-The CEPSUM is getting ready to welcome the best women’s university hockey players in Canada, including UdeM’s Carabin - an ideal opportunity to discover a rapidly evolving sport.
CONTENU - With sparkling determination and deft stick-handling, the women skate up the rink, deking the goalie with clockwork precision, cheering each other on in joyful camaraderie.
It takes just one training session of UdeM’s Carabins women’s hockey team to get a sense of the finesse, discipline and talent of the players, as well as the pleasure they have in being part of such a tightly-knit team.
The Carabins play a tight, complex game defined by back-and-forth exchanges as brilliant as the blue of their jerseys. Gone are the days of aggressive play and bruising physical contact. This women’s style of hockey is all about masterful precision and anticipation. It makes for a great show.
And yet, women’s hockey is struggling to fill the stands.
In the leadup to the U SPORTS Canadian Women’s Hockey Championship, Jessika Boulanger, captain of "the Bleues" (and number 55 on the team), called on the UdeM community to cheer on her team at the CEPSUM arena and discover how women play the sport.
Had to play on boys’ teamsCredit: Amélie Philibert Université de Montréal Boulanger has been playing hockey since she was 5 years old. Her parents shared a love of hockey, and their daughter wanted to become a hockey player as soon as she could. At the time, there was no way for girls to play in an all-girl league, so she had to play on boys’ teams, up to the age of 13.
"Boys had double-letter, triple-letter teams, and from a young age they could train and attend tryout camps to get onto the better teams," Boulanger recalled. "But for girls, this level of support and organization only existed in urban centres - the logistics just weren’t there for girls."
Now, 20 years later, she said there are fortunately many ways into the sport for young girls who want to play, and their progress is now supported right up to the college and university levels. Above all, women can now aspire to play in high-calibre professional leagues.
Think of the repeated gold-medal performances of the Canadian women’s national hockey team at the Olympic Games and the recent arrival in Montreal of the Force, a new professional women’s hockey team of the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF).
"Canada has been a leader in promoting and recognizing women’s hockey," Boulanger said, "and I’m glad it’s becoming increasingly popular. Because, you know, it’s really different from men’s hockey."
Increased visibility has an impactNot only have support structures been set in place, she said. Increased visibility is having an impact on the developmment of evolution of women’s hockey.
"We are seeing more and more women’s hockey on television, especially now with the Force playing in Montreal. This means young girls see that women’s hockey is attracting a lot of attention, and that you can make a living in it."
As captain of the Carabins, she’s a role model for the younger players. "I learned late about women’s university hockey, but once I found out, I did everything I could to get there," she said.
"So it’s important for me to show young players they too can make it happen. For example, last summer I took part in the Carabins women’s hockey school. I was really excited to see how I could inspire admiration and motivation in young girls."
She added that social media also play a positive role in the development of women’s university hockey: all Quebec university teams have Instagram accounts to showcase their players, games and victories.
Important to get involvedBoulanger called on all young girls interested in hockey to get involved.
"For me, hockey is my life. It’s about solid friendships, but also skills that I will have forever and that I can transfer to other domains, such as the ability to manage pressure and adversity, to show leadership. And also to exercise discipline, particularly at university, where you always have to strike a balance between training, games, attending class and living in an apartment. That’s why being a student-athlete looks good on a CV."
As her university career draws to a close, the captain of the Bleues hopes to play for the PHF, maybe not in Montreal, where the competition is strong, but in the United States. She is not ruling out the possibility of playing in a professional league in Europe, either.
But for now, Boulanger has a Canadian championship to win.
And she’s counting on more fans to turn out and cheer her and her teammates on during the upcoming championship - which, for the Carabins, comes at the culmination of a year and a half of painstaking progress, sustained effort and, as always, infectious enthusiasm.