The women of the NWHL's Boston Pride and the CWHL's Montreal Les Canadiennes are eagerly looking forward to their outdoor rivalry game before the NHL's 2016 Winter Classic.
When the puck drops between Montreal and Boston at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, it will be a brand new spin on a Classic rivalry.
Officially announced on December 28, the CWHL’s Les Canadiennes and the NWHL’s Pride will meet for the first time as part of the NHL’s Winter Classic festivities by playing an interleague game dubbed the Outdoor Women’s Classic at Gillette Stadium.
Despite the short notice, there’s plenty of excitement to be found among the players.
“We're all looking forward to it a lot. It's definitely going to be an experience of a lifetime for me, that's for sure,” says Pride goalie Brittany Ott. “I’ve skated outside a couple of times, but only for coaching purposes, so the chance to play this game outside against the Canadiennes is incredible. Being that it's a crossover between our league and the CW, it makes it even more special that this was able to come together.”
Ott is familiar with both teams, having played net for the CWHL’s Boston Blades for two seasons before joining the Pride for its inaugural go-round. Her scouting report of Montreal, which at 8-2-0 sits third in the five-team CWHL, includes multiple uses of the word phenomenal, and points to players like Canadiennes forward Marie-Philip Poulin, who is tied for the league lead with 19 points in eight games.
Ott’s counterpart, Charline Labonte, sports a 6-1-0 record and a league-leading 1.71 goals-against average. Forwards Ann-Sophie Bettez, Caroline Ouellette and Kim Deschenes rank among the CWHL’s top 20 scorers. Montreal’s blue line boasts U.S. Olympian Julie Chu, who is regarded as one of the greatest female players from New England.
The Pride, 7-2, second among the four NWHL teams, will feature a sturdy lineup as well, though not their usual roster. With a number of skaters away for Olympic team obligations, Boston’s lineup will feature four non-roster skaters and be supplemented by other teams. This means blueliner Kacey Bellamy and forwards Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight won’t be available, but forward Meghan Fardelmann of the New York Riveters and Connecticut Whale backliner Kaleigh Fratkin, both among the league’s top point-getters, will lend a hand.
Even with one cobbled-together roster and a bunch of last-minute planning—the Canadiennes are driving from Montreal to Foxborough on Wednesday, the game will not be broadcast or streamed, and weather could cause a cancelation—the event represents a major leap for both leagues, with the NHL’s involvement serving as a larger endorsement of the women’s game itself.
“This is an incredible opportunity for women’s sports in general, and especially for women’s professional ice hockey,” Ott says. “We've been really pushing to try to get NHL support for our league and for our sport, and this is really the first true display of the NHL supporting us. This is a great opportunity. I keep saying how exciting it is, but this could really set the stage for women’s professional hockey.”
“It's still such a young sport, but we train and we play hockey, and we do everything else like the guys in the NHL,” says Labonte. “I think have their marketing machine behind us and trying to promote the game and make it possible for the public to see what we're doing. We are good players and it is a fun game to watch so for us, it’s very exciting that the NHL believes in our game.”
For two leagues used to playing in venues that seat hundreds, the opportunity to skate before tens of thousands is a sign of progress, and one of things to come.
“I feel like everyone gets really excited to watch that game or have a chance to go to that game,” Labonte said. “To be a part of that weekend is very cool for us. it's a cool first step.”
The growth of women's hockey aside, it's going to be a game between teams from Boston and Montreal, albeit with a different tilt on the feud.
“We've always had a rivalry with Boston, and it's two different leagues playing,” Labonte says. “For us, of course we want to win because it's the NWHL against the CWHL."