National team vet Larocque 'grateful' as new women's hockey era begins

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Jocelyne Larocque has played in gold medal finals at the Olympics on multiple occasions. The same goes for title games at multiple world championships. 

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In short, she is no stranger to big games and big moments.

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On Monday at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, she will add another moment to a long and successful hockey career when she takes the ice for the first PWHL game as a leader of the Toronto PWHL club.

Every woman who takes the ice, whether it’s Monday in the season opener between host Toronto and visiting New York or at any of the first games for the other four clubs that make up the PWHL, will have her own moment as they reflect on their path to this momentous occasion in sport.

Never before has a league of this kind of professional calibre been an option for women in hockey.

Larocque knows that full well, having grown up in Ste. Anne, Man., hearing the taunts or being teased for openly expressing her desire to one day play professional hockey.

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Back then it was the NHL and Larocque assumed her talent would get her there. But now, finally, at the age of 35, Larocque and 155 other women with similar dreams will see them play out as the PWHL officially begins in Toronto on Monday and afterward in Ottawa, Montreal, New York, Boston and Minneapolis over the next couple of weeks.

“I haven’t really thought about where it ranks,” Larocque said, looking ahead to puck drop on Monday following a practice at Mattamy Athletic Centre, “but for sure top five. Top three, honestly.”

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Firsts are nothing new to Larocque, whose career has been full of them. Like everyone else, she had her own first time as a member of the national team, followed by first wins and first medals, but Larocque was also the first Indigenous woman to compete in the Olympic hockey tournament.

But right there with any of those firsts, including that first gold medal she helped win for Canada in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, will be puck drop on Monday.

“Playing professional hockey is something I have dreamt about my whole life and when I was a kid I dreamt of playing in the NHL and now young girls can have that dream the same as the boys and they are not going to get made fun of or teased. So (Monday will be) something that I know my younger self would be screaming ecstatically and honestly I feel the same way now. I’m so happy and so excited and I feel grateful for the team that I am on.”

Larocque counts herself fortunate to have landed a spot on Toronto’s roster, the roster Team Canada general manager Gina Kingsbury and her national team head coach Troy Ryan selected.

Playing for that duo has always been easy for Larocque because they see the game the same way she does.

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“It is nice because I have enjoyed my time with the national team thoroughly and especially in these last three, four, five or six years with people like Troy and Gina,” she said. “They emphasize connections with people. They emphasize being a good teammate and being a good person.  They emphasize working hard and praising people for that work ethic and those are all things that I truly believe in and I value. To have the leaders believe and value the same things you do makes it pretty easy to play for.”

Larocque admitted she didn’t need to be part of this league. She absolutely wanted to and hoped beyond hope it would come to fruition in time for her to be a part of it, but it wasn’t a need per se.

“I don’t know if I needed it, but I feel grateful and happy that I get it,” she said. “Hockey is a big part of my life, but it’s not the only part of my life, so it’s one of those things if my body couldn’t have held up, I probably would have been a little disappointed and sad and a little jealous of what I get to experience now. But I would have been happy either way, you know, just because it is happening.”

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The four-year wait for the PWHL was hard. There were plenty of moments where Larocque and many others thought the idea might never get off the ground.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just miss the boat,’” she said. “I thought that for a couple of years. But I feel really fortunate to be a part of the first-ever game, the first-ever true professional league, so yeah, I just feel super honoured and grateful.”

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Larocque has played in plenty of leagues that had semblances of a professional outfit, but not a truly professional league until now.

“I played in the CWHL for numerous years and I knew things had to be different,” she said. “The calibre of play was there. It was professional in that sense, but in no other sense was it professional, so we knew it would take time. COVID didn’t help, obviously, and there were people way worse off with COVID, but that’s just a fact, so we knew it would take time. We didn’t know it would be this many years. But things that are worthwhile and things that are done right take time, so we knew that. We had to be patient, but that didn’t mean being patient was easy. It was really hard.

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“It was a lot of years of not being part of a team and that is the most fun thing about hockey. The camaraderie with your teammates is huge and we just didn’t have that. We were kind of a team of 150 athletes pushing towards the same thing, but it’s not quite the same thing as we get to experience day to day playing with the same players, developing those relationships and just being a part of something bigger than yourself.”

Larocque has that again and it’s been written all over her face for months.

“It’s everything that I dreamt of and more and the fact that it all really starts tomorrow, I mean, I’ve just been smiling every day,” she said.

Puck drop is 12:30 p.m.

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