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CALGARY — For the first time in a long time in Canada, women tossed their gloves and sticks on the ice and mobbed their goaltender in celebration Sunday.
The COVID-19 pandemic had kept the 60 players in the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association's Secret Cup from playing in meaningful hockey games in over a year.
Marie-Philip Poulin scored the game-winner in the third period for Montreal's Bauer in a 4-2 win over Toronto's Sonnet to claim the Secret Cup in Calgary.
The captain of the Canadian women's hockey team also had two assists for a three-point night.
"It's been a long time for women's hockey," Poulin said. "It felt pretty special."
The cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 women's world hockey championships in Nova Scotia and pandemic restrictions across the country making it difficult for PWHPA players to practise, let alone play games, created a women's hockey desert in Canada.
Hockey Canada still intends to host a women's world championship in Canada in late August in a city yet to be named.
The PWHPA staging a seven-day, mid-spring tournament under tight protocols salvaged the season for Canada's top talent in women's hockey.
Sportsnet broadcast the final three games of the tournament and streamed all seven.
"You see how hard these women work," said PWHPA operations consultant and Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford.
"They have been beaten down and beaten down with challenges, with difficult news and obviously COVID. So to be able to do something for them and get them back on the ice, I think that was a huge priority.
"It's really important people could see our women compete. Women have been disproportionately affected by COVID in so many ways and that certainly also relates to women's sport."
The PWHPA rose from the collapse of the Canadian Women's Hockey League two years ago.
The goal of the movement, which includes Canadian and U.S. national-team stars, is a sustainable women's professional league that provides the competitive supports the men's pros get, as well as a living wage.
"Playing for this logo is different than playing for any other logo that we've worn in our entire careers," Toronto forward Brianne Jenner said. "(We're) pushing for a brighter future in our sport."
The PWHPA held a series of showcase tournaments and games in 2019-20 on both sides of the border under the banner of the Dream Gap Tour to garner support for their cause.
The American chapter was able to run three tournaments in New York, Chicago and St. Louis earlier in 2021. Canada's pandemic restrictions kept the puck from dropping until this week.
The Secret Cup offered the first elite women's hockey games in Canada since a PWHPA tournament in Toronto in January 2020.
The three teams from Toronto, Montreal and Calgary played a double round-robin in both the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex on the Tsuu'tina Nation near Calgary and the Saddledome, which is the home of the NHL's Flames.
Montreal (3-1-0) and Toronto (2-2-0) advanced to Sunday's championship game. Calgary's Scotiabank finished 1-3-0.
Forty-eight participants had played on a national women's team at some point in their careers and 21 were among 28 invited to congregate in Calgary in July to try out for Canada's 2022 Olympic team.
Jesse Eldridge had a goal and an assist, Catherine Dubois also scored and Sarah Lefort added an empty-net goal for Montreal. Goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens made 28 saves in the win.
Poulin led Secret Cup scoring with five goals and six assists in five games.
The score tied 2-2 heading into the third, Toronto couldn't produce a go-ahead goal from a pair of power-play chances early.
Poulin one-timed an Eldridge pass from the mid-boards for the game-winner at 14:28 of the third.
Sarah Nurse had a goal and an assist and Jenner also scored for Toronto. Shea Tiley had 19 saves in the loss.
"After 14 months of no competitive games, to have a week like this, to finish at the Saddledome and to finish with such a tight game on TV, it's a win," Jenner said.
"Despite the loss today, I think everyone felt pretty grateful to be a part of this week."
Montreal was able to skate together more as a group this winter than Toronto and Calgary.
Because Montreal's group included 17 players in the national women's hockey team pool, Bauer obtained an exemption from the Quebec government to practise regularly.
The PWHPA adopted Hockey Canada's quarantine and testing protocols used at this year's world junior men's hockey championship.
No one tested positive for COVID-19 during the tournament, Hefford said.
"Credit to the players for doing what they needed to do to make sure we could pull this off," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2021.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press