Saturday, May 9, 2015

Caroline Ouellette Autographed Card

Women's hockey is a relatively young category in the sport, and I am one of those who feel a 25-year period needs to pass before pitting statistics, players, talents and eras in any form of comparison, but it's safe to say that when we start looking at ranking the best of all time, Caroline Ouellette will be among most lists' top-5s.

Hayley Wickenheiser was a huge part of making Women's Hockey ''a thing'' in Canada, and former Team USA captain Cammi Granato was also instrumental in advancing the game in the United States, and both were dominant players, but Ouellete brings a state of grace along with her talent that is reminiscent of Jean Béliveau, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. (The fact that she rarely gets penalized likely helps those comparisons.)

I see current Team USA captain Meghan Duggan (in whom I see a Joe Sakic-type of player) also eventually making such lists, but, really, Ouellette, at 35, remains a force to be reckoned with and has been for over a decade.

She's won scoring titles, MVP awards, holds records (NCAA/WCHA's 2 shorthanded goals in a single game, for one) at every level, and has elevated her game when the pressure was on to lead her teams to championships, as can be attested from her inclusion in the Triple Gold Club (Olympic gold, World Championship gold, and Clarkson Cup, the women's equivalent of the Stanley Cup).

And it's not like her teams have won one of each: she has four Olympic gold medals (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014), six World Championship gold medals (1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2007, and 2012), six World Championship silver medals because the U.S. has to win sometimes (2005, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015), and the two Clarkson Cups (2009 and 2011), including one where she was the playoff scoring leader.

Most women playing in the CWHL not only do it as a labour of love, but have actual jobs they need to get to outside of playing and training hours, because the league doesn't pay its players (most teams lose money as is anyway). 20 to 25 girls part of the Canadian Olympic program get an allocation for being full-time athletes (which roughly amounts to having a job that pays minimum wage, $350 per week), but the vast majority do it out of sheer passion. Here's a bit about what a 48-hour stretch might look like from Ouellette's point of view.

I met the humble superstar at a fundraising activity a few months ago and talked to her about how my minor-league teams growing up, from the atom level until midgets, all had at least one girl on them (making the team after camp, not through any type of entitlement program) and made all the boys better humans for it, and how I foresee the NHL having no choice but to draft and try a woman out within the next decade because the disparity in talent is shrinking (among the elite women and fringe men) and the teams' systems are rendering a lot of that gap irrelevant in all aspects except rugged play.

She was polite enough not to take a stance either way and left me with my illusions, just saying ''that'd be nice'', but the night was about the Montréal Stars' partnership with the NHL's Montréal Canadiens anyway, where the CWHL team will now share access to the Habs' training facilities (no more 11 PM practices!) and marketing team (which it didn't have at all) to, if not earn a proper living, at least make the players' working conditions optimal and provide the team with the means to try to ''make it'' on their own (and attract fans to Étienne-Desmarteaux Arena to watch their often-entertaining games, on the ice bearing Ouellete's name).

It was there that she signed this 2014 Team Canada Juniors/Women card (#80 in the set made by Upper Deck) for me, in blue sharpie, showing her wearing her famous #13 in Team Canada's classic red uniform:
Incidentally, the men's team featuring the likes of Sidney Crosby and Taylor Hall almost lost to France today at the Worlds... I'm pretty sure Ouellette's available to help out, and she isn't too far away, having just climbed a mountain a France (of all places), while the tournament is taking place in Prague (Czech Republic).

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