Natalia Chenier sometimes feels like she’s dreaming as she strolls through the International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament in Quebec City.
“I wanted to do this for so long. I still can’t believe I’m here. It’s incredible ! she says.
Chenier is a forward for the Girls PeeWee All-Stars, the only all-female team to participate in the 2022 edition of the prestigious tournament, which features 130 teams from around the world.
She is thrilled to be on the big ice at the Videotron Center after the tournament was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m really lucky to be here because so few girls come to the Pee-Wees. I’m really lucky to come here and represent them.”
Chénier is from Baie d’Urfé in Montreal. She plays with a men’s triple-A team. But she loves playing with the All-Stars and hopes one day it won’t be the only women’s team competing.
“A division would be amazing. It would be great to see girls playing sports and doing what they love,” she says.
A hockey hero at the helm
Coach Caroline Ouellette understands her players’ excitement.
“It’s always amazing for me to see how excited they are, how they fulfill a dream being here. And I’m having a great time.”
Ouellette is a pioneer in women’s hockey. As a member of the Canadian women’s team, she is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time world champion.
She says a tournament like the Pee-Wees in Quebec allows girls to play with other girls and be competitive. Ouellette says other coaches and players have told her how surprised they are at how well – and how well – the girls are playing.
She says it’s important that the boys see this.
“I think the lesson they learn at 11, 12, respect women, respect girls in sport is huge.”
Finding ways to get girls into sport
In 2014, Ouellette saw the number of girls playing hockey decrease. She therefore set up a non-profit organization called Girls Hockey Celebration, in collaboration with Hockey Quebec. She wanted to focus on young players at an age when statistics show that girls are starting to drop out of the sport.
They hold an annual tournament and invite girls to sign up, individually or as a team, and they usually play with girls or boys. At the end, they hold an All-Stars match and the top 19 players are chosen for the All-Stars team.
The PeeWee Girls All-Stars have been present at the Quebec tournament since 2016. In 2017, they reached the final of their division.
Ouellette says they are no longer a novelty.
“Everyone knows we’re here and everyone knows we can do well.”
Introducing girls to hockey and giving them a future
Ouellette says women’s hockey offers a camaraderie many haven’t experienced playing on men’s teams. She says the girls often have to dress in another locker room and then join their teammates. Some are harassed.
“When they get together here, they see it’s fun. They make friends for life,” Ouellette said.
The coach has seen players move into women’s hockey in the U-15 category after playing for the All-Stars. And the old ones were very successful.
“Some of our first-edition players play college hockey in Canada and the United States, and they’re some of the best CEGEP players in Quebec,” Ouellette said.
Women’s hockey still faces challenges at the senior level.
This week, the Cégep de Saint-Laurent confirmed that it was temporarily suspending its women’s program, citing problems recruiting players and coaches.
Ouellette played for the Patriotes, considered one of the best CEGEP programs in Quebec. But she never had the opportunity to be paid as a professional hockey player. To date, the road to a professional league has been rocky.
After a name change, the Premier Hockey Federation has put its finances in order. And the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association League is expected to launch within the year.
Ouellette believes that the time for women has come.
“It’s a different kind of hockey,” she said. “I think just as people appreciate that tennis is different for men and women and the fanbase has grown just as much. I think we can go there with women’s hockey.”
The first step in a career
Elizabeth Papineau began skating at the age of two on a rink that her father had built for her in the backyard of their house in Gatineau. She started playing hockey at age four. She played other sports, but hockey was her favourite.
Papineau feels like he is taking a big leap forward by participating in the Pee-Wee tournament in Quebec.
“It’s like the first step in your great hockey career. It’s really big and it’s fun to play at the Videotron Center.
A career in hockey is exactly what Papineau has his sights set on.
“Going to the Olympics for sure, being on Team Canada, being on TV. I really hope the little girls will watch me one day.”
Caroline Ouellette remembers the days leading up to the Vancouver Olympics, where she competed as a member of the Canadian women’s team in 2010. The boys laughed when the women entered the rink.
After Vancouver and the success of the team and Canadian athletes in general, the boys at the rink knew who the players were and wanted autographs.
“I will never forget this change.”