Erin Ambrose will never forget the day her hockey career in Montreal came to an abrupt end.
It was March 31, 2019 when Ambrose and the rest of the women who toiled in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) found out their league was going to shut down, leaving them with nowhere to play professional hockey.
Ambrose moved to Montreal in late 2017 after being cut from the Canadian women’s Olympic team. Her time with Les Canadiennes became a turning point in her career, a sanctuary of sorts.
“It changed my life around, both as a hockey player and as a person,” Ambrose said.
And it will be in Montreal that Ambrose will play professional hockey again, in a league where she’ll be able to make a living doing so. Ambrose was selected by the Montreal team in the new Professional Women’s Hockey League on Monday at the league’s first-ever draft. She’s one of 90 players selected on a day that felt like a new beginning in the world of professional women’s hockey.
She became the first defender taken by the team, a power-play quarterback who will get to ply her trade with arguably the best player in the world, Marie-Philip Poulin.
“This is one of the happiest days of my career as a professional hockey player,” Ambrose said. “To be able to say that is very, very exciting. I haven’t gotten emotional yet but I think it will happen at some point today.”
Ambrose played hockey with boys growing up in Keswick, Ont., only shifting to girls’ hockey in high school. She watched some of the boys she grew up get drafted and go on to NHL careers.
WATCH | Erin Ambrose reacts to being drafted by Montreal:
On Monday, she finally had her own draft moment. Walking on the purple carpet lined with fans, she saw children wearing team jackets for hockey teams she played against growing up.
“Those are the people that we truly want to impact the most,” she said.
Six picks into the draft, Ambrose heard her name called. With a wide grin, she posed for a picture with Billie Jean King, holding a commemorative hockey stick. The Montreal team does not have a name or logo yet.
After the draft, she planned to go out to celebrate with Sarah Nurse, first overall pick Taylor Heise and some family. For her, it wouldn’t just be about celebrating her own selection, but a big moment in the growth of the sport.
“This is the start of something pretty great in women’s hockey,” she said. “I’m very honoured to be a part of it.”
Jill Saulnier was at the draft’s snack table when she was selected by New York in the seventh round.
She had just congratulated one of her best friends, Jessie Eldridge, who was drafted to the same city a few rounds earlier, when she heard her name called.
“I’m so excited,” Saulnier said a few minutes later. “The names that are on that roster and the staff they have are absolutely incredible.”
Like Ambrose, Saulnier played in the CWHL and when it folded, she wasn’t sure where or if she’d get the chance to play professionally again.
For the last week, Saulnier was at Hockey Canada’s national team training camp. But the draft was lingering in the back of her mind. Saulnier’s been playing professional hockey since 2015, but she’s never experienced a draft where players didn’t know where they’d be picked.
Growing up in Halifax, Saulnier dreamed of playing for the Montreal Canadiens. When she had a chance to see the Canadian national team compete in the world championship in her home city in 2004, the dream of making the Canadian Olympic team felt more real.
On Monday, she achieved another dream; one she couldn’t have imagined growing up playing on a homemade rink in Halifax.
“I have my gold medal, which was the pinnacle for me in my life dream,” she said. “Now I have another pinnacle in my life dream and I’m 31 years old. I woke up not knowing that this morning.”
Saulnier’s first hug after hearing her name called was with her New York teammate Eldridge. But her first call? That would be to her parents back in Nova Scotia, followed by her brother, Brennan, who plays professionally in Belleville, Ont.
“Now we’re closer together. I’ll have to make the trip.”
Staying in Montreal
Ann-Sophie Bettez played professional hockey in Montreal in the CWHL and the Premier Hockey Federation, a league that was sold and shut down earlier this summer.
She’s spent the last few months eagerly awaiting details of a draft that would determine whether she gets to pull on a Montreal jersey again.
On Monday, Bettez was drafted to Montreal’s PWHL franchise in the 14th round. At first, Bettez, who’s in the middle of a move in Montreal, missed the news. Her parents delivered the good news that she won’t have to move again.
“Having my family near, they will be able to come and watch me play,” she said.
It’s a fitting next chapter for the 35-year-old Bettez, who was most recently the captain of La Force in the PHF, but who started her career at a time when women weren’t paid to play professional hockey. She’s worked as a financial planner for the last 10 years, meeting clients around her hockey schedule.
In the new league, the players will make a minimum of $35,000 US, with an average salary of $55,000. The players’ collective bargaining agreement also includes a housing stipend, among other benefits, that players like Bettez could only dream of a decade ago.
“This is the biggest change that has ever happened in women’s hockey,” Bettez said of the new league’s creation.
More than 260 women declared for the PWHL draft, but only 90 names were called on Monday. The rest will still have a chance to play in the league. They can sign a contract or agree to a tryout, with camps beginning in November.