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Nineteen of the best female players from across Quebec wore the bright blue uniforms of Les Étoiles – a select team put together by four-time Olympic gold medalist Caroline Ouellette, right. (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon)
Nineteen of the best female players from across Quebec wore the bright blue uniforms of Les Étoiles – a select team put together by four-time Olympic gold medalist Caroline Ouellette, right. (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon)

Pee-wee’s rising Étoiles score ‘magic moment’ for women’s hockey Add to ...

Amid the usual pregame murmur of a marquee matchup, one gravelly voice rises above the others in the lower bowl of the spiffy new Vidéotron Centre and yells encouragement at the local favourites.

Loud exhortations from middle-aged hockey dads are nothing new at large tournaments, but there was a twist to this one: “Let’s go les filles!”

Quebec City’s venerable Tournoi International de Hockey Pee-Wee has had its share of showcase moments over 57 years of existence – Wayne Gretzky played here, as did Mario Lemieux and the NHL’s most recent generational talent, Connor McDavid.

But this was different. This was an all-star team of 11- and 12-year-old girls team going toe to toe with one of the tournament’s powerhouses in a top division on the main stage of the biggest event of its kind.

If the principal ambition of women’s hockey is for games like this to become commonplace – as former Canadian Olympic goalie Kim St-Pierre puts it, “we’re not looking for sympathy, no one here is satisfied with ‘they play well for girls’” – the goal is not yet achieved.

But it’s looming ever closer.

Girls have participated in the largest minor hockey tourney in the world since at least the 1980s.

There have also been two previous all-girls teams here – one led by Manon Rhéaume, the first woman to play professional hockey with men, another called the Rafales out of the Mauricie region six years ago.

But this team was playing AA competition. On the home bench, 19 of the best female players from across Quebec wore the bright blue uniforms of Les Étoiles – a select team put together by four-time Olympic gold medalist Caroline Ouellette and tutored by Team Canada luminaries such as St-Pierre and Marie-Philip Poulin (an alumna of the tournament who scored Olympic gold medal-clinching goals in both Vancouver and Sochi).

They lined up last Friday night against one of the big attractions in the AA division (the highest-calibre competition any girls’ team has faced in the event). Across the glass partition from Ouellette were Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier and Stanley Cup champion Mike Richter, coaching a New York Americans team that featured their sons Douglas and William (better known as Beanie), respectively.

In the players’ tunnel a few minutes before puck drop, Ouellette admitted to feeling jitters and said “I feel very proud. This is a magic moment for girls’ hockey.”

Moments earlier, tournament director Patrick Dom, wearing a houndstooth jacket and a harried expression, said “there’s a huge amount of buzz” to this year’s tournament, partly because of Ouellette’s girls.

As he marched, walkie-talkie in hand, through the bowels of the brand new, $370-million arena, Dom admitted the Friday-night matchup was partly a mercantile calculation.

“The Colisée was expensive to rent, the Vidéotron Centre is also expensive. The only to pay for it is with people in the seats,” he said. “This is the biggest tournament of my life, so yeah, we wanted to start it off in prime time with a bang.”

At the same time, he said, it wouldn’t be much of a show if the girls couldn’t compete. “They can play,” he said. “You’ll see.”

With that, he paused to shake hands and exchange a few words with former NHL player John Wensink – a famed and feared tough guy in his day, Wensink now projects the genial warmth of everyone’s favourite grandparent.

Indeed, the tournament is awash in former NHLers: Former Colorado winger Milan Hejduk was on hand with his twin boys, former Nordiques great Peter Stastny would arrive a short while later, and recently retired New York Ranger Martin St. Louis was coaching his son Ryan’s team.

This year’s even has drawn about 2,300 11- and 12-year-olds from 16 countries. The formal kickoff was last Wednesday, but the Friday and Saturday night matchups typically attract the largest crowds (the tournament draws 200,000 or more spectators over 10 days).

As the Americans and Étoiles lined up for the opening faceoff after the official introductions of their famous coaches, the 18,000-seat venue was perhaps a little more than half full.

With the crowd cheering them on, the Étoiles started brightly, attacking the New York net.

