Team Canada veteran France St-Louis reflects on the rise of women’s hockey

“I was 30 when I joined the first national team. On the guys side, they almost retired at that age, and I started playing hockey at that level. But for me, it was so exciting.

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France St-Louis spent his early days in hockey pretending to be a boy, because girls had nothing to do with pucks and sticks.

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Everyone knew it — everyone, it seems, except St. Louis, who could never say no to a hockey game on the outside rinks around her house.

“I had my toque really deep and nobody knew I was a girl,” St-Louis, a true pioneer of women’s hockey, said this week. “Sometimes I had to talk and say a few words, and guys would be like, ‘Oh, he’s got a little voice.’ But my brother was taking care of me. When they found out I was a girl, they were OK – my brother was always there to protect me.

And then she grew up, played organized hockey for the first time at 19, but didn’t talk about it much because people thought women who played hockey were “tomboys.” At age 30, she joined Canada’s new national hockey program and competed in the first world championship, held in 1990.

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In 1998, aged 39, more than twice as old as her teenage teammate Hayley Wickenheiser, she played center for Canada’s first women’s Olympic hockey team. She vividly remembers one particular breakfast of champions.

France St. Louis in February 1997, following the announcement of their selection to the Women's National Team.
France St. Louis in February 1997, following the announcement of their selection to the Women’s National Team. Photo by John Kenney /Montreal Gazette

“My first breakfast,” she says, “I sat alone because I’m a bit of an early riser. A guy comes and says ‘Can I sit with you?’ and it was Wayne Gretzky. I could not continue to eat my breakfast. I was just amazed by his presence. He was my hero. I will always remember that. It’s a very, very good memory.

As the Canadians prepare for this week’s Olympic gold medal game against the United States, they would do well to remember people like St. Louis, who reneged on old traditions, demanded a spot on the ice and broke bread with the Grand.

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“They call me a trailblazer, and that’s fine,” she says. “I was 30 when I joined the first national team. On the guys’ side, they almost retired at that age, and I’m starting to play hockey at that level. But for me, it’s was such a thrill. I was so, so happy to finally play with other players and see how good they were. It motivated me to get better and better, even at that age. It was a dream come true.”

St. Louis knew in 1994 that women’s hockey would make its Olympic debut in 1998, and she did the math. She had to make a decision: spend four difficult years, keep her body in tune, try to make the Olympic team… or not. She asked her personal trainer if it was possible.

“Wick was 20 years younger than me,” she says of Wickenheiser. “I could have been his mother. It was a long time, but that was my goal. I took it year after year, and it worked. I was so happy. Along the way, some former fighters were cut and I was really nervous. I said, ‘I hope my age doesn’t have an impact.’ And it worked. “

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St. Louis had won four world championships by then (and a fifth coming in 1999, her final season), but none of that prepared her for the Olympic maelstrom. For the first time in history, female hockey players became famous. People cared about everything they did, on and off the ice.

Members of Team Canada (from left to right): Caroline Ouellette, France St-Louis, Kim St-Pierre and Nancy Drolet pose for a photo in January 1999 before the last world championships in St. Louis before she competes retired from international women's hockey.
Members of Team Canada (from left to right): Caroline Ouellette, France St-Louis, Kim St-Pierre and Nancy Drolet pose for a photo in January 1999 before the last world championships in St. Louis before she competes retired from international women’s hockey. Photo by Peter Martin /Montreal Gazette

St-Louis remembers the reporters – so many of them, brandishing cameras, notebooks, recorders.

“It’s hard to describe,” she said, “because I couldn’t believe it.”

And then the gold medal final happened, Canada lost 3-1 against the Americans, and it hurt a lot. The pain of the players was broadcast on television and by the many journalists covering the match.

“We were crying and crying,” St-Louis says. “After two or three days, all the other athletes were like, ‘This is your first time in the Olympics. You have an Olympic medal. You should be proud of what you did. There was a lot of pressure and we didn’t play the way we should have. USA played better, and that’s it. But we got that silver medal. I was happy that we got the medal, after two or three days.

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And today, almost a quarter of a century later, she is still happy to have it.

“It’s still close,” she said. “Even after all these years, people sometimes ask me if they can see my medal. It’s still not too far from me. I am proud of this medal. I had the chance to live it. At 39, it was far, but it was an incredible experience.

Members of Canada's women's hockey team react to the Olympic Finals loss to the United States 3-1 at the Big Hat in Nagano February 17.  The United States won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women's hockey while Canada won silver.
Members of Canada’s women’s hockey team react to the Olympic Finals loss to the United States 3-1 at the Big Hat in Nagano February 17. The United States won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women’s hockey while Canada won silver. Photo: AFP /Olivier Morin

St-Louis, who worked as a physical education teacher even during her playing days, remains a fan of the Canadian women’s team. She is friends with some of the players and has been following their progress closely.

“We were sort of… I don’t like to say it, but guinea pigs,” she says of those first national teams. “We were the first team to do this process. We had a lot of good people, but there were a lot of things they changed for the better. When I look at where they are today, it’s amazing. They basically play 12 months a year, and they have better conditioning and more money.

St-Louis says that if there is another life after this, she likes the idea of ​​hockey being accessible to her as a little girl and being able to play the sport at the university level. Go to school. Play the game. No need to lower your toque.

“Maybe in my other life,” she says, “I’ll get the chance to experience that.”

The Canadian women's ice hockey team has photos taken at the Haida Gwaii sculpture at Vancouver International Airport before they departed for Japan for the 1998 Winter Olympics.
The Canadian women’s ice hockey team has photos taken at the Haida Gwaii sculpture at Vancouver International Airport before they departed for Japan for the 1998 Winter Olympics. Photo by Bill Keay /Vancouver Sun

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