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Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, the paradox

Lisa-MarieWhen I first talked to Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, I was writing a story on playoff predictions for the CWHL website last year. I was struck by her gracious manner. Her warmth radiated through the phone lines.

That’s why I was a bit surprised a few weeks later to see the Montreal Stars captain use her physical strength so aggressively to help her team clinch the first-ever Clarkson Cup at the inaugural Canadian Women’s National Hockey Championships.

But that’s the paradox of Breton-Lebreux. She’s one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet off the ice. On the ice, not so much. At least not if you consider penalty minutes.

At 5’3”, she’s not tall but weight lifting makes her a powerful force. As the strength and conditioning coach at Concordia University, she specializes in the kind of workouts that enable her to fight for the puck and win.

“I love the physical play — sometimes too much as I am usually one of the leading players in penalty minutes on my team. But I get my penalties because of too much intensity, so they’re not a bad thing. They set the tone for the game,” says Breton-Lebreux.

She certainly set the tone at last year’s Clarkson Cup.

Breton-Lebreux isn’t just the captain, she’s also the general manger and public relations coordinator for the Montreal Stars. Given her work ethic, passion and leadership in the sport, it was only fitting that her team’s name was the first engraved on the cup.

 “After working so hard all these years in the weight room, on the ice, practicing the same thing for hours and hours, helping to make the CWHL work and the Montreal Stars survive, I finally felt complete,” says Breton-Lebreux.

“I felt that all this work had a purpose and final destination.”

For a full profile on Breton-Lebreux, visit www.cwhl.ca.

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The humour and humility of Gillian Ferrari

GillianShe’s known as the  funniest player in the Team Canada dressing room. But the humble, gracious hockey player I interviewed  takes her hockey career very seriously.

Unlike some of the young girls on Team Canada, the 29-year-old remembers when her parents tried to sign her up for hockey and the Community Centre insisted she take figure skating. The year she finally started hockey was the year after Justine Blainey won a court case allowing girls to play on boys’ hockey teams. And she remembers the verbal abuse she took for playing.

“I can actually remember one time playing in a game and a mother came down from the stands and said ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this, you’re an embarrassment,'” says Ferrari. 

Ferrari remembers watching historical events for women’s hockey such as  the famous 1990 National game in Ottawa, known as the “pink jersey” game and the first Four Nations Cup (then the Three Nations Cup) in 1996. When she watched these early games, she began to think that a future in women’s hockey might be a possibility for her. 

FERRARI_039She remembers idolizing the likes of Angela James and Cheryl Pounder, not knowing that some day she would play on the same team as her hockey heroes. 

“I always wanted to put on the jersey. But I never thought I would go to the Olympics,” says Ferrari. “The more I got to see how good the girls were the less of a chance I thought I had to make the team.” 

But her strengths as a gritty, level-headed, experienced defenceman with a great shot from the point earned her a spot. Her trophy case includes a gold medal from the 2006 Olympics and two golds and two silvers from four world championships. While she’s centralized with the Olympic team this year, she normally plays for the Calgary Oval X-Treme. Still, with all that experience under her belt, she considers herself a “bubble” player. 

“Every skill is a challenge for me,” she laughs. “I’m always working on something. I’m not one of those players that everything comes easy.”

“But I don’t get too nervous. I don’t really panic. I’m sure sometimes [Charline] Labonte thinks I should be panicking more.” Another laugh. “But I don’t usually get us into bad situations. And I’m a good teammate.”

Despite her  lighthearted manner, it’s clear that the day she was picked for her first Olympic team is no joking matter. Telling the story of when coach Melody Davidson called her in to give her the news, she gets choked up and wipes away a few tears. 

It’s also clear she takes the significance of wearing the Team Canada jersey very seriously. Her solemn reflections on the history of women’s hockey reveal the respect she has for the pioneers of the game. 

“I wish more young girls understood how far women’s hockey has come. Through my generation — not through my work — but through the work of people like Geraldine Heaney, Angela James,  Heather Ginzel, France Montour, Vicky Sunohara. All of those people broke down those barriers and now we have women’s hockey at the Olympics. You speak to young girls and they didn’t know it wasn’t an Olympic sport or there wasn’t a world championship.”

“I think it’s important we remember those people and what they did for women’s hockey.”

Interview photo: Bonnie Tice; headshot: hockeycanada.ca

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Monday’s Canada-U.S.A fight

Up until now, I’ve stayed out of debates about fighting in hockey. Although I understand the role it plays, I just don’t like watching fights. I’d rather watch hockey. Plus, most NHL fights feel pretty staged.

The fight between Team Canada and Team U.S.A. Monday night wasn’t staged. It was explosive and messy.  

I’ve made it  clear in other posts that I admire the women on Team Canada for their integrity and work ethic. Now I’m trying to decide if I feel differently after watching Monday’s fight.

After all, one of the reasons I like taking my six- and eight-year-old daughters to women’s hockey games instead of OHL games is that I don’t like them seeing blood on the ice. I love that my daughters play hockey and have such admirable role models in female hockey stars. I want my daughters to learn that female strength can be poured into constructive, honourable pursuits. I don’t think female strength means fighting.

