March 3rd, 2024

Marie-Philip Poulin aims for PWHL’s trophy as Montreal opens inaugural season.

By Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press on January 1, 2024.

Montreal's Marie-Philip Poulin speaks to media following the Professional Women's Hockey League’s (PWHL) training camp in Montreal, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. Poulin is setting high expectations. Montreal’s captain — a three-time Olympic gold medallist and one of hockey’s all-time greats — wants to come away from the inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey League season with more hardware. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL – Marie-Philip Poulin is setting high expectations.

Montreal’s captain – a three-time Olympic gold medallist and one of hockey’s all-time greats – has her sights set on hoisting a Cup at the end of the Professional Women’s Hockey League’s inaugural season.

“Our ultimate goal is a trophy,” Poulin said. “We want to create a winning culture and franchise here in Montreal.”

Poulin and the yet-to-be-named Montreal team will hit the ice Tuesday night in Ottawa to start a 24-game regular season for each PWHL club.

The PWHL is a first-of-its-kind women’s league with deep-pocketed investors and an eight-year collective bargaining agreement between the league and players’ union.

As one of six teams, Montreal has a solid foundation to build a winning culture.

Poulin, a 100-goal scorer for Canada, can fill the net on one end of the ice while Canadian starter Ann-Renée Desbiens stops pucks on the other.

“You want to score and you don’t want to be scored on,” said general manager Danièle Sauvageau. “When you have Marie-Philip who can score and Ann-Renée Desbiens who will deny that scoring “¦ it’s a good feeling because you’re looking at both ends of the ice and you can say, “˜well this is great.'”

In between that, there are question marks.

Poulin leads a strong forward group that includes alternate captains and Canadian women’s team forwards Laura Stacey and Kristin O’Neill, college standout Maureen Murphy, Czech star Tereza Vanisova and steady veterans Ann-Sophie Bettez and Jillian Dempsey.

The blue line is a little less proven. Alternate captain Erin Ambrose and two-way player Dominika Laksova highlight a young defence that will rely on camp invitees to step up this season.

The fact it’s an offence-first team isn’t an accident.

“We wanted to have speed, creativity, offensive play,” Sauvageau said. “A dream team for anybody who’s building a hockey team, NHL or women’s hockey, is to be as offensive as possible “¦ Hockey, at the end, is scoring goals.”

“I guess I’ll have to stop some pucks,” Desbiens joked. “It’ll be fun, if they score a lot of goals then I can let a little more in.”

Former Toronto Six goalie Elaine Chuli, the 2022 Premier Hockey Federation goalie of the year, and 26-year-old Marlène Boissonault join Desbiens in a talented crease.

Not that the skaters are putting all the responsibility on the shoulders of their goalies. Stacey says the team still has job to do in front of them.

“In order to win games, you got to keep the puck out of your own net too,” she said. “How can we improve defensively? How can we be a tough team to play against while still kind of maintaining that skill and high-level offence that we may have?

“I think that’s something that we’re going to need to work on – how do we balance those two things and how do we still optimize our offensive abilities while not risking too much in our own end?”

Head coach Kori Cheverie believes an aggressive defence can contribute to a powerful attack.

“We want to get on offence as quickly as possible, and in order to do that, you have to be fast defensively and you have to end things quickly,” she said. “We want to attack defensively so we can get on offence quicker.”

Montreal starts its season with three road games. Trips to Minnesota and New York follow the stop in Ottawa, where a women’s pro hockey record crowd is expected at TD Place with more than 7,800 tickets sold.

“We see that the fans are also pretty excited about it,” Bettez said. “I’m really looking forward to actually playing in front of the big crowds.

“When you score a goal that the fans are cheering on, it’s like an extra player when you play at home and then vice versa when you go away.”

Montreal hosts Boston in its home opener Jan. 13 at the 4,114-capacity Verdun Auditorium, which is site of seven games this season.

The club will also play four games at 10,000-seat Place Bell in Laval, Que.

The location for Montreal’s home game against Toronto on March 16 is to be determined. The PWHL playoffs begin the week of May 6.

“I think that is a big goal of ours obviously, having that final weekend circled on our calendar is important to us,” Stacey said. “We want to be in the finals. We want to win.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 1, 2024.

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