Canadian hockey star Marie-Philip Poulin says her dream is finally coming true.
The three-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist – dubbed “Captain Clutch” for thriving on hockey’s biggest stages – has been working to create a sustainable professional women’s league since the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded four years ago.
On Wednesday, Montreal’s Professional Women’s Hockey League team opened training camp ahead of the league’s inaugural season.
“Finally, today is the day,” said Poulin at Centre 21.02 in the city’s Verdun borough, where the yet-to-be-named Montreal team will train all season. “I’ve been waiting for a long time, so today is exciting – it’s a kid at Christmas.”
All six original teams – Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, New York, Boston and Minnesota – opened training camps with medical and physical testing and orientation. Montreal hits the ice for a first practice on Saturday.
“It’s so exciting seeing all the girls coming in under the same roof. There’s been hours and hours of hard work [to get here],” said Poulin. “Being able to bring not only the girls from Canada, but from the U.S., from Czech, all around the world. It’s unbelievable.”
Poulin remembers sitting down with the United States team at the 2019 world championships in Finland just days after the CWHL ceased operations.
They were determined to lay the groundwork for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association – a precursor to starting the PWHL.
“I would be lying if I said it was not a hard time at that moment,” she said. “There were times [along the way] where you’re like, ‘is this gonna happen? Is this gonna happen?’
“But yes, it is happening. We’re finally here, Day 1 of our camp.”
The PWHL’s regular season begins in January with the 24-game schedule coming out “very soon,” according to Montreal general manager Daniele Sauvageau. All six teams will gather Dec. 3-7 in Utica, N.Y., for pre-season scrimmages, training and information sessions.
On Tuesday, each club unveiled “heritage jerseys” that feature team colours and city names stitched across the front, though no team names or logos have been confirmed.
Poulin, one of Sauvageau’s first three signings alongside forward Laura Stacey and goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens, will be sporting Montreal’s burgundy, sand and storm colours once the puck drops.
She has played professionally in the city for the Montreal Stars and Canadiennes de Montreal in the CWHL, but never in a league of this calibre – with investors with deep pockets and an eight-year collective bargaining agreement between the league and players’ union.
The 32-year-old from Beauceville, Que., couldn’t imagine starting this chapter of her decorated career anywhere else.
“Montreal is a pretty special place in my career and in my life in general,” she said. “It would have been hard to see myself [play anywhere else].”
SOMETHING THAT WAS MISSING
Growing up, Montreal draft pick Maude Poulin-Labelle idolized former Canadiens star P.K. Subban and wanted to play in the NHL, because that was what she saw on television.
“To create an idol or have someone that you look up to, you need to be able to see them,” said Poulin-Labelle, who played for Northeastern University last season. “When I was really young, women’s hockey didn’t have that platform.”
Marie-Philip Poulin’s dream growing up was to play for the women’s national team. Playing professionally didn’t cross her mind for the same reason.
“When I was a kid, for me it was the national team and obviously that’s all you saw,” she said. “Now you get to play in the PWHL and having those little girls dreaming of playing for Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, New York or Minnesota is something that’s unbelievable.
“Obviously that was something missing. You go to college, and when you graduate, ‘What do I do now?’ – I think a lot of those players don’t ever reach their full potential.”
Poulin-Labelle couldn’t have imagined it when her NCAA career started in 2018.
“Last night, just going to bed, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go to my first day of work and it’s hockey,’” she said. “It’s really historic because when I started university, I didn’t think that would be possible.
“I feel like I still don’t realize it.”