Showdown at the Bell Centre a win for Montreal on and off the ice

The first ever CWHL game hosted at the Montreal Canadiens’ home rink brought in nearly 6,000 fans for a home win.

Brenda Andress was happy to be wrong about at least one thing on Saturday afternoon. When asked about the attendance for the Les Canadiennes and Calgary Inferno matchup at the Bell Centre, she laughed a little before admitting she didn’t think the game would draw that big of a crowd (nearly 6,000 fans were in attendance).

“It’s more than a good thing. It was kind of funny, we all sat in a room one day and all kind of took bets on how many people would come. You know, it’s the very first time we were holding a [big] game in Montreal. And I must say, I said 4,000, so I lost,” she said. “But I’m happy to have lost, big time.”

Something that was repeated during the postgame interviews by Andress and players alike was how they wanted to give the crowd, many who may have been watching the CWHL live for the first time, a good show.

They certainly did in what turned out to be a goaltenders’ duel between the veteran Charline Labonté and rookie Emerance Maschmeyer. It could have either team’s game. Both sides traded chances back and forth, but Marie-Philip Poulin managed to slip one past Maschmeyer for the game’s only goal (because of course she did).

Maschmeyer’s play didn’t go unnoticed by Labonté, who spoke to each other briefly after the game had ended.

“I just said “You [Maschmeyer] were lights out,” Labonté said. “She’s such a good kid, we had the chance to be goalie partners at Worlds last year. I mean, you saw, she was unbelievable. She was the reason we had such a good game to show off here at the Bell Centre. I just told here ‘You look amazing, keep it up.’ I think I’m just her biggest fan.”

Les Canadiennes were hoping for a bit more of a high-scoring affair, but the goaltending duel was highlight-reel entertainment in and of itself. And the shutout was especially meaningful for Labonté, who was in net in a stunning 8-3 loss to the Inferno in last year’s Clarkson Cup Final.

“I didn’t want to come in this situation and [have to] say ‘I’m sorry, I really messed up.’ she said. “We’re trying to move on, and you try to forget games like last year at the Clarkson Cup, but for me, [it was still] in the back of my mind. I didn’t want to experience that feeling again of last year. Everyone kind of felt that way.”

It was anything but a repeat of Les Canadiennes’ last game against the Inferno. A shutout win in front of a boisterous home crowd at the Bell Centre was a storybook ending for Montreal, who hasn’t had the easiest of seasons so far. After dominating during the regular season last year and going into the Clarkson Cup playoffs as the clear favorite before falling to the Inferno, Montreal has lost four games already this season- one to Calgary in Sunday’s rematch, one to the Brampton Thunder and two to the Toronto Furies.

They came into on Saturday wanting to bounce back, find who they were as a team and take a win for the home crowd, and they did just that. After the game, the group came together and had a moment before saluting the crowd and skating off the ice.

“We came together in the middle and said ‘Let’s enjoy it for a couple seconds.’ We’ve struggled over the past couple of weeks, and we really wanted to come together as a team here and have a good show, and that’s what happened,” said Labonté. “So we got together and said “Hey, enjoy this, this is history, and it’s probably not going to happen again for us, for our generation.’”

Ouellette, who couldn’t find her elusive 300th career CWHL point (she got it the next day), spoke about how she never thought this game would come for her.

“Today for me, no it’s not a moment that I imagined would happen because I feel like we’re fighting every year to survive, to find enough sponsors for our league to grow and you never know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Andress and multiple players thanked the Montreal Canadiens and Canadiens owner Jeff Molson for helping the game come to life, in addition to Shauna Denis, a former player for the then-Montreal Stars who now works for the Habs who also played a role in the game’s creation.

It’s a moment that can only be seen as a rousing success for the CWHL. Les Canadiennes and the Montreal Canadiens did a lot of advertising and press for the game, and the marketing was a big factor in the number of fans who attended.

The league’s partnerships with the NHL at a team level is a model that the CWHL has shown time and time again can work. We’ve seen it with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the All-Star Games that have been held at the Air Canada Centre and the Ottawa Senators with their two-year commitment to host the Clarkson Cup. The games that are on the biggest stages have drawn the biggest crowds.

Ouellette said it best when she told reporters that she hoped this wouldn’t be the only game at the Bell Centre.

“We wanted this game to be successful, we wanted people to go home and love what they saw, love the show, and love the intensity when we play hockey, because we want to earn the privilege to play here every year and we want the little girls that are in this town today to maybe one day play pro hockey,” she said.

Based on the performance of the two teams and the response of the local crowd, it should be the first of many games at the Bell Centre.