Marie-Philip Poulin, Leslie Oles excel as CWHL neo-rookies
On March 2, just two weeks before the Clarkson Cup Final, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced the nominees for its annual awards. Marie-Philip Poulin of Les Canadiennes de Montreal, the league’s leading scorer and arguably the world's best female player, did not make the list of rookie of the year candidates.
In a twist on Wayne Gretzky's season in the WHA disqualifying him from Calder Trophy consideration in the NHL, Poulin, as well as teammate and fellow 2015 draftee Leslie Oles, had already played in the CWHL. A two-time Olympic gold medal winner with Hockey Canada, Poulin, now 25, made her league debut at 16. Oles was 17 when the duo joined Montreal—the franchise was then known as the Stars—for its inaugural season of 2007-08. Their presence helped the league, which has since been reborn from the ashes of the original NWHL, to fill gaps on its rosters.
“We needed them, because back then we were starting a new league,” says current Montreal assistant coach Lisa-Marie Breton. “I remember in 2007 we were only two lines, five D, one coach, one therapist, and me as a GM-captain.”
That year, every CWHL team dressed an average of 15 players on a good day, which meant there was plenty of room for youngsters like Poulin and Oles to make their marks. They made the move to Montreal, enrolling at Kuper Academy, a private English day school in Quebec, after getting a call from Breton to join the Stars. Affectionately nicknamed “the kids,” they were two of the youngest players on a team filled with college graduates and veterans.
“We took care of [Marie-Philip] and Leslie,” Breton says. “Kelly Sudia was an assistant manager here, Britney Privée, myself, we were getting involved as their mothers, their aunts. [We’d] bring them after school—Britney was teaching at that school—so we were making sure they were doing their homework. We were cooking them meals, training with them.
“It feels special to have her back, to have both of them on the ice now as I’m the coach, and they’re still like my kids."
For this pair of young players far from home, it was a chance to grow and learn from veterans like Breton, Sudia, Privée and others. Some of the league’s more well-known players included Olympians Jayna Hefford, Jennifer Botterill and Sami-Jo Small. Despite any lingering feelings of intimidation, Poulin had little choice but sign on with the Stars. At the time, there simply wasn’t another place for a young woman to play at a competitive level while trying to establish herself in the hockey world.
Poulin remembers playing at a boy’s camp and realizing that, though she had played with them for most of her life, they were starting to outgrow her and she needed to switch things up. So when Breton called, it seemed like a natural progression to join the CWHL. Oles joined Poulin in the venture, and both fit right into the fledgling league.
“It was such a great year,” Poulin says, noting that the off-ice life may have made a bigger impact on her. “I was so young, and all those girls were like big sisters to me, they were always helping me out … either working out, practices or even at school. I think it was such a great year for me as a person, to mature, and to get going to learn English, so when I look back, [it was] one of the best decisions I made.”
“I think I remember more the things off the ice than on the ice, to be honest,” Oles says about her early years with the team. “That’s the memories I have, the little things behind the scenes: being taken care of by the older players and being included in the different events, whether it was a dinner or things like that.
“We had a little Christmas dinner one year,” she adds, grinning. “The older players all cooked dinner and the kids cleaned up after them ... we ended up forming a little family.”
After four years at college—Poulin at Boston University and Oles at McGill—that tight-knit crew was reunited when both players re-entered the 2015 CWHL draft, marking Montreal as their preferred destination. (CWHL players must choose from among three locations the one where they are willing to play and be drafted by a team in their pre-selected area because of school or work obligations they may have.) Poulin and Oles returned to a franchise that is still considered the league’s powerhouse, having won the regular season championship in 2008 and its first Clarkson Cup in 2010. But some things have changed.
There’s a new staff, as players like Breton have become coaches and a new feeling as the CWHL starts to grow and attract more attention. But where Oles thinks Les Canadiennes have grown the most is on the ice. They’ve come a long way from rolling just two forward lines and praying nobody got hurt.
“You’re seeing more consistency and more depth around each team,” she says. “Obviously back then there were very talented players in the league, but I think overall it’s grown so much and there’s just more depth on every single team.”
As the women’s game continues to grow from the grassroots level up and teams become more competitive and adept at developing players, the era of the CWHL’s ‘half-rookie’ may be over. “I think we don’t need to [bring young players in] right now, because the [league] is really strong,” Breton says. “Unless [a player is] really an exception, maybe, but right now, with the graduating players, there’s more and more coming, and I don’t think we’ll need to do it anymore.”
That's good news for the CWHL, because it means the quality of play is competitive and good enough to attract mature, high-end talent, though teen stars like Poulin, Oles and Brianne Jenner helped foster that quality in the league. And now that college is over for both of them, with a national championship and Olympic medals in hand, Poulin and Oles are back to help usher in the next generation of talent, and maybe make the rookies a meal or two.