MONTREAL - Goaltending coach Roland Melanson had a surprise for the Montreal Canadiens at practice on Thursday - a two-time Olympic gold medallist filling in for sick goalie Carey Price.
That much-decorated athlete was Kim St-Pierre, surely the first woman ever to take the ice with the Canadiens.
St-Pierre did not look out of place as she and back-up goaltender Jaroslav Halak faced NHL shots in a succession of drills at Denis Savard Arena
And she found the perfect double-entendre to describe the experience - priceless.
"Mike Komisarek asked me if it's like women's hockey and I said not at all- it's so different," said 29-year-old St-Pierre. "They're so powerful. Their quick release is amazing. It was quite something.
"I wasn't scared either, because I was so into it. I don't get to practice with the Montreal Canadiens every day. I dreamed of one day playing in the NHL. I know it's not possible any more, but just to get to practise with them was something that I will cherish."
Price missed practice for a second day with the flu, but is expected back on Friday. Coach Guy Carbonneau said it was "very doubtful" that Price will play Saturday but he should be fit to back up Halak against the visiting Anaheim Ducks.
When Price reported sick, St-Pierre got a call from Canadiens trainer Scott Livingstone at the suggestion of Melanson, who has worked with her in summer hockey camps. She was about to go on the ice with her club team, the Montreal Stars of the National Women's Hockey League, when the call came.
"I said `sorry girls, but I think I'd like to try something different this morning,' and I'm so glad I came because it was such an experience," said St. Pierre, who wore her Stars jersey with the number 33 for her idol Patrick Roy in the Canadiens practice.
It wasn't the first time the Chateauguay, Que., native has faced men on the ice.
St-Pierre played the 2003-04 season for the McGill University men's varsity team, the Redmen, and became the first woman goalie to win a regular season CIS game in a 5-2 victory over Ryerson on Nov. 15, 2003.
Her record that season was 1-1-0. She allowed six goals on 54 shots for a 3.02 goals-against average and an .889 save percentage.
Other women goalies have played high level men's hockey, including Manon Rheaume, who once played in a pre-season game for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Lesley Redden, who played two periods for the University of New Brunswick in the mid-1990s.
"She was great," said Carbonneau. "I thought she hung in there pretty well. I don't think anybody put less velocity on their shots. They tested her and she stood in there. It was good to see."
Carbonneau said he wouldn't hestitate to call her in again if the need arises.
"I hated as a player having only one goalie for practice and it's even worse as a coach," he said.
Early in the 90-minute session, it was clear that players were letting up a little on their shots. But then Alex Kovalev whipped a wrist shot past her ear and Francis Bouillon blasted a slapshot that just missed her mask and pinged off the crossbar.
"Bad ice" an apologetic Bouillon said of his shot.
St-Pierre didn't flinch.
"As the practice went on, the guys shot harder and harder," said winger Steve Begin. "At the start, maybe guys were a little nervous, they didn't want to be the one to hit her in the mask.
"But by about halfway through, the guys weren't letting up on their shots. She faced some good shots. She's a good goalie."
St-Pierre won gold with the Canadian women's team at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. She also has five gold and two silver medals at women's world championships.
Her Olympic haul equals the entire the Canadiens team. Only defenceman Roman Hamrlik and centre Robert Lang, both members of the Czech team at the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan, have Olympic gold medals.
"We all respect what she's done," said Komisarek. "She's a well-established goalie. She's a tremendous athlete and it was great having her out with us."
Also missing from practice was winger Andrei Kostitsyn, who is still recovering from being knocked cold by a hit from Phoenix defenceman Kurt Sauer last week. Carbonneau said he is evaluated from day to day and appears to be making progress.
Christopher Higgins returned to practice for the first time since Saturday and said he felt no pain from the groin injury that caused him to miss the Canadiens' first six regular season games.
Both are unlikely to play on Saturday.
"We'll see how Chris reacts (on Friday) and if it's good, we'll push a little harder and go on like that until he's able to play a game," said Carbonneau.
While he recovers, Higgins is beset by rumours of an impending trade.
"It's frustrating because there's nothing I can do about it," said Higgins. "I can't let my play indicate how I feel about it because I'm not playing.
"I could show you guys how much I want to stay here if I was playing."
Defenceman Andrei Markov returned after taking Wednesday off to visit a dentist.