Natalia Chenier sometimes feels like she’s dreaming as she walks around the International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament in Quebec City.
“I’ve wanted to do this for so long. I still can’t believe I’m here. It’s incredible!” she said.
Chenier is a forward for the Girls PeeWee All-Stars, the only all-female team participating in the 2022 edition of the legendary tournament that brings together 130 teams from around the world.
She’s looking forward to hitting the big ice at the Videotron Center after last year’s tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I really feel like I’m really lucky to be here because not a lot of girls come to the Pee-Wees. I’m really happy to come here and represent them.”
Chenier is from Baie d’Urfé in Montreal. She plays with a boys Triple A team. But she enjoys playing with the All-Stars and hopes one day it won’t be the only girls’ team in the competition.
“A division would be great. It would be great to see girls playing this sport and doing what they love,” she says.
A hockey hero at the top
Coach Caroline Ouellette understands her players‘ excitement.
“It’s always amazing for me to see how excited they are to fulfill a dream 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 Quebec City’s Pee-Wees empowers the 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 hard – the girls are playing.
She says it’s important for the boys to see that.
“I think that lesson they learn at 11, 12 about respecting women, respecting girls in sports is huge.”
Finding ways to get girls interested in sports
In 2014, Ouellette saw the number of girls playing hockey shrink. So she started a non-profit organization called Girls Hockey Celebration in partnership with Hockey Quebec. She wanted to focus on young players at an age when statistics show girls are quitting the sport.
They hold an annual tournament and invite girls to register individually or as teams and regardless of whether they usually play with girls or boys. At the end, they hold an All-Stars game and the top 19 players are selected for the All-Stars team.
The PeeWee Girls All-Stars have been coming to Quebec City for the tournament since 2016. In 2017, they made it to the finals of their division.
Ouellette says they are no longer a novelty.
“Everyone knows we’re here and everyone knows we can do well.”
Girls get into hockey and give them a future
Ouellette says girls hockey offers a camaraderie that many don’t experience when playing on boys teams. She says girls often have to get dressed in a different locker room and then join their teammates. Some are bullied.
“When they get together here, they see that it’s fun. You make friends for life,” Ouellette said.
The coach has seen players in the U-15 category switch to girls’ hockey after playing for the All-Stars. And alumni have great success.
“Some of our first edition players play collegiate hockey in Canada and the United States, and they’re among the top CEGEP players in Quebec,” says Ouellette.
Women’s hockey still faces challenges at the senior level.
This week, the CEGEP de Saint-Laurent confirmed that it is temporarily suspending its women’s program, citing problems in recruiting players and coaches.
Ouellette played for the Patriotes, considered one of Quebec’s strongest CEGEP programs. But she never had the opportunity to get paid as a professional ice hockey player. So far, the road to the professional league has been rocky.
After a rebrand, the Premier Hockey Federation has its financial house in order. And the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association League is expected to start later this year.
Ouellette believes that women’s time has come.
“It’s a different kind of hockey,” she said. “I think just as people appreciate, 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 a career
Elizabeth Papineau began skating when she was two years old on an ice rink that her father built for her in the backyard of their Gatineau home. She started playing ice hockey when she was four years old. She played other sports, but hockey was her favorite.
Papineau feels like she’s taking a big leap by playing the pee-wee tournament in Quebec City.
“It’s like the first step in your big hockey career. It’s really big and fun to play at the Videotron Center.”
A career in hockey is exactly what Papineau has in mind.
“Making the Olympics safe, being on Team Canada, being on TV. I really hope little girls will see me one day.”
Caroline Ouellette recalls before the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 when she competed as a member of the Canada women’s team. Boys laughed when the women entered the rink.
After Vancouver and the success of the team and Canadian athletes in general, the guys at the rink knew who the female players were and wanted autographs.
“I will never forget this shift.”