MONTREAL – It’s a dream of francophone hockey fans on both sides of the pond. The best team from Montreal wearing the blue-white-red sweater plays against “Les Bleus” from France. That’s exactly what happened last week, in women’s hockey.
The French women’s national team had a two-week camp in the French-speaking province of Quebec with the help of Danièle Sauvageau, their Canadian mentor within the IIHF’s Ambassador & Mentor Program who is also the General Manager of the hockey program of the Carabins at the Université de Montréal.
The IIHF initiative created several links between the French ladies and Quebec.
Their other mentor, France St-Louis, also works at the university. And last winter, French national team captain Marion Allemoz crossed the pond to join the Carabins. Three more players are committed to join her: Athéna Locatelli, Lore Baudrit and Betty Jouanny.
“I came in January for the second half of the season and I was integrated very well,” said Allemoz. “Living in Montreal was very good. It was a bit difficult in the beginning and also the style of play is a bit different than in France, but after some time I did pretty well and it was interesting to get to know a new culture and new people.”
For the French there’s still much to learn and that’s why they went to Canada. They started against a Quebec U18 selection, losing 4-2 and 2-1, before losing 1-0 against Limoilou and defeating St-Laurent 2-1.
“For us it was very important to have this camp in order to prepare for the season and for the Olympic Qualification,” Allemoz explained. “I think we left with a pretty young team which allowed us to adapt to the more North American style of play very well. They play more physical and I think we have levelled our play since we arrived in Canada.”
The tour ended with two tight losses against the Carabins and one against the Montreal Stars.
Looking at the jerseys on the ice of the Etienne-Desmarteaux rink in the Rosemont neighbourhood of Montreal it seemed almost like the Montreal Canadiens were playing against Cristobal Huet, Stéphane da Costa & Co.
But the blue-white-red “chandails” were worn by the Montreal Stars, the city’s best women’s hockey team. And the players in the blue “maillots” came from the French women’s national team.
The difference between these two nations in women’s hockey, still a young an fast growing sport, can be considered even bigger than in men’s hockey.
While Canadiens fans have been dreaming of past glory for many years, the Montreal Stars crowned themselves the best Canadian women’s hockey club team after winning the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) and brought the Clarkson Cup to Montreal last spring.
On the other side, France has yet to produce world-class players in women’s hockey. The national team plays in the third tier of IIHF competition and sits in 16th place in the IIHF Women’s World Ranking, two behind their male colleagues.
But the French hope to improve and Virginie Bouetz Andrieu is the first French female player to try the step Philippe Bozon once did in men’s hockey when he became the first French NHL player. Bouetz Andrieu was drafted by the Montreal Stars recently and will join the team for a try-out hoping to play in Canada’s strongest league for female players.
“I informed myself over the internet about the Montreal Stars and I will start practising with them in mid-September,” Bouetz Andrieu said. “I will join the camp and there’s a small possibility I could make the team.”
The game, however, ended lopsided with an 11-1 victory for the Montreal Stars and Betty Jouanny scoring the lone goal for the guests.
“It went very fast against them. They play at a higher level and it was a good learning lesson for us,” Bouetz Andrieu said. “We knew it would be tough, but we were proud and felt privileged to play against such a team and gave our best.
“Throughout the camp we worked much on details we had to improve in our game and on integrating young players to build a great group on and off the ice.”
The 28-year-old defender describes women’s hockey as a very amateur sport in her country that most people even don’t know about.
But France still has a respectable number of 1,214 registered female ice hockey players. That’s the eighth-highest number worldwide and fifth in Europe before countries such as Russia and Switzerland. So there’s definitely some potential around.
The camp was in preparation for the big goals the team has. In November “Les Bleus” will travel to Shanghai to face China, Great Britain and a qualifier in the Olympic Pre-Qualification, hoping to win the event and to make it to the Final Olympic Qualification that will determine the two last teams to qualify for the women’s ice hockey tournament in Sochi 2014.
“Everything is possible. The game against China will be the big game, but we may not underestimate the other teams,” said team captain Allemoz.
“If we make the next round we will have to play against teams of a higher calibre, this will be big for us.”
But first comes the trip to China, a country that made it to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in women’s hockey. It will be a unique experience for the team.
“Shanghai is a bit special,” the 23-year-old said. “We don’t know what will expect us there. But France went to China in 2004, so we got some feedback.”
The Olympic Qualification is not the only big challenge this year.
After missing promotion last year, the French will host the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group B on home ice in Strasbourg in April where they aim to win the event against Kazakhstan, China, Great Britain, the Netherlands and DPR Korea, and climb to the second tier of women’s hockey.
“I think it’s possible to win and get promoted. We have defeated each of these teams in the past,” said Allemoz, “so I think everything is possible.”