As she did her pre-game stretches near centre ice in front of the home bench, Ève Gascon looked up to see Rimouski Oceanic goaltender Gabriel Robert approaching.
Robert reached down, tapped Gascon on the pads and wished her good luck, moments before Gascon would make history by becoming the first woman to play a regular season game for the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL. As it happens, Robert and Gascon were both born in 2003 in Terrebonne, Que., and played a lot of minor hockey together.
There is nothing quite like the goaltending brotherhood – make that, brotherhood and sisterhood.
When Gascon settled into the goal crease at the Slush Puppie Centre, she became the first woman to play a game in the ‘Q’ since Charline Labonté in 2000 with Acadie-Bathurst. Today, Labonté serves not only as an inspiration to Gascon but also a personal mentor. For a time, Labonté was Gascon’s personal psychologist. Not surprisingly, they spoke on the phone before Gascon burst onto the bright stage of Gatineau’s glistening new rink on Saturday.
“Charline told me to be myself and enjoy the moment,” Gascon said, prior to becoming just the third woman to ever play at the major junior level in Quebec. Pioneer Manon Rhéaume, who went on to appear in a pre-season game for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, played for Trois-Rivières in 1991-92. Gascon has dreams of becoming as big a player on the international scene as Labonté and Rhéaume were with the national women's team.
Labonté wasn’t the only female hockey legend to reach out to Gascon this week. She also heard from superstar Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin and former Canadian head coach Daniele Sauvageau, who once coached the Gatineau Olympiques head coach and GM, Louis Robitaille.
Around and around go the hockey connections.
“They’re all idols for me, so it was really nice to have these texts from them,” Gascon said.
Her major junior debut began Saturday with a “rookie solo lap” in the warmup, and concluded with an overtime loss, in a packed, rocking arena. The full junior experience, in other words.
‘“It was a surprise,” Gascon said of the solo lap treatment. “I was telling myself not to fall on the ice.”
Despite taking the loss in overtime, 5-4, Gascon displayed the same kind of poise and calm in her post-game interviews that she had on the ice, where she looked more and more comfortable as the game ensued.
“It was a very good experience,” said the 18-year-old Gascon. “It was stressful. But I think at the end of the day, it was a very nice experience and I couldn’t be more proud of myself.”
Dipping her toes into the mid-season waters of the QMJHL was not without some reality checks.
Facing the Oceanic, the team of royal and navy blue colours made famous by Sidney Crosby, Gascon and her new Olympiques teammates were down 2-1 after the first period despite Gatineau owning an 11-5 shot advantage. The Olympiques sit in first place in the West Division with 65 points while the Oceanic are second in the East with 54.
When Gascon made a couple of terrific saves from a goalmouth scramble, the sellout crowd of 4,700 at ‘The Pup’ rose to their feet and screamed their support. The audience continually reacted to her saves -- she made 18 in all off 23 shots.
“I heard it, but I didn’t expect that,” Gascon said of the crowd salutes.
The early Oceanic goals were both on high shots to the glove side. Gascon was down on the second goal, during a power play for Rimouski.
The visitors added another power-play goal in the second period, before the Olympiques got it back with a minute to play, a shot from the slot by captain Manix Landry. Gascon then made a particularly sharp glove save, which ignited the crowd again.
With six seconds left in the period, the building exploded with noise as it appeared Noah Warren had tied the game on a high shot over Robert’s shoulder. But a replay showed the puck had hit the crossbar and bounced out.
From there, Gatineau surged, goals by Donovan Arsenault and Evgeni Kashnikov carrying the home side to a 4-3 advantage, which the Olympiques held through much of the third period. But a goal by Alex Gaudio, his second of the game, sent the event to overtime and Xavier Cormier won it for Rimouski on a high shot to the stick side of Gascon at 1:10 of OT.
The pace of shots and the tempo of play was noticeably quicker than during the pre-season, Gascon noted.
“I knew I had to be a little bit faster in my positioning,” said Gascon, who made a spectacular glove save with her team a man short late in the third.
Robitaille, who went to great lengths to make sure Gascon had support from the organization and beyond prior to the start, said the team wanted desperately to get Gascon her first ‘W’ in the ‘Q.’
“We all knew it was a special moment,” Robitaille said. “The guys were all in. They were excited – I’ve never seen the room as hyped up as that before the game. You know, I think they were disappointed at the end. We played well, we didn’t cash in on some good chances we had. We kind of let her down, also, because we took some penalties.”
Robitaille, who usually skips warmup but didn’t want to miss any moment of this day, stood on the bench as the crowd welcomed Gascon.
“I think she was nervous inside but she never showed it,” Robitaille said. He was nervous himself, and hoped Gascon might get to ease into the game, instead of facing some early, tough shots, including one for a goal.
Landry spoke like a captain when he expressed the high regard in which the team holds Gascon.
“It’s a great honour having someone like Ève come to our team and play the way she did today,” Landry said. “It’s awesome. And with a crowd this big, it’s even more special for us.”
Landry said the emotion of the crowd helped the Olympiques rally in the third period. The crowd included the Gascon family and many of her friends from back home.
The day before her start, Gascon told a throng of reporters that she had been speaking to her mother by phone when she saw that Robitaille was trying to reach her. With big news, it turned out.
“I cried when Louis told me I was the starting goalie for Saturday’s game,” Gascon said. “It was an emotional moment.”
This has been a long time coming for a young woman who, despite her comfort level playing against boys for most of her life, hadn’t dared dream of suiting up for the Olympiques in a regular season game in the ‘Q.’
“It exceeds all my expectations,” Gascon told reporters. “This game is a bonus. It’s an incredible honour.”
And yet, she has been here before. In a different rink, and a different situation.
From the ’Bob’ to the ‘Pup’
Gascon played the final game at the legendary Robert Guertin Arena, as they closed the Hull barn last fall, an 8-1 romp over Rouyn-Noranda with about 2,000 people in ‘The Bob.’
Gascon won two of her three pre-season games with the Olympiques, posting outstanding numbers – a 1.78 goals-against and .934 save percentage.
Robitaille noted that Gascon has been building up to this moment, from her play against the boys in midget AAA, and her outstanding play in the Cegep league.
“She definitely deserves a game,” Robitaille said. “It’s not a marketing stunt. It’s an important regular-season game for us.”
Marketing stunt, perhaps not, but Gascon certainly created a buzz at the Slush Puppie Centre, referred to as ‘The Pup’ by some locals.
Now what? Robitaille says Gascon will dress for Sunday’s rematch against Rimouski, likely as a backup to Emrik Despatie. The head coach says he wants to be respectful of Gascon’s school commitments at the Saint-Laurent Cegep resuming on Monday, but that Gascon will likely rejoin the Olympiques later in the week.
Gatineau’s No. 1 goaltender, Remi Poirier, remains sidelined with an injury.
Gascon has a commitment to play for the University of Minnesota-Duluth women’s team in 2023.