaps more specifically the Montreal Stars, is very important to Breton-Lebreux. It’s why she was so happy at the Canadiens partnership announcement knowing she wouldn’t be able to benefit on the ice from it, although she joked that when she heard about the announcement she reconsidered her retirement.
“Lisa-Marie is the life force of the club and always been really passionate about seeing a professional league develop for women,” said Stars General Manager Meg Hewings.
“What she brings to the club and our organization is a passion for the game and incredible leadership,” Hewings said. “If you ask anyone, including Caroline Ouellette, Lisa-Marie has been an inspiration and Caroline has gone on to become the captain of Team Canada at the Olympic Games. She is a leader of leaders. She is so passionate to see the game grow and what we have been able to build with this Montreal club.”
Lisa-Marie has seen many historic moments in her time in hockey. But no accomplishment means more to her than winning the first Clarkson Cup competition in 2009.
“Being the first captain to touch the Cup as a winning team is the top moment,” she said. The Clarkson Cup was first given to the 2006 Canadian Olympic team after they won the Gold Medal in Torino, then was dormant for three years. “If the Clarkson Cup really becomes as big as the Stanley Cup, being the first one to win it is something very special.”
Breton-Lebreux continues to want to be around the game away from the ice. All things considered, she has played hockey at an elite level for over 20 years. But that passion that Hewings talked about is still there.
“I definitely want to stay involved. I will stick around,” she said. “I need a little less time commitment. I want to have time. I want to rest my body. I don’t want to be tired. But still, with this announcement I want to continue, and I almost regret announcing my retirement.”
“It’s as if I couldn’t just leave,” she said. “I feel like my job is not complete. You never have enough. If I’m missing one thing, it’s five Clarkson Cups.”
Breton-Lebreux actually has three Clarkson Cups, but one other CWHL championship for four during her career. She had said she would retire when she got her fifth championship.
“God didn’t allow me to win so I would continue working and make women’s hockey move forward.”