Barely a minute in, New York’s Oliver Flynn hit Quebec captain Éliane Michaud along the boards – the referee’s arm went up, Flynn was sent to the box, Michaud carried on.

The power play came to nothing thanks to a couple of eye-catching saves by the Americans’ goalie: a New Jersey native named Katie DeSa.

The Americans opened the scoring against the run of play – it required an expert wrist shot into the top shelf past Quebec goalie Jade Rivard-Coulombe’s outstretched glove.

With a minute left in a 1-0 game, Ouellette would pull her goalie – the Étoiles were on a power play, and during a time-out cries of “Let’s go les filles, let’s go!” rang around the arena. But there would be no miracle comeback. New York added an empty-netter.

The netminders in this game were their respective teams’ best players. Afterward, Rivard-Coulombe wryly noted that, “If we’re going to lose because of a hot goalie, it might as well be a girl.”

Rivard-Coulombe couldn’t contain her wonder at the surroundings. “It was so much fun, it’s a huge rink, there were a lot more people in the stands than I’m used to,” she said. She wasn’t alone in her excitement: A boy from another team had wandered past several minutes earlier saying, “Guys, I just saw Mark Messier.”

All but seven of the Étoiles play on boys’ teams – Rivard-Coulombe, from Châteauguay, Que., plays at the elite AAA level – and though they had the disadvantage of barely having played together, there was no obvious talent disparity with their rivals.

Messier, who went to the trouble of prescouting the Étoiles at their tune-up game on Thursday, said, “I’m a fan.”

“Hockey has always been pretty inclusive, and I think it’s more so now than ever,” Richter said. “If you can play, you can play, right? That team can compete with anybody.”

He also pointed out the Étoiles were being coached by “some of the most battle-tested players in the world,” part of a new generation of mentors and coaches produced by the expansion of the women’s game at the international level.

The effects, he said, appear to be multiplying.

“I don’t know for a fact that girls represent the greatest area of growth for hockey,” Richter said, “but it sure feels that way.”

The Étoiles were deflated by the loss. But while Ouellette was disappointed, she was also quietly pleased.

Her hope is that the Étoiles, selected from participating teams at Ouellette’s fall tournament in Montreal, will become an annual fixture at the Quebec City tournament.

And perhaps one day there will be an international girls division in Quebec City that draws clubs from around the world. “We’re not there yet,” she cautioned.

Either way, the steady evolution of women’s hockey continues. A game involving preteens at a spanking-new NHL-ready arena is merely the latest step forward.

“What makes me proud is when I ask players, ‘Do you hear anything disrespectful out there’ like we used to, they say almost always say no. This team can reinforce that; it makes it so girls playing hockey is perfectly normal and unremarkable, same as with boys,” said Ouellette, who is 36. “There’s still work to be done, but we’re moving forward. Every time I ask my question and I get another ‘no,’ it warms my heart. It was a lot harder for me and for Kim and even for Marie-Philip – we’ve heard and seen everything. We’ve worked hard so they shouldn’t have to.”

It was a familiar theme among the other coaches.

“Today’s reality is a long way away from where I was as a kid,” said the 37-year-old St-Pierre, a three-time Olympic champion and occasional practice fill-in for the Montreal Canadiens. “These girls play fast, they’re involved physically, they’re skilled, they shoot. They can compete. I also think mentalities are changing. My hope is people will see what we see: not boys, not girls, just hockey players.”

Losing their first tournament game – in their only precompetition tilt, the Étoiles made short work of Team Doritos, a Connecticut-based club – meant Ouellette’s charges played their second amid more parochial surroundings. They suited up against the Drummondville Voltigeurs at the Aréna Marcel-Bédard in the suburb of Beauport – only a few kilometres from the Vidéotron Centre, but a world away.

The Étoiles won that game 1-0 in overtime, on a goal from Noémie Gaudreault of St. Hubert, Que. As a result, they advance to face either the San Jose Jr. Sharks or the Glenlake Jr. Flames on Friday for a chance to advance to the lucky-loser final.

Although by any meaningful definition, the Étoiles are already winners.

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