Sometimes feeling like she’s dreaming, Natalia Chener is touring the Pee-Wee International Hockey League in Quebec City.
“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. I still can’t believe I’m here. It’s amazing!” She said.
Chenier is a striker with the Girls PeeWee All-Stars, the only female team to play in the 2022 edition of the tournament, which includes 130 teams from around the world.
She is excited to take the big ice at the Videotron Center, after the tournament was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I honestly feel really lucky to be here because there aren’t many girls who come to Pee-Wees. I’m really lucky to come here and represent them.”
Chenier of Bey Dorphy in Montreal. You play with a triple A boys team. But she loves playing with the All-Stars and hopes one day it won’t be the only girls’ team in the competition.
“The division would be amazing,” she says. “It would be great to see girls playing sports and doing what they like.”
Hockey champion at the helm
Coach Caroline Owlette understands how exciting her players can be.
“It’s always unbelievable for me to see how excited they are, how they make a dream come true of being here. And I’m enjoying my time.”
Ouellette is a leader in women’s hockey. As a member of the Canadian women’s team, she has earned four Olympic gold medals and is a six-time world champion.
She says tournaments like the Pee-Wees in Quebec City enable girls to play with other girls and be competitive. Owlette says coaches and other players tell her how amazed they are at how good — and how hard — the girls played.
She says it is important for boys to see it.
“I think the lesson they learned at 11 and 12, in respecting women, respecting girls in sports, is huge.”
Finding ways to attract girls into sports
In 2014, Ouellette saw a dwindling of girls playing hockey. So I started a non-profit organization called Girls Hockey Celebration, in collaboration with Hockey Quebec. She wanted to focus on young players in an age when statistics show girls are starting to leave the sport.
They hold an annual tournament and invite girls to participate, individually or as teams, and regardless of whether they usually play with girls or boys. In the end, they have the All-Stars game and the top 19 players are selected for the All-Stars team.
PeeWee Girls All-Stars have been attending the tournament in Quebec City since 2016. In 2017, they reached the final in their league.
Ouellette says they are no longer a fad.
“Everyone knows we’re here and everyone knows we can do a good job.”
Getting girls to start hockey and give them a future
Ouellette says that girls’ hockey offers a camaraderie that not many are familiar with playing on boy teams. She says girls often have to dress up in the other locker room, and then join their teammates. Some are bullied.
“When they get together here, they see it as fun,” Owlette said. “They make lifelong friends.”
The coach saw players transition to girls’ hockey in the U-15 category after playing for the All Stars team. The graduates have achieved great success.
“Some of our first edition players play college hockey in Canada and the United States, and they are some of the best CEGEP players in Quebec,” says Ouellette.
Women’s hockey continues to face challenges at the highest levels.
This week, CEGEP de Saint-Laurent confirmed that it is temporarily suspending its women’s program, citing problems with recruiting players and coaches.
Ouellette played for the Patriotes, considered one of the strongest CEGEP in Quebec. But she never got the chance to get paid as a professional hockey player. So far, the road to the professional league has been difficult.
After rebranding, the First Hockey League has his financial house in order. The Professional Hockey League is expected to launch within the year.
Ouellette thinks it’s time for a woman.
“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 fan base has grown just as much. I think we can go there with women’s hockey.”
The first step in professional life
Elizabeth Papineau began skating in the second on a rink that her father built for her in the backyard of their Gatineau home. She started playing hockey at four. She played other sports, but hockey was her favorite.
Babineaux feels like taking a big leap by playing in the Pee-Wee Championships in Quebec City.
“It’s like the first step in your big hockey career. It’s really big and it’s fun to play at Videotron Center.”
A hockey career is exactly what Papineau trained for.
“Making the Olympics for sure, being on Team Canada, being on TV. I really hope the little girls will see me one day.”
Caroline Owlette recalls the time before the Olympics in Vancouver, where she competed as a member of the Canadian women’s team in 2010. The boys would laugh as the women entered the rink.
After Vancouver, and the success of the team and the Canadian athletes in general, the boys on the rink knew who the players were and wanted autographs.
“I will never forget this transformation.”