Natalia Chenier sometimes feels like she's dreaming, as she walks around at the International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament in Quebec City.
"I've wanted to do this for so long. I still can't believe I'm here. It's amazing!" she said.
Chenier is a forward with the Girls PeeWee All-Stars, the only all-female team playing in the 2022 edition of the storied tournament, which brings together 130 teams from all over the world.
She's excited about taking to the big ice at the Videotron Centre, after the tournament was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I honestly feel like I'm really lucky to be here because not many girls get to come to the Pee-Wees. I'm really lucky to come here and represent them."
Chenier is from Baie d'Urfé in Montreal. She plays with a boys triple-A team. But she loves playing with the All-Stars and hopes someday it won't be the only girls team in competition.
"A division would be amazing. It would be great to see girls playing the sport and doing what they love," she says.
A hockey hero at the helm
Coach Caroline Ouellette understands her players' excitement.
"It's always incredible for me to see how excited they are, how they're achieving a dream being here. And I'm having a great time."
Ouellette is a pioneer in women's hockey. As a member of the Canadian women's team, she is a four-time Olympic gold medallist and six-time world champion.
She says a tournament like the Pee-Wees in Quebec City empowers the girls to play with other girls and be competitive. Ouellette says other coaches and players tell her how surprised they are at how well — and how hard — the girls play.
She says it's important for the boys to see that.
"I think that lesson they learn at 11, 12, to respect women, to respect girls in sport is huge."
Finding ways to bring girls to the sport
In 2014, Ouellette saw the number of girls playing hockey dwindling. So she started a non-profit organization called Girls Hockey Celebration, in collaboration with Hockey Quebec. She wanted to focus on young players at an age where statistics show that girls start quitting sports.
They hold a yearly tournament and invite girls to sign up, individually, or as teams, and regardless of whether they usually play with girls or boys. At the end, they hold an All-Stars game and the 19 best players are chosen for the All-Stars team.
The PeeWee Girls All-Stars have been coming to the tournament in Quebec City since 2016. In 2017, they made it to the final in their division.
Ouellette says they're not a novelty anymore.
"Everyone knows we're here and everyone knows we can do well."
Getting girls started in hockey and giving them a future
Ouellette says girls' hockey offers a camaraderie many haven't known playing on boys teams. She says girls often have to suit up in another locker room, then join their teammates. Some are bullied.
"When they come together here, they see that it's fun. They make friends for life," Ouellette said.
The coach has seen players make the switch to girls' hockey in the U-15 category after playing for the All-Stars. And alumni have gone on to big success.
"Some of our players from the first edition are playing college hockey in Canada and the U.S., and they're some of the best CEGEP players in Quebec," Ouellette says.
Women's hockey is still facing challenges at senior levels.
This week, the CEGEP de Saint-Laurent confirmed it's suspending its women's program temporarily, citing problems recruiting players and coaches.
Ouellette played for the Patriotes, considered one of Quebec's strongest CEGEP programs. But she never had the opportunity to be paid as a professional hockey player. To date, the road to a professional league has been rocky.
After a rebrand, the Premier Hockey Federation has its financial house in order. And the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association League is expected to launch within the year.
Ouellette believes the women's time has come.
"It's a different type of hockey," she said. " I think just like people appreciate that tennis is different for men and women and the fan base has grown just as much. I think we can go there with women's hockey."
The first step in a career
Elizabeth Papineau started skating at two on a rink her father made for her in the backyard of their home in Gatineau. She started playing hockey at four. She played other sports, but hockey was her favourite.
Papineau feels like she's making a big leap by playing at the Pee-Wee tournament in Quebec City.
"It's like the first step of your big career in hockey. It's really big and it's fun to play in the Videotron Centre."
A career in hockey is exactly what Papineau has her sights trained on.
"Making the Olympics for sure, being on Team Canada, being on the TV. I really hope that little girls are going to watch me one day."
Caroline Ouellette remembers the time before the Vancouver Olympics, where she competed as a member of the Canadian women's team in 2010. Boys would laugh when the women would walk into the rink.
After Vancouver, and the success of the team and the Canadian athletes in general, the boys at the rink knew who the female players were and wanted autographs.
"I'll never forget that shift."