It's the look on the boys' faces ― first when they dismissed the girls' team, then when they got beaten by it ― that stands out most for Laurence Frenette. She was 12 years old, and part of the first ever all-girls squad to compete in the renowned Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. She'd only ever played boys hockey to that point, and the event remains one of her fondest hockey memories.
"It was just surreal for me," she recalls. "It was one of my dreams when I was 12 and when I heard that I made the team I was just so excited and was just so proud to have the opportunity to represent Quebec as a girls team."
"It was really impressive to be there at that age," agrees teammate Rebecca Morissette. "The crowd, the support, the number of people, the team ― that group of girls playing against guys ― being filmed… it was really special."
Not quite four years later, the pair are competing at the U18 National Championship, the first players from the now-annual Peewee All-Star Team to represent their province at this level. Following a disappointing finish on home ice in 2017 and a strong silver-medal showing at the Canada Games this past spring, Team Quebec is looking to bring home some hardware.
"We're fast, we're relentless, and we really want to win," says Morissette of the group. "And we're like a family."
Indeed, many of the players on Team Quebec have known each other for years, whether through the Hockey Québec program or from playing with and against each other on local teams and in provincial tournaments. It makes for good chemistry, they say, with no real shyness or feeling-out period. And it makes this experience a whole lot of fun.
That last part is crucial, and it's one of the key things they're reminded of when working with the likes of Marie-Philip Poulin and Caroline Ouellette, who coached them on that inaugural peewee team in 2016 and who both players list as role models. They've been able to stay in touch throughout the years, developing a mentor/mentee relationship.
"They always say to never give up and to always work hard," said Morissette. "And that you have to work hard if you want to get better, but that you also need to have fun ― that's the important thing."
Frenette got her start in hockey at age four after watching her mom play. "I just wanted to do like she did," she explains. She's risen steadily through the ranks and as the stakes rise, so too has her passion for the sport.
"I've just always been playing hockey for fun," she says. "I just like it so much, I just want to work hard every day and I'm just trying to get better every day. Hopefully I'll achieve my dreams someday ― we'll see!"
If competing at the Quebec Pee-Wee tournament gave her the chance to be coached by Olympic icons, she's had no shortage of unique opportunities since. Two years later at age 14, she suited up alongside a number of established veterans, including Ouellette, Sarah Vaillancourt, and Julie Chu, for an exhibition showcase against some of the top university teams in the country. Frenette acquitted herself well, finding the back of the net against players more than five years her senior (though her experienced linemates certainly helped).
"They're professionals," was her biggest take-away. "It's so much fun seeing them before games and being around them and taking some tips from them. They're so focused on the game and so good. Playing with them on the ice, they know what they're doing and they're giving you some tips. You're trying to be as good as them but you know they're Olympians and stuff, so you're just kind of impressed at the same time and just want to keep up with them. It's so fun."
Morissette, for her part, followed in her dad's footsteps when she picked up the sport as a five-year-old. From that point on she's played for her local girls' association, the Élites de l'Estrie, with which she won the Coupe Dodge provincial championship as a bantam ― a feat they nearly repeated last season in the midget category, as the Stars 55.
In the years since making the peewee squad, Morissette has continued to participate in camps with Poulin and Ouellette, who keeps an eye on her pupils' progress. It's not just the all-star alumnae, either: a handful of Team Quebec's players have helped coach younger kids at Ouellette-Poulin camps, stepping into leadership roles. As a whole, this cohort has had perhaps unprecedented access to their national team heroes, with whom they've developed relationships that extend beyond a single camp or tournament. And while Morissette and Frenette may be the first players to go from peewee all-stars to U18 Nationals, expect many more to follow in their footsteps.
The next big move for Morissette will be CÉGEP, and with a few options on the table, she's in the process of finalizing her decision. After that she plans to continue on through university, and hopes to get a shot with the national U18 team.
Frenette, a grade 11 student at Stanstead College, has committed to Clarkson University for 2021, citing the coaching staff, the small campus, rink amenities, and the program's success as what attracted her to the school. Like Morissette, she's taking things one step at a time and has her sights set on a strong university career.
Well before that, though, it's down to business at the National Championship, with a semifinal bout against perennial powerhouse Ontario Red on Friday followed by a medal game on Saturday. And the group will be sure to make the most of its remaining time in Manitoba, taking in a special experience that, as Morissette emphasizes, has been going by very fast.
(Photo credit: Dennis Pajot / Hockey Canada Images)