‘I don’t want it in Toronto’: PWHL Montreal eager to break women’s hockey attendance record

Ann-Renée Desbiens isn’t comfortable with Toronto holding the attendance record for a women’s hockey game.

The goalie for Montreal’s Professional Women’s Hockey League team believes the title should belong to her home province.

And Toronto’s rival city.

“I want it in Montreal. I don’t want it in Toronto,” Desbiens said without hesitation Wednesday at the Verdun Auditorium. “Any time Montreal can beat Toronto in any area of life, I’m pretty happy about it.”

Toronto set the attendance record of 19,285 when its PWHL club hosted Montreal at Scotiabank Arena on Feb. 16.

Montreal, much to Desbiens’s delight, will have a chance to raise the bar even higher after the league announced her team would host Toronto on April 20 — a Saturday — at the Bell Centre, home of the NHL’s Canadiens, in a game being dubbed as the “Duel at the Top.”

Desbiens might consider setting her phone to “do not disturb” given the high level of interest.

“Started ringing pretty quickly with people looking for tickets. I was like, ‘There are 20,000 available, try to find some yourself,”‘ deadpanned the netminder from Clermont, Que. “But really, everyone’s excited to be there, to come support us.

“To have that kind of platform is a pleasure.”

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Montreal alternate captains Laura Stacey of Kleinburg, Ont., and Erin Ambrose of Keswick, Ont., grew up bleeding blue for the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, and with that came a dislike for Montreal and the Canadiens.

Stacey’s roots go even deeper. Her grandfather, King Clancy, played for the Leafs in the 1930s and her family still has season tickets.

Despite how special it was to set the current record in Toronto, Ambrose said Scotiabank Arena can’t compare to the Bell Centre’s “electric” atmosphere on a Saturday night.

“I’ll even say it as a Toronto Maple Leafs fan,” Ambrose said of the Montreal venue that can accommodate more than 21,000 fans. “Scotiabank Arena doesn’t even come close. The fans in Montreal are way louder and way more electric.”

Stacey said the chance to set another attendance record transcends the historic rivalry.

Whether it’s Montreal or Toronto, she views the moment as a victory for women’s hockey and a sign of the PWHL’s success in the circuit’s inaugural season.

“When you’re breaking records of this sort, it’s more than just Montreal versus Toronto — it’s for women’s hockey,” Stacey said. “It’s just another testament to this league — what we’ve created — but also where it’s going.

“One day we want the records to kind of be the norm.”

‘It’s gonna be epic’

The Bell Centre will be the sixth NHL rink to host a PWHL game after Ottawa and Boston play Saturday at Detroit’s Little Caesar’s Arena. Toronto and Montreal — tied atop the league standings heading into Wednesday’s action — then face off Sunday at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena.

Montreal has already played before four of the top-five crowds this season. The novelty won’t wear off before April 20.

“It’s gonna be epic,” Ambrose said. “You look at Scotiabank Arena and how full it was, and I can’t wait to be able to say that Montreal can beat that.

“Hopefully the fans buy tickets real quick and we sell this thing out.”

Poulin still day-to-day

Montreal captain Marie-Philip Poulin remains day-to-day after missing practice on Wednesday. Poulin was kept out of last Sunday’s game against Ottawa for preventive measures and her status for this weekend is unclear.

General manager Daniele Sauvageau says Montreal is being careful with a busy schedule ahead. Poulin is also expected to captain Canada at the world championships from April 3 to 14 in Utica, NY.

“She’s done the all-star game, she’s done the Rivalry Series, and there’s a world championship coming up,” Sauvageau said. “As a PWHL general manager I could say ‘we won’t consider the world championships’ but you don’t know me very well if you think I’d see it that way.

“We need to be careful with our players on a regular basis, and if we need to pull them from a game to ensure the rest of the season will be OK, I’ll never hesitate to do that.”

Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis often refers to his players finding the “right chair” — as in role and situation — to thrive.

Sauvageau has a similar analogy for newly signed reserve player Mikyla Grant-Mentis, who was released by Ottawa on Feb. 18.

“I often say ‘we’re all flowers but sometimes we’re not in the right pot,”‘ she said. “Sometimes we find ourselves in the sun, or the shade, more water, less water.”

Grant-Mentis, a former Premier Hockey Federation MVP, had three assists in six games for Ottawa this season. The 25-year-old produced 63 points in 51 games in the PHF.

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