Olympians. All-stars. Champions. Icons. They were all present at the Etienne-Desmarteau arena in Montreal this weekend, as the Calgary Inferno paid a visit to the Montreal Canadiennes for back-to-back matches Saturday and Sunday, with top spot in the league at play.
When it was all said and done, the Canadiennes won both games and found themselves atop the league, having edged 2 points ahead of the Inferno. Thanks to stellar performances from goaltender Charline Labonté, Montreal picked up a 5-2 win on Saturday, and followed that with a 3-1 win on Sunday afternoon.
During the weekend series, three Montreal players tallied 4 points: Caroline Ouellette, Ann-Sophie Bettez and Marie-Philip Poulin. Noémie Marin also picked up a goal and three assists. Poulin now has 30 points, good for top spot in the league (she also has the most goals with 17), while Bettez has 29 points and leads the league in assists. Both were dominant throughout the weekend, despite an injury scare to Marie-Philip Poulin in Saturday’s game.
She took a shot off the wrist mid way through the game, yelping in pain and quickly skating to the bench. She immediately received attention from trainer Megan Hooker, and, while crumpled beside the player’s bench, was visited and patted on the helmet by a few of her teammates. After a few shifts during which her absence was noticed, Poulin was back on the ice and the entire Canadiennes team benefited from the morale boost, and moving on to secure the win. I spoke with Poulin briefly after the Sunday game, and Marie-Philip says it’s a bit sore but completely playable. Half of her right forearm is a purple mess, but she was in great spirits – a true competitor.
Montreal had 2 solid showings. Both games started with stellar goaltending at both ends and saw back-to-back scoreless first periods. Both Labonté and Delayne Brian (Calgary’s netminder) showed crease skills with big saves coming at each end. Brian, statistically inferior to Labonté, seemed to be daring the Montreal team to bring its offense with each save she made. Unfortunately for her, the Canadiennes were simply too much to handle on both days; not so much that I did not walk away very impressed with Brian’s game.
Brittany Esposito, Elana Lovell and Louise Warren each picked up 2 points on Saturday in what was a tremendous back and forth game. While Sunday’s game saw Calgary only pick up a single goal, it was noteworthy in that Jenna Cunningham scored a goal in her milestone 100th CWHL game. Cunningham also picked up 3rd star honours on Sunday.
Calgary had rolled into Montreal sitting in the #1 spot in the CWHL, with the home team a mere two points back in the standings. Both Calgary and Montreal are high-powered offensive teams than seem to score at will, and despite world-class goaltending, fans were treated to some wild offense in both games, which totaled over 11 goals.
About the CWHL, for those who haven’t become fans yet. Between Montreal’s and Calgary’s rosters there were:
- 8 players present this weekend who were on the silver medal squad from this past week’s 4 Nations Cup
- 10 Olympians from the 2014 games (7 for Canada, 1 for the USA and 2 for Japan)
- 17/34 (50%) of the CWHL All-Star Game roster from two weeks ago
The CWHL offers fast-paced, world-class hockey. It does so by having elite athletes among their teams. The rules are almost identical to what you get in the NHL, though a major difference comes with contact. Women’s hockey in general plays a “contact-no-checking” style of hockey, where bumping a player, some physical play along the boards and bit of clutching are tolerated – but big whopping body checks, open ice hulk smashes are left behind. The result is intense, back and forth hockey, quick transitions in the neutral zone and the development of players’ skill with the puck, rather than for booming hits.
As a hardcore hockey fan, one who in his youth cheered for massive collisions, hip-checks and the odd hockey fight, I have become “softer” into my adulthood. I appreciate a well-timed hit… as long as it’s legal. Contact in hockey is supposed to have the effect of separating a player from the puck. That’s all. The NHL tolerates violence in a way that is endangering its players’ safety and long term mental health (see: concussions). Here is a glaring example of where the CWHL is just simply better.
These women play for keeps. If you don’t belive me, go watch Brittany Esposito play a full game and tell me she isn’t a fierce competitor. I was wildly impressed by her tenacity, her dogged puck-hounding and her winning spirit. She wanted to win those games and she was going to leave everything she had on the ice trying to make it happen. The same can be said for Montreal’s Jordanna Peroff, particulary on Sunday, who was physical in every way that one should be on the ice.
If you have never watched a full CWHL game, but really enjoy hockey, it’s not too late to start. This league features a concentration of world-class athletes playing the game the way it’s meant to be played. My in-laws, whom I took to the game, are not Canadian, they are not hockey maniacs like me. They commented to me after the game that there was no violence, there was no excessive hitting, and that the game was fast, exciting, and very fun to watch. They were kind of surprised, actually.
Think about that. In the NHL they talk about the dead puck era. They talk about goons and fighters, “the code”. With the CWHL you get hockey. Pure, unbridled joy of watching the game. Watching players who themselves feel the buzz and excitement of stepping onto the ice and play for the love of the game. What I watched was elite level hockey, fast transitions in the neutral zone and lots of quality team play at both ends of the ice. These women can skate, pass and shoot with the best hockey players in the world, and have immense fun doing it. Next time someone tells me I play like a girl, I’ll thank them and move on.
Lastly, players from both teams are gracious in interacting with the fans, signing autographs and taking pictures immediately following the game. This is something that you don’t see in other major sports (and by all accounts may not last forever here) and that will help grow the game. I watched young girls aged anywhere from 5 to about 16, all excited, delighted to meet the players and take selfies. The passion the players have passes directly to their fans. I am glad to already be a part of this bandwagon and look forward to its continual growth.
The Canadiennes are playing host again this upcoming Saturday, with the Brampton Beast in town. The best part of all is that it costs only $15 to get in. Last I checked, that’s about the price of a beer at any NHL venue. The rinks are small, the view is great. The action is fast and furious. You won’t regret it, I promise. If you cannot make it to a game that you want to follow, check out the CWHLLive streams from CWHL.ca