Women's collegiate hockey in Quebec dealt blow as school's storied program put on pause
A couple of dozen elite hockey players are scrambling to find a new team to play with after CEGEP de Saint-Laurent confirmed Thursday that its women's hockey program won't be on the ice for the foreseeable future. The school is blaming difficulties recruiting enough players.
"We are not making this decision lightly," said Danielle Malkassoff, director of student services and communications at the Montreal CEGEP.
"We prefer to take one step back and then two steps forward," she said.
Malkassoff couldn't say when the team might return to the ice but hinted it could be a few years.
"Women's hockey is not dead. It is part of our DNA."
Malkassoff said the last few years have been difficult. "There was a lack of stability in the coaching position and when the coach leaves, players often leave."
It certainly has been a difficult period for the program, one of the oldest collegiate teams in the province.
First, there was COVID-19, which scrapped an entire season, but that was the same for other programs, as well.
Then, at the beginning of the 2021-22 season, the team parted ways with coach Dany Brunet because he wasn't vaccinated.
Partway through the season, the Patriotes replaced Brunet with Alexandria D'Onoforio. The former Dawson College and Concordia Stinger player had been coaching U18 AAA teams but this was the 27-year-old's first crack at coaching at the collegiate level. The Patriotes struggled on the ice, winning just five games.
In April, after the season had ended, the CEGEP's athletic director, Hugo Lamoureux, fired both D'Onoforio and assistant coach Léa McIntyre.
Players, coaches claim sexism
The news was hard to take, but D'Onofrio says the biggest slap in the face is what Lamoureux said during that conversation.
"We basically got a phone call saying, 'Sorry, we're going in a different direction. We've decided to go with a male head coach,'" she said. Not any man in particular. Just a man.
CBC has confirmed with current players on the Patriotes' roster, as well as two other coaches, that Lamoureux said he was looking specifically for a male to coach the women's team.
Shock and resignations
Alexandra Boulanger was an assistant coach with Les Patriotes. After speaking with D'Onofrio, she confronted Lamoureux who confirmed what D'Onoforio had told her.
"In his mind, the perfect team would have a male head coach," said Boulanger. "He preferred that. He found it easier to communicate with a male."
Shocked, Boulanger decided to resign from the team.
"It was a big disappointment for me, and it just goes against my values to grow the sport and to grow women in sport," she said.
Two other women also resigned: strength and conditioning coach Emmanuelle Blais and assistant coach Alexandra Labelle.
Poor choice of words
Lamoureux did not return messages to CBC, but Danielle Malkassoff says he will keep his job as athletic director. She says Lamoureux simply chose his words poorly and didn't express himself properly.
"I can tell you that we don't choose our coaches according to their gender," she said. "And I can confirm that we more often have women than men at the helm of our hockey teams."
CEGEP Saint-Laurent is one of the oldest collegiate hockey programs for women in the province.
Team Canada great Caroline Ouellette played there. Having the team fold, even if it's temporarily, is a major blow to women's hockey.
"With that decision, we lost some young coaches who were high-level athletes and exceptional leaders," Ouellette wrote in a Facebook post. "They are fantastic role models for student athletes."
The news comes just days after a committee looking into the health of hockey in the province released a list of recommendations to improve the sport. The report said promoting women's hockey should be a priority and that more women should be added to leadership roles.
Players left scrambling
The news has team members wondering what to do next. Mégan Miron has played three seasons with the Patriotes and was hoping to use next year as a stepping stone to a university team.
"We're all in trouble because now we don't have anywhere to go. The girls are trying to find other teams to play on but the teams are all full."
The architecture student has one year left at CEGEP de Saint-Laurent and won't be transferring. She says Lamoureux is ultimately to blame for the program's demise and accuses him of not doing enough to save it.
"I feel abandoned. I feel like the CEGEP didn't push. They're just saying they're sorry but they didn't do everything in their power to help us."
The 19-year-old says this likely spells the end of her competitive hockey career and she blames Lamoureux.
"Really sad and discouraging. I feel like everything I worked for since I'm young is just being cancelled because of one person that didn't want to help women's hockey."
MNA Enricco Ciccone, the Liberal critic for sports, recreation and healthy living and a former professional hockey player, doesn't buy the CEGEP's justification for shutting the program down.
He says the collegiate level is a stepping stone for women to advance their careers and he wants to see the team back on the ice as soon as possible.
"If you have a women's program, you have to put in the proper resources to attract good players."
Ciccone says Lamoureux's search for a male coach is unacceptable: "It's an old mentality."
As for D'Onofrio, she says the CEGEP is giving up too easily.
"Just because I was fired, this program should not have been closed. That had nothing to do necessarily with me. They decided to get another coach, well now go get them another coach. That's what's kind of angering some of the players."