Caroline Ouellette Returns to Canadiennes Lineup After Ten-Month Absence
Canadiennes Benefit From Veteran’s Speedy Return to the Lineup
You could sense the added buzz in the building.
Yes, it was Les Canadiennes’ first home game of 2018. Yes, it was against an unfamiliar foe in the Vanke Rays, one of two Chinese expansion teams new to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League this season.
However, the buzz most certainly stemmed from the anticipated return of Canadiennes great and women’s hockey legend Caroline Ouellette to the Montreal lineup, a mere 83 days since giving birth to daughter Liv.
“I feel really good,” said Ouellette moments after exiting the ice surface on the winning end of a 7-3 scoreline against the Rays. “I kept things very simple and made sure my shifts were short. I don’t feel quite at 100 per cent yet, but after four or five games, I should be back to where I was last year.”“Just having Caroline back in our group is a plus for us,” said Canadiennes head coach Dany Brunet. “Everyone becomes more professional and better just by her presence. From the staff to the players, we all are better prepared and benefit from having her around.”
It was Ouellette’s first competitive game in over ten months, since the Clarkson Cup final game last March in Ottawa. She did suit up as part of the 50th annual Theresa Humes Invitational, a women’s hockey tournament hosted by Concordia this past December.
Ouellette competed in three games over three days with Les Etoiles, a group of Montreal-area all-stars. She has also been routinely practicing with Les Canadiennes for the past few weeks as she inched closer to a return to game action.
“The more practice and time I spend on the ice, the more I will be able to find my game,” she said. “It is all a matter of getting into hockey shape. I was happy with my first game. We are going to take it one period at a time for me.”
The 38-year-old Ouellette was pregnant with daughter Liv during that pivotal Clarkson Cup final against the Calgary Inferno. Although she hadn’t played since the championship game in March, Ouellette was busy coaching over the summer during what she described as a healthy pregnancy.
She gave birth on November 5th. It was her and partner Julie Chu’s first child. Ouellette credits the great care and encouragement she received from her doctors at the Royal Victoria Hospital with helping spur her comeback to the game she loves.
“The delivery went super well,” said Ouellette. “It was not as bad as I feared hearing many stories. My body recovered very well. It helps being an athlete in the first place.”
“I saw my doctor and he told me he thought I could run a marathon one week after giving birth so he encouraged me to go play hockey,” she continued.
The new mother has been on cloud nine since welcoming her bundle of joy just under three months ago.
“I love my new role as a mother,” said Ouellette. “It really has surpassed all my expectations. I am so happy. If I’m gone more than an hour, I already miss her. Until you experience firsthand being a mother, you can’t really explain it. It’s magical.”
She has developed a system with Chu when it comes to balancing both their careers in hockey and taking care of their daughter. While Chu coaches and runs morning practices with the Concordia Stingers women’s hockey team, Ouellette is on mommy duty.
The roles are reversed with Chu taking over the night shift when Ouellette is out training or practicing with Les Canadiennes during the evenings. She also counts on the support of her parents Nicole and Andre, who live close by and are happy to babysit whenever needed.
More than anything, Ouellette is grateful for the love and support that Chu continues to give her as she returns to the playing surface.
“We are a team just like we have always been for the last twelve years together,” said Ouellette. “I am really lucky that Julie is so supportive of my dream of coming back. She knows that I love the game so much and I still wanted to play. Without her, I would not be able to be here today.”
Ouellette wasted little time leaving her mark on the scoresheet. On her first game back, Ouellette assisted linemate Emanuelle Blais on Montreal’s second goal. Although unaccustomed to playing on a third line throughout her illustrious career, either with Les Canadiennes or Team Canada, Ouellette was excited to get off to a strong start.
“I’ve played many years with [Blais],” said Ouellette. “I know exactly where she’s going. She was in great position. She took two whacks at it and it was a great goal. Marion [Allemoz], [Blais] and I were really excited to celebrate together. It helped us gain confidence as a line.”
Ouellette always had the date of January 27th circled on her calendar as the first potential date she could foresee returning to action. She is grateful that the Canadiennes coaching staff has allowed her to rejoin the group so soon and are being patient with her as she gets back into the swing of things.
“I was pleasantly surprised by how she was able to deliver tonight after going through everything in her personal life,” said Brunet. “She’s just back into the lineup. We have to give her time. Practicing is one thing, but playing is another.”
If her return itself wasn’t enough headline-material, Ouellette was also looking to become the CWHL’s all-time leading goal scorer in her season debut. She entered the game tied with Jayna Hefford for top spot in all-time regular-season tallies with 130. Despite a close call late in the third period—it appeared that Ouellette did score but the goal was waved off by the on-ice officials—Ouellette was confident in her ability to achieve the milestone shortly.
“[My teammates] tried everything at the end there to get me that goal,” she said. “It’s a matter of time. Everyone is looking forward to it and sometimes, we try a bit too hard. I just have to not think about it.”Brunet intends to progressively increase Ouellette’s workload. He expects her to gradually rise from her current third-line minutes to a larger offensive role in the team’s top six forward group and on the group’s top power-play unit. Ouellette played sparingly on the power play in her first game back, instead playing primarily five-on-five and on the penalty kill.
Ouellette is none too concerned with her playing time. After all, Ouellette’s focus, above all else, has always been and continues to be on the team, a team she hopes to help lead to a second straight Clarkson Cup championship. A team that she loves so dearly from top to bottom.
“I love this team,” gushed Ouellette. “From our [general manager] to our coaches to the friends I have played with for many years, it’s great to see them again and be a part of the dressing room. I’ve missed that.”