By Will MacLaren
On a mid-March after-noon at the sparkling new Slush Puppie Centre, home of the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympiques, Eve Gascon, flashing a smile that couldn’t be disguised behind her trapper, hopped through the home-team gate and into history, becoming the third female to appear in a regular-season QMJHL contest.
Gascon, an 18-year-old from Terrebonne, Que., had been making headlines for months. Despite seeing her time between the pipes curtailed over the past two seasons due to the pandemic, Gascon, who has committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth this fall, was nonetheless on the radar of the Olympiques heading into training camp last September, when they extended her an invitation.
(Something that is possible because, unlike their male counterparts, women’s NCAA players can maintain their eligibility while participating in CHL contests.) “She was a late invite,” said Olympiques coach-GM Louis Robitaille, “and as camp progressed, she got better and better. She was the last cut and battled all the way through camp. She proved that she could play with these guys and competed all the way through.”
An injury to starter Remi Poirier in early March opened the door for Gascon to join the team, and in the middle of the month, she received the news that she’d be getting the start against the Rimouski Oceanic on March 19. “I told her to shut her phone off and make sure you have some fun,” Robitaille said.
For Gascon’s part, she handled the news as calmly as possible, displaying a level of maturity and dedication that has served her well during this unique season. “It was great to get the call from Louis,” she said. “But I still just wanted to do the same, habitual things. At the end of the day, it was just another hockey game, and I just wanted to be focused. Obviously, there was a lot of media attention, and that was a bit stressful, but I wanted to be just focused on the game. I was glad I knew on Wednesday so I could take the two days to get myself prepared.”
Of course, this was not just another game. And, to the benefit of the young woman at the center of attention, her coach had a higher than usual working knowledge of what could be expected in this situation. Robitaille spent four seasons in the ‘Q’ as a player, all with the now-defunct Montreal Rocket. As a rookie, one of his coaches was legendary international bench boss Daniele Sauvageau, the first female coach in league history. And the last female to play in a QMJHL game before Gascon, Charline Labonte, made her final league start as a member of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan against Robitaille’s Rocket. “I touched base with Charline before telling Eve she was getting the start because, honestly, I needed advice as well,” Robitaille said. “Her and Manon Rheaume were in a group chat with Eve to talk with her before the start. Plus, I had Daniele in attendance for the game.”
Labonte and Rheaume, who became the first female to participate in a major-junior game back in 1991, stressed to Gascon the need to remain calm, have fun and treat the day for what it was: a hockey game, plain and simple. And though Gascon exuded that calm demeanor in the crease, the game itself wasn’t exactly typical. Especially when her first official shot on net didn’t come until over eight minutes into the matchup – a power-play chance that found the back of the net. “It was hard,” Gascon said. “I couldn’t get a feel for the puck. It was hard to stay focused after allowing a goal on that first shot, but I calmed down. After the first period, I felt more confident and less stressed.”
In the end, the Olympiques, fighting for position in the final weeks of the regular season, earned a point, and Gascon turned aside 18 shots in a 5-4 overtime loss. Despite the score, none of the goals against could be considered weak. “I felt she was very solid,” Robitaille said. “Once we took the lead, she made a couple of really good saves where she got one with the glove, came over cross-body to make another save. We felt she was getting some rhythm as the game went on.”
After the game, Gascon said it was “very stressful” but was pleased with her performance. “It was a big moment for me,” she said. “I didn’t win, but the boys were very good in front of me. I did my best with the pressure I had on me. I just want to play hockey, so it’s a little weird to have this media attention, but I still think I did great.”