On September 7, Danièle Sauvageau officially announced the first three signings for the PWHL Montreal franchise: goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens and forwards Laura Stacey and Marie-Philip Poulin. Poulin and Desbiens are Quebec natives, and Stacey has been living in Montreal for the last three years. She is also Poulin's fiancée as the couple became engaged this past summer. All three are Olympic gold medalists with Team Canada and spent the last several years with the PWHPA.
Unlike the other PWHL signings so far, Montreal's were accompanied by an in-person media availability at the Verdun Auditorium in Verdun, Montreal, Quebec, home of Centre 21.02. The players and general manager were made available via Zoom to remote media after the in-person availability, all seated together in a group.
Centre 21.02 was conceived as a women's hockey regional training hub for elite athletes, and was slated to be the home of Les Canadiennes de Montreal before the CWHL folded. It officially opened in 2020 and has been a training base for Team Canada, PHF, and PWHPA athletes. Verdun Auditorium has also served as a game site for both the PWHPA and PHF. While no announcements have been made about the home rink of the PWHL Montreal franchise, and Sauvageau reiterated that nothing is confirmed at this time, Sauvageau is currently the CEO and President of Centre 21.02 and it seems likely that the Centre and Verdun Auditorium will play a role with the PWHL franchise going forward.
As for the players signed, Poulin is already one of the greatest players in hockey history and needs little introduction. She famously has game-winning, gold-medal-winning goals in three Olympics (2010, 2014, and 2022) and in the 2021 Women's Worlds. Poulin played her college hockey at Boston University and last played professionally for Les Canadiennes de Montreal in 2018-19, scoring 50 points (23G, 27A) in 26 games. In the 2022-23 PWHPA Secret Dream Gap Tour, Poulin scored 27 points (12G, 15A) in 20 games with Team Harvey's. She brings her best-in-world shot and a calm but intense competitiveness – traits that have made her the captain of Team Canada for the last three Olympic cycles.
Desbiens joins as the prospective #1 goaltender. Her time in the NCAA at the University of Wisconsin is legendary – she went 99-14-9 in her Badger career from 2013-2017, with 55 shutouts, an 0.89 GAA, and an 0.955 save percentage. Internationally for Team Canada, she's been the regular starter in net since 2020, and has been nearly flawless as of late, winning all 10 of her international tournament starts at the Olympics and World Championship in 2022. She also played for Team Harvey's in the most recent PWHPA Secret Dream Gap Tour, posting a 0.935 save percentage over 13 games.
Stacey has performed very well and consistently for Team Canada, and was a breakout player with the CWHL's Markham/Brampton Thunder, which she joined after concluding her NCAA career with Dartmouth. Stacey had 8 goals and 17 assists, good for 25 points in 24 games, in her last CWHL season with the Thunder. In the 2022 Olympics, she had 4 goals and 2 assists in 7 games, and she continued her scoring tear with Team adidas in the 2022-23 Secret Dream Gap Tour, with 9 goals and 12 assists in 20 games. Stacey is an offensive threat who plays a detail-oriented, energetic game.
"The culture we're gonna build here is gonna be a lot of hard work and a lot of fun," said Poulin. "Getting on that ice and having the right people beside you, going to battle for championship – I think that's something we've been waiting for a long time. The last four years I haven't had really a season or championship to fight for. But now knowing that this is happening, having a season of practicing when you can practice your power play, your PK. You practice with your linemates," she continued. "It's something that we've been waiting for a long time and that's gonna be exciting. And I think with the draft coming up, there's so much talent, it's gonna be exciting."
"You wanna build a team where people could look at [the team] and say, well, we, we see ourselves," said Sauvageau regarding the importance of being able to sign Quebec natives to this new professional women's team. "I think that we wanted to build a place for the players, with the players, and for the fans. So I think it was very important to have names, players, but more importantly human beings, that understand what it is all about," she said, gesturing towards her first three signees. "And I think this is a perfect example of everything that a professional hockey team could build on."
"It's always nice to be able to play in front of family and friends," Desbiens said. She explained that her parents had driven about 400 kilometers from her hometown in La Malbaie to be at the live press conference. While that's a significant distance, it's still much closer than her last real home rink in Wisconsin. "That just means they're gonna be able to come to a lot of the games and support me and that was something that was very important to me," she added. "Just growing the game where you were born, where you were raised, where you are able to have an impact is something that was very important to me, and I'm sure to others as well. We've been calling this place home the past few years and we're truly excited to be calling this place home for the next three years as well."
While Stacey is not French Canadian, the Mississauga native spoke some French during the press conference and was encouraged by her teammates and the media. "You will be fine," she said when asked how she would reassure other non-French-speaking players who might join the Montreal team. "I've been fine for three years. Obviously I would love to be better. I would love to work on it. I think it is important, just as a Canadian – I think it's very helpful to be able to speak both languages. I have taken some lessons, so hopefully one day I'll be able to fully respond to your questions in French."
"I think no matter where you're coming from, we're excited to have you. We're gonna welcome you," Stacey continued. "We're gonna do this all as one big group together, not just the three of us, not just the four of us. It takes a whole village. It takes a whole group of people – our family, our friends, the staff that you won't even see on any of these calls. It takes a lot of people to win a championship, to create a great culture. And I think if you want to be in Montreal and you do make it to Montreal, I think no matter what language you speak, you're gonna have a great time here."
The Montreal press conference was very much about this team's specific market, and what it means to be in Montreal. None of these players' signings with the team came as a surprise, and were expected basically from the moment the market was confirmed. The francophone women's hockey community in Canada is incredibly close-knit, and the involvement of Centre 21.02 as the setting for the presser is a testament to that. With three strong players now locked up for three years, Danièle Sauvageau now has a task ahead at the draft to find players who complement them – and she will have many choices from both near and far.