PWHL

Top spot in the PWHL and attendance record at stake in latest Montreal-Toronto showdown

More than 21,000 fans are expected at Saturday's Montreal-Toronto game, which you can watch at 1 p.m. ET on CBC TV, CBC Gem, the CBC Sports app and CBCSports.ca.

More than 21,000 fans expected at Bell Centre game, airing Saturday at 1 p.m. ET

PWHL Montreal players celebrate on the ice in front of fans.
PWHL Montreal is carrying momentum into its Saturday game against Toronto after a 4-3 win over Minnesota at home on Thursday. (Arianne Bergeron/PWHL Montreal)

Marie-Philip Poulin skated on to the ice at the Bell Centre, looked up in the stands and saw empty seats.

Fewer than 6,000 people watched a Les Canadiennes Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) game in the NHL arena on that day in 2017.

It was a surreal experience for the Montreal captain to play at the Bell Centre for that game, but she dreamed of more for the sport she loves.

"You hope that one day it will be packed," Poulin said. 

It's what Poulin, and some of the best female players in the world, wanted to create when they decided to take a stand after the CWHL folded in 2019.

They decided not to play in any professional league until they could create something that was sustainable, a league that would pay them a living wage and give their sport the spotlight it lacked.

A female hockey player in a red jersey, with Poulin and the number 29 on the back, celebrates on the ice.
Montreal captain Marie-Philip Poulin and the rest of her team will take on Toronto on Saturday afternoon at the Bell Centre. More than 21,000 fans are expected to attend the sold-out game. (Arianne Bergeron/PWHL Montreal)

More than six years after that Les Canadiennes game, Poulin and the rest of PWHL Montreal will take on Toronto on Saturday afternoon at the Bell Centre in front of an expected crowd of more than 21,000.

The sold-out game is poised to set a record for the most-attended women's hockey game, smashing another record set just two months ago when more than 19,000 fans watched Montreal and Toronto play in Scotiabank Arena.


You can watch Montreal take on Toronto at the Bell Centre on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on CBC TV, CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.


"Knowing it's going to be a packed house, to be able to celebrate women's hockey, being able to be in that historic moment here at the Bell Centre, it's going to be unbelievable," Poulin said. 

It will be the biggest crowd head coach Kori Cheverie has ever coached in front of, and far away from the crowds she saw as a player with Toronto in the CWHL from 2010 to 2016.

"That's less than 10 years ago, and we're in a state now where women's hockey and women's sport is booming," Cheverie said.

Since Montreal's home opener on Jan. 13, when the puck was dropped by women's hockey pioneers Caroline Ouellette, Kim St-Pierre, France St-Louis, Danielle Goyette and GM Danièle Sauvageau, players have talked about the women who came before them. Players who competed in front of sparse crowds for no pay, but loved the game just as much.

On Friday at the Bell Centre, before taking part in another big moment in this inaugural season, those women were on the players' minds.

"They never had that opportunity, and we're just lucky to be in this moment right here, right now, at the right time," Laura Stacey said.

Major implications for league standings

The game will generate headlines for the attendance, but it also has big implications for the PWHL's standings.

Going into a Saturday where all six PWHL teams are in action, only two points separate Toronto, Minnesota and Montreal at the top, with four games to go. Toronto needs only one point to clinch a playoff spot, while Montreal has a chance to climb the standings and beat Toronto for the first time this season.

Montreal has some momentum from a big win Thursday over Minnesota on home ice. Trailing 3-2 with less than three minutes left, Cheverie called a timeout and pulled goaltender Elaine Chuli.

A hockey player celebrates on the ice after a goal, with her teammates around her. The referee and fans are also pictured.
Montreal's Laura Stacey scored the equalizer against Minnesota on Thursday after her team's goaltender was pulled. Montreal went on to win 4-3 in regulation. (Arianne Bergeron/PWHL Montreal)

Stacey fired the puck past Minnesota's Maddie Rooney to tie the game with the extra-player advantage.

"It was a little early but we felt like if we could get the momentum that early then we could be in a situation to potentially get the regulation win," Cheverie said about the decision to pull the goalie.

Kristin O'Neill, building on confidence from a standout tournament with Canada at the world championship, sealed the regulation win with a goal in the final minute, and ended a four-game slide Montreal was on before the international break.

"When you play with the heart and details, day in and day out, it's a matter of time," Poulin said of O'Neill.

WATCH | O'Neill pots a pair as Montreal beats Minnesota:

PWHL Montreal rallies late to defeat Minnesota

2 months ago
Duration 1:49
Laura Stacey ties the game with 2:23 remaining then Kristin O'Neill scores her second goal of the night with 46 seconds left to lift PWHL Montreal to a 4-3 win over Minnesota.

All four of Montreal's goals on Thursday came with a player advantage — an area where the team has struggled most of the season. Defender Erin Ambrose assisted on all four goals, becoming the first player to log four points in one PWHL game.

The team will face a Toronto side that mounted an 11-game win streak and has had Montreal's number all season. But Toronto has now dropped two games in a row, including a 2-1 loss on Thursday to a Boston team trying to keep its playoff hopes alive.


Later on Saturday, Minnesota continues its push to clinch a playoff spot against Ottawa. You can watch that game at 7 p.m. ET on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.


Draft talent on display at worlds

Four teams will compete in the playoffs beginning May 8. The Walter Cup semifinals and championship will both be best-of-five.

After that, focus will shift to the draft in June. Some of the top collegiate players were just on display at the world championship in Utica, N.Y., including golden-goal scorer Danielle Serdachny.

But a lot of European talent was also on display in an exciting bronze-medal game between Finland and the Czech Republic, which Finland won 3-2 in a shoot out, and the draft also serves as the entry point for those players.

Prospects in the bronze-medal game included Finnish forward Noora Tulus, the top point-getter in the Swedish Women's Hockey League (SDHL) this season, Czech defender Daniela Pesjova, and Finnish defender Ronja Savolainen, among others.

In a league where top-four defenders are at a premium, Savolainen's skill and size could be appealing to a lot of teams.

"The crowds, how many people have been watching, it's been amazing and such a dream for me to play in the future for 20,000 people," Savolainen told CBC Sports.

Two female hockey players wearing Finland jerseys celebrate on the ice.
Finnish defender Ronja Savolainen (88) will be available in this June's PWHL draft. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

The goal of the PWHL is to attract the best talent from all over the world. That will pay dividends to those players' home countries as they continue to grow their national programs. Savolainen pointed to the Czech Republic, which already has a few players in the PWHL, as an example.

"We don't play that many games against the U.S. or Canada and always when we play against them, we love it because it's the best games you can have," Savolainen said.

"You don't want to play those games only once or twice a year. To get to play every game at that kind of level, it will help me be a better hockey player every day."

Honouring Sanni Hakala

The bronze medal win was big for Finland after a difficult tournament in 2022 saw the team lose its place in the more competitive Group A in 2023.

This year, Savolainen said players were focused on playing for the country on their jersey above all. They were also driven by the strength of former teammate Sanni Hakala, who was paralyzed from the chest down while playing for HV71 in the Swedish league this season.

Finland kept Hakala's number 23 jersey hanging in their locker room throughout the tournament. Savolainen has been drawing Hakala's number on her sticks and inside her gloves this season to keep her friend close, even setting a photo of Hakala as the background on her phone.

In her team's games, Savolainen thought of the way Hakala played, a never-give-up style that saw her do anything for her team.

"I just like to have her with me all the time," Savolainen said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. You can reach her at karissa.donkin@cbc.ca.

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