No place to play: Elite New Brunswick goalie fights for true women's pro league
Marlene Boissonnault joins effort to create a professional league that treats players fairly
For New Brunswick's Marlène Boissonnault, playing for Team Canada's women's Olympic hockey team is the dream.
But to get there, there's one big obstacle the former Cornell University goaltending star may have to overcome. She, like many other elite female hockey players, needs a place to play and develop.
"We're fighting for a game," Boissonnault said in an interview from Calgary. "And, right now, we don't have the games or we don't have the competition that we need."
That's why the 22-year-old from Dundee, 14 kilometres southwest of Dalhousie, has joined the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association.
The organization formed in the wake of the collapse of the only professional women's league in Canada.
The Canadian Women's Hockey League folded in the spring of 2019, leaving the National Women's Hockey League in the U.S. as the only place for women to play, outside of college hockey.
But the NWHL isn't a solution either.
"Most players were getting anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000 [for] the whole year," said Boissonnault, "which, when you look at the amount of time to put in there, and the sacrifices they had to do, was not acceptable whatsoever."
"And they didn't have any health care or anything like that, which is something we are looking to get for our league in the future."
A viable professional women's league is the goal of the Professional Women's Hockey association, made up of 200 or so of the sport's best players, who all refuse to play so-called professional hockey until things improve.
"It's called a gap year, essentially, so all these players are getting together and fighting for what is right," Boissonnault said.
"I guess someone could call it a boycott, essentially fighting for better resources by deciding not to play this year in the league, or not to play in any league, until we have a viable league."
Boissonnault has been focused on hockey since she was a child growing up in northern New Brunswick, starting out playing at the age of four.
By the time she had reached the novice level, for children under the age of nine, she had settled on being a goalie.
It was a good decision.
By high school, Boissonnault was starring in net for the girl's team at Rothesay Netherwood School.
She was invited to play for Canada's Under-18 national team in the 2015 world championships.
She made 38 saves in a heartbreaking overtime loss to the U.S. in the finals, bringing home a silver medal.
That's when Cornell University came calling.
"I got scouted by a few different universities and Cornell happened to be one of them," Boissonnault said.
"Cornell to me was just the best for my lifestyle and for what I wanted to do later, and obviously for the hockey side of things, hockey-wise it's one of the best in the NCAA."
Off the ice, she pursued a B.Sc. in biology, in preparation for going on to a medical degree.
On the ice, she got a shot at a national championship in her senior year, known in the NCAA as the Frozen Four.
"There were obviously some ups and downs, just like any journey has, but obviously we ended up on a very good high. We ended up going to the Frozen Four, finishing up as one of the best teams in the NCAA, that is, in the nation," she said.
She finished her career with 56 wins, putting her second on Cornell's all-time list.
Her 1.61 goals against average in her senior year led the conference, and placed her second in the nation.
Naturally, with that kind of success, she was looking to continue her hockey career after graduation.
"I knew that there was a CWHL and NWHL that was there currently," Boissonnault said, "I knew that, of course, it didn't have the benefit that you would hope for, but it was at least something that was there so I could further my career."
With the collapse of the CWHL, Boissonnault felt her best option was the Professional Women's Hockey Players AssociationPWHPA.
The group has been arranging showcases across North America to get some of the sport's best players in front of fans. The latest was held in Toronto in the second week of January.
"So the one in Toronto basically was inviting all these players from Canada to try to play and make teams out of that," said Boissonnault.
"There were six teams for the weekend, six games, and yet it ended up being a great weekend, a weekend where we're trying to prove ourselves and show to the world that this is a game worth investing into and worth the time and the effort."
Fighting for a future
The PWHPA said the 700-seat arena was essentially sold out for all six games in Toronto.
But for Boissonnault, these showcase events can't replace the need to get into game situations against good competition.
"I mean, here in Calgary, we're playing exhibition games or scrimmages, however you want to call them, against Midget-AA boys or against boys from different teams because we don't have the competition or the money to afford to fly out to different places to play," she said.
"When you look at the national stage, the players, they need to play against each other and develop because, I mean, you want to play against the best to become the best, right?"
While the PWHPA tries to raise the profile of the women's game, and seeks sponsors to help get a true professional league off the ground, Boissonnault is also moving ahead on her Olympic dream.
She has been invited to be part of Hockey Canada's National Development team but will have to compete with 10 other goalies to get a spot on Team Canada for the Beijing Olympics in 2022.
"I'm just playing and taking every day as being better than the day before," Boissonnault said. "I mean it's not about seeing a deadline or seeing some sort of end date.
"It's more about always becoming better, so that whenever I do retire, whenever I do end my career, that I'm going to be able to say, 'Hey, I gave it all I've got. And I became the very best player I could be.'"
Until then, she hopes she and hundreds of other elite female hockey players in this country will find a place to play that includes more than a free roll of tape in the dressing room and ensure a future for the young women coming behind them.
"We are fighting for them to have a future and for them to be able to dream of playing hockey as a career and for the little girls to be able to have those people, those role models, to look up to."