It would be safe to say Eve Gascon is wise beyond her 18 years. That comes with the territory when you embark on a path in hockey that requires as steep a learning curve as hers.
For Gascon, who in 2018 became the first female player to earn a spot on a boys’ Major Under-18 squad with the College Esther-Blondin Phenix, that on-the-job training continues this week as an invitee to rookie camp with the Gatineau Olympiques.
The native of Terrebonne, Quebec is the fourth female in the history of the league to receive such an invitation. For Olympiques Head Coach and GM Louis Robitaille, the decision was a logical one.
“We had her on our radar last year,” Robitaille explained of Gascon, who was overlooked in both the 2020 and 2021 QMJHL Drafts. “When it came to the training camp roster, we wanted to bring another goalie to make sure we had good depth and competition. I felt Eve would be a great selection. She was just coming off a great camp with Hockey Canada. We were really honored and excited to have her accept our invitation and make Gatineau one of the stops on her hockey dream.”
Gascon, who helped lead Team Canada to silver at the 2020 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship, was not expecting the call from the “Q”. However, it hasn’t taken her long to adjust, both mentally and physically.
“I had no idea (the Olympiques were interested)”, she admits. “I was just getting back from Hockey Canada camp and wasn’t really thinking about it, especially after not being drafted the last two years. I was very excited to receive this invitation.”
“(Camp has) been good,” she goes on to say. “The game is faster (at this level) but I think I’ve performed great the first couple of days. I’m really excited to continue.”
Robitaille gladly expands on Gascon’s modest self-assessment.
“I’m really impressed by her calm, her professionalism,” he observes. “In our first intrasquad game, you could tell she was a bit nervous at the start but after a couple of shots, she seemed to calm down and kept her team in the game. I’m happy for her that she had a good first outing. Let’s not kid ourselves, there was pressure there. She’s playing really well and showing that she deserves to be here.”
For Gascon, who like so many others saw their 2020-21 season wiped out by the Covid-19 pandemic, the sense of nervousness is tempered by excitement to return to some sense of normalcy in the game she loves.
“I missed hockey a lot this past year,” she said. “It was a tough time mentally for me. It’s been great to get back on the ice, both with male and female players.”
Hockey will continue to be a central part of Gascon’s life beyond her time in Gatineau. Already committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth for 2022, she will gladly add her time with the ‘Piques – not to mention the notoriety she’s gained from it – to an already impressive resume.
“There’s been a lot of attention on her since she got here but she doesn’t want to be here for that,” Robitaille says. “She wants to be a goalie and to prove that she wants to be here. To be able to focus and perform as she has on the ice, despite all the noise around, is a credit to her.”
“I know this is the second time going through this for me (after making her debut at the major under-18 level) but it still feels a little weird,” Gascon admits. “The Olympiques organization has really helped me a lot through this. I feel it’s a great opportunity for both myself and other female players to prove that we can play with the boys. This attention isn’t just for me, it’s for female hockey.”
Helping Gascon gain this perspective is a person who is no stranger to elite level hockey fans.
It’s been more than two decades since Charline Labonte made history as the first, and to date only, female to earn a victory in a Canadian Hockey League regular season contest while tending goal for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. The former Team Canada Olympic gold medalist has been a wealth of information and support as Gascon embarks on her own adventure in the “Q”.
“Charlene has been so great to me,” Gascon proclaims. “She’s very important to my life. She told me to enjoy the moment and to stay in the present and just keep working hard. She knows that I should be here and not just for the (publicity).”
Robitaille, who was a player in the QMJHL at the same time as Labonte and considers her a good friend, sees Gascon’s invitation as a potential milestone for other females aiming to find their way to junior hockey’s highest level.
“We hoped there would’ve been more in that time span (since Labonte was in the league),” he says. “However, with the increased visibility of women’s hockey in recent times, maybe we’ll see more in the coming years. Eve’s here proving she can hold her ground with the guys on our team. Hopefully it’ll open up more opportunities.”
At the same time, the base requirement that all athletes require to succeed, and which Gascon possesses in abundance, is not lost on Robitaille.
“It comes down to whether or not you’re ready to perform at this or any level,” he opines. “Eve’s a great example. She’s not the biggest goalie but she has athleticism, hockey IQ, and she has competitiveness. That’s what you expect out of any athlete, man or woman. She’s proving it with us here.”
And how does Gascon self-reflect on strapping on the pads in the QMJHL?
“I know if I was younger and I saw something like this happen, it would’ve made a difference (for me),” she replies. “It sends that message about working hard and never giving up.”
Hopefully, it also sends a message that the days of females earning their way onto historically male hockey rosters becomes more the norm than the exception.