Four years ago Isabelle Leclaire faced a daunting challenge.
She had just been chosen to coach the newly formed women’s hockey team at the Université de Montréal, bringing the sport to the school for the first time since it relaunched its varsity program in 1995.
With no experienced players on the roster, Leclaire held biweekly practices with a handful of recruits for one year before the team’s inaugural season in 2009.
Skating over the freshly minted Carabins logo at centre ice, added to the CEPSUM arena in preparation for the inaugural season, Leclaire reminded her players that, no matter how hard that first season would be, they would be part of the school’s history forever.
The team didn’t participate in any preseason games, ensuring that come that first game, the players would be wearing the Carabins logo across their chests for the first time.
“It was impossible to know what to expect, it was all new,” says Leclaire today.
Four years later, in March of this year, Leclaire stood at the blue line of University of Toronto’s Varsity Arena, fresh off a national championship win. Awaiting her gold medal, a smile inched across her face as a strange question crept into her mind - what’s left to accomplish?
“A repeat,” she says today, sitting in her office at the Université de Montréal’s sports centre, the walls behind her lined with photos of the team’s accomplishments throughout its short existence, a provincial championship and silver and gold medals at the nationals.
“That’s what our goal is now, what we’re focused on.”
In only four years, Leclaire has turned the school’s hockey program into arguably one of the best in the country, ousting rival and perennial powerhouse McGill in this year’s two-out-of-three provincial championship finals, the same team that had been dominating women’s hockey in the province for the last decade.
“It’s still hard to believe what we accomplished this year,” she said.
“Isabelle’s character and knowledge of the game make her perfect for the program,” said the team’s general director and Olympic champion, Danièle Sauvageau.
“She’s done a great job of developing these girls, not only as players, but as women.”
This year’s national championship pitted the Carabins against the Calgary Dinos in a rematch from last year’s final, in which the team from out west easily took home the gold with a 5-1 victory.
What happened after that game, however, set the tone for this year. Montreal celebrated its silver medal as though it had just won, drinking champagne in the dressing room and still celebrating as the team watched Calgary leave the arena with its gold medal.
“That’s what made all the difference this year,” says Leclaire.
“We didn’t finish last season on a sour note, we finished it on a good note. We lost, but deep down we knew that we could beat them, and that’s what we were able to do this year.”
Having been involved with hockey in one way or another for the last 30 years, Leclaire has had her fair share of shining moments with the game. None of which, she says, compare to this year’s 3-2 win to clinch the national championship.
“To win with this team, with these girls…” she says before pausing.
“You can’t ask for more.”
Photo: James Hajjar