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Sports Quebec women poised to soar on world stage in 2022

07:05  08 january  2022
07:05  08 january  2022 Source:   montrealgazette.com

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With the National Hockey League taking a pass on the Beijing Winter Olympics, the Canada-United States women’s hockey rivalry is poised to grab the spotlight.

Canada's Chloé Dufour-Lapointe competes in qualifying for a World Cup freestyle skiing moguls event in Mont-Tremblant on Jan. 7, 2022. © Provided by The Gazette Canada's Chloé Dufour-Lapointe competes in qualifying for a World Cup freestyle skiing moguls event in Mont-Tremblant on Jan. 7, 2022.

Canada and the United States have dominated the competition since women’s hockey made its debut at the 1998 Nagano Games in Japan. Canada has won four of the six gold medals and finished second to the U.S. on the other two occasions, including the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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Before it was brought to a halt by the pandemic, the Rivalry Series, a barnstorming tour of North America, had produced standing-room only crowds as well as strong TV ratings. When Beauceville’s Marie-Philip Poulin scored in overtime on Dec. 18 to give Canada a 4-2 edge in the series, there were more fans watching the women on TSN than the two NHL games on TSN and Sportsnet.

The challenge for women’s hockey is to build on the interest generated by the Olympics to provide the top women’s players in the world with an opportunity to earn a living from hockey.

“Our goal is to create a league which will allow women to play hockey without having to hold down a full-time job outside hockey,” said Jayna Hefford, a four-time Olympic gold medallist who is the operations consultant for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). “We’re not talking about million-dollar contracts, but we need a sustainable league which provides reasonable salaries, benefits and insurance.”

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The best players from both sides of the Canada-U.S. border have united in an effort to make that dream come true. The PWHPA has joined forces with Secret deodorant, Sonnet Insurance and other sponsors to create the Dream Gap Tour that recently wrapped up its 2021 schedule.

Hefford said the PWHPA is working on dates for the 2022 Dream Gap Tour to take advantage of the interest generated by the Olympic Games, but the ultimate goal is to have a league of their own and that might require support from the NHL, which is dealing with its own problems in the age of COVID-19.

 Team Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin skates between Team U.S.A. Jincy Dunne and Hannah Brandt during their exhibition game in Maryland Heights, Missouri, on Dec. 17, 2021. © JONATHAN ERNST Team Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin skates between Team U.S.A. Jincy Dunne and Hannah Brandt during their exhibition game in Maryland Heights, Missouri, on Dec. 17, 2021.

The women’s hockey tournament won’t be the only show in town during the Olympics. There are several Quebec women poised to win medals in Beijing.

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Kim Boutin, a Sherbrooke native who trains at the national short-track speedskating training centre at the Maurice Richard Arena, is the favourite in the 500-metre event and will lead the relay team. Boutin earned a silver medal and two bronze medals at the 2018 Olympics. She was undefeated last year at 500 metres and is the only woman to go under 42 seconds in the event. Canada will be looking for revenge in the relay, an often-chaotic affair that can resemble roller derby. In 2018, Canada failed to win a medal in the event for the first time after getting bumped by the host South Koreans.

Mont-Tremblant’s Brittany Phelan showed that she has recovered from a devastating knee injury when she finished second at a World Cup ski cross event at Val Thorens, France, in early December. Phelan, who won a silver medal in ski cross in Pyeongchang, is making a comeback after multiple surgeries to repair damage she suffered in an accident during a competition in Megève, France, in 2020.

Her major competition at Beijing will come from Marielle Thompson of Whistler, B.C., who is also returning to form after knee surgery.

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The Dufour-Lapointe sisters from Montreal are poised to win more hardware in the freestyle skiing moguls event. Justine, the youngest of three to represent Canada at the Olympics, won the gold medal at Sochi in 2014, finishing ahead of her older sister Chloé. Justine added a silver medal in 2018.

Olivia Asselin, a 17-year-old from Lac-Beauport, will be competing in the slopestyle big air event. Her best years may be ahead of her, but she has been on the national team since she was 15 and has several top-10 finishes on the World Cup circuit.

For two decades beginning in the 1980s, Canada dominated freestyle aerials and was led by a group dubbed the Quebec Air Force, but there are only two Quebecers on the current national team, Lewis Irving from Quebec City and Marion Thénault from Sherbrooke. The 21-year-old Thénault has made steady progress since she was discovered at an RBC Training Ground event in 2017. A former gymnast and trampolinist, Thénault won a World Cup competition last winter in Kazakhstan, finished third overall in the World Cup standings and was the rookie of the year.

Moving away from the Olympics, teenage tennis star Leylah Fernandez is looking to build on her success after winning her first WTA title and reaching the final of the U.S. Open last year. The Laval native has the ranking and the money to play in all the major events and the only possible impediment is another pandemic-driven shutdown.

phickey@postmedia.com

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