I get the extraordinary passion it takes to play on the national team. It’s these players’ whole lives; it’s the culmination of years of dreaming and sacrifice. And hockey is a battle. If every fibre of your body, mind and soul are in tune with the intensity of the game, it’s bound to bubble over at some point and get physical.

But I still don’t want my daughters to fight. I don’t want their role models to fight, either.

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Ottawa Senators goaltender Robyn Rittmaster

RobynI just finished writing a profile on Ottawa Senators netminder Robyn Rittmaster for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League web column “Who’s under the equipment.”

Her resume includes being last cut from Canada’s 1999 U22 National Team, winning two CIAU national hockey championships with the University of Alberta and — get this — capturing a CIAU national soccer championship with the University of Calgary as the team’s striker.

Now that the Nova Scotia native is with the Ottawa Senators, Rittmaster is known for her quick feet and overall athleticism, thanks in part to years of elite soccer. The Sens played their season opener last night against the Vaughan Flames at the Bell Sensplex in Ottawa, Ontario.

Find last night’s game results and the full story on Rittmaster on the CWHL website.

Photo credit: Krista Windsor

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Sarah Vaillancourt’s consummate drive

Sarah Vaillancourt

Four years is an epoch in Sarah Vaillancourt’s life.

It’s about 6,000 hours of workouts and hockey practices. It’s the difference between being a young Quebecois phenom and a Harvard team captain with a Patty Kazmaier award. And it’s the length of time between winning gold in Turin as a rookie and heading into Vancouver 2010 with a bigger role to play on Team Canada.

“In 2006 I was the second youngest on the team with no Olympic experience. I was on the ‘kid line’ and so proud to be there. I didn’t have the maturity or physical strength to be part of the power play or penalty kill,” says Vaillancourt. “I know I’ve changed and I can take on more in 2010.”

That may seem like a short period of time to go from being a rookie to a leader. But when your core traits are intensity and drive, a lot can change in a short period of time.

For instance, when Vaillancourt started playing hockey in her Sherbrooke, Quebec minor league at the tender age of five, she was moved up age divisions almost immediately because she was skating circles around the boys. And at only 15, she made Team Quebec and brought home a silver medal. When she was 18 years old, she barely spoke English, but only two years later she was pulling off straight A’s as a Harvard student, despite missing classes for weeks at a time while she played with Team Canada.

But the desire to play hockey and play it well has always been the overwhelming force in Vaillancourt’s life.

“When I was eight years old, I would make up dryland workouts for myself that I thought would improve my game. Whether it was on the driveway, in the garage or on a tiny pond at my cottage, it was always hockey. I just wanted to get better,” says Vaillancourt.

That hasn’t changed. Vaillancourt says that these days, the main role of her personal trainer is to stop her from pushing herself too hard in workouts.

Speaking of pushing hard, what does Vaillancourt think it’s going to take to win gold in Vancouver?

“Even more work than 2006. It’s more than working hard. It’s almost killing yourself out there. But I’m really confident in our team.”

Vaillancourt seems to have no trouble with confidence. Her confidence is the kind that’s given her the ability to captain boys’ teams and perform at a higher level than most athletes in the same age group. She won’t tell me her best move, but she hints that it involves a toe drag. She cites as her strengths the ability to see the ice, use all her players and know where to go when she doesn’t have the puck.

She says that better positioning is how to take your game to the next level, whether you’re playing at an elite level or playing in a beer league. Her advice is that when you watch hockey on TV, really watch it. Examine breakouts and regroups and what the players are doing when they don’t have the puck. When rec players know where to be, it makes the game more fun.

Vaillancourt doesn’t feel like a celebrity but she does like that Team Canada is famous — famous for winning. While she’s not in it for the star power, she wishes women’s hockey was better known and appreciated.

“We work just as hard as male athletes. Sure we don’t have men’s strength and our game is different from the men’s, but people don’t take the time to appreciate the difference. It comes down to a lack of hockey knowledge,” she says.

“But my million-dollar contract is that I can use what I’ve accomplished to inspire people. To go to elementary schools and influence kids in a positive way is very special.”

Photo credit: http://www.hockeycanada.ca

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Stars in my eyes

There must be a side of me that’s still six years old, but I’m a little starstruck when it comes to female hockey phenoms. Here’s a photo of me accepting a “Most Passionate Player” award from Sarah Vaillancourt of Team CanadaSarahVaillancourt at a Canadian Hockey Enterprises recreational women’s camp last year in Peterborough, ON. Sarah was one of our coaches.

Skating on the same ice surface as Sarah was a thrill. During our warm-up, Sarah would fly around and take shots for the fun of it, and her skill gave me goosebumps. Her joy at being on the ice was contagious, even if being on the ice meant coaching novice-level adults.

Sarah gave us advice on offensive positioning that has changed my game. I learned that on a rush, it’s not ideal to take the puck up the centre of the ice. It’s better to skate along the boards and look for the second forward (F2) to be open for the pass. F2 goes to the net and F3 should hang back and stay open at the point or the high slot. Thanks to Sarah’s tips, I’ve had more scoring chances in my recreational old ladies’ beer league.

I was impressed that Sarah got frustrated with us. It meant that she actually cared. She was taking us seriously enough that when we weren’t getting it right, it bothered her. That speaks to the character and dedication in young Canadian players.

Check back for a profile of Sarah Vaillancourt on “Her Hockey” in the next few days.

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