Women’s hockey makes strides in Montreal

Montreal Stars captain Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux on her team and life in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

From left to right, Montreal Stars captains Kelly Sudia, Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, Nathalie Déry and Caroline Ouellette. Photo via carolineouellette.ca

A couple of weeks ago, two major hockey-related events happened — but chances are you only know about one of them.

Sure, the NHL lockout ended and hundreds of overpaid players returned to the ice. But while on the road in Boston this month, Montreal Stars forward Meghan Agosta earned 100 career points (and 50 goals) in 38 games, mirroring a 1981–82 accomplishment of none other than Wayne Gretzky.

Why you didn’t hear about it until now is due to a very simple truth, if a sweeping statement: women’s hockey in Canada, and around the world, is a fringe sport.

Montreal Stars captain Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, 35, knows it to be true when explaining the importance of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s Clarkson Cup and that it’s the equivalent of the NHL’s Stanley Cup (not to mention that the Stars won three of the past five), or that having 900 spectators at the 2012–13 season home opener was an unexpected and resounding success. Fortunately, as a co-founder of the CWHL and a successful national athlete, she’s grown accustomed to the comparisons.

“You have to make reference to what has been done in the past. We don’t have references in women’s hockey other than maybe the World Championship, but it’s not the same as [playing on] a team,” she says over the phone.

“It doesn’t matter that much when we’re comparing apples to apples — or hockey to hockey.”

A league of their own
The CWHL formed in 2007, after its predecessor, the National Women’s Hockey League, folded, leaving its players out in the cold. It didn’t take long for them to start picking up the pieces, though; Breton-Lebreux recalls taking a call from former league mate Sami Jo Small that May asking her if she wanted to start a new league.

“I wanted to play,” she says. She had played on the Montreal Axion and scored the Cup-winning goal in the 2006 championship game; she didn’t want to abandon the momentum she and the team gained.

She had her work cut out for her. With only a few players, they had to call up players from the CEGEPs for nearly every game in the early days; finding ice to both practice and host games on got complicated, and traveling by van proved dangerous. And as the Stars’ GM, she concerned herself with everything from hiring coaches to hiring game day DJs.

“I was the GM for five years, and I think every September, I didn’t know if I was gonna have a coach,” she says, laughing. Meg Hewings has since taken over as GM, allowing Breton-Lebreux to focus on playing.

And, as they say, the rest is history.

Prepping for the future
As a fledgling professional hockey league, the CWHL is still trying to find its footing and attempting to cement relationships with the NHL, whose mandate includes helping to develop the sport across the board in North America.

Though it began with seven teams, there are now five, as per suggestions made by the NHL in 2010 that also included adding teams in Boston and Alberta. But though the league complied with the NHL’s suggestions, no support, monetary or otherwise, was forthcoming — until this year, when the Calgary Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs both made deals with their local CWHL teams. Breton-Lebreux says the Stars are now in preliminary talks with the Canadiens as well.

The reduction in number of teams upped the calibre of play throughout the league, and the team out west is a credit to the league, Breton-Lebreux says. And in terms of talent, all five teams have a ridiculous number of Olympians playing for them (which is normally awesome, except for next season, when most of them will be training for the Olympics).

Now they just need to work on a more regular game schedule, Breton-Lebreux says. For her part, she’s already making plans for the 2014–2015 season.

“We’re really excited for the next year, and the year after the Olympics will be even more exciting, with all that momentum [from the Games],” she says.

Check the CWHL and Montreal Stars websites for game schedules and more information.

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