By Dan Plouffe
The young girls looking up at Isabel Ménard probably couldn’t yet understand or even dream of the euphoria their coach experienced in her playing days.
There was the winning goal she scored to push her Boston University Terriers into the NCAA women’s hockey championship game in her senior season, there was an international gold medal with Team Canada, and “there were lots of sacrifices along the way,” reflects Ménard while watching over the final session of her first season coaching back in her hometown.
“But I don’t regret any of it,” she adds. “I was so passionate about it. And I’m still passionate about it, but in a different way.”
The 27-year-old is now retired from high-performance ice hockey, though she still fuels her competitive fires with the Canadian women’s ball hockey team. After 2 seasons in Switzerland and coaching college in the States, Ménard returned to Ottawa and became the lead instructor for the Ottawa Girls Hockey Association’s FUNdamentals program.
Instead of jumping in with a high-level ‘AA’ team, the past Ottawa Senators Provincial Women’s Hockey League champion elected to work with players as young as 4 getting their first taste of hockey.
“I didn’t really have that chance growing up,” explains Ménard, who played on boys’ teams for the bulk of her minor hockey career. “If I can help grow the sport, then that’s the best thing I can do.”
Ménard’s thinking mirrors the OGHA’s goals of building their association from the ground up. The OGHA subsidizes the introductory program out of Carleton University to encourage more young girls to get into hockey. Focused on the developmental level, the Capital Classic Tournament the OGHA hosted from Feb. 16-18 was another sign of the grassroots commitment, and of course there’s the star working with the littlest ones.
“It’s awesome that they’re introducing someone that high-profile at the grassroots level,” says the mother of a 7-year-old player. “And I love having a female role model for the girls. A lot of the time, it’s guys on the ice, but I think it’s really important that they can have someone like Isabel.”
‘They put a smile on my face’
After working all week as a program administrator in the surgeries department for the Ottawa Hospital’s office of education, the Saturday morning alarm sometimes comes a little earlier than Ménard would like. But her young players’ energy and enthusiasm quickly provides a welcome jolt once she’s at the rink.
“If I’m ever having a rough day, I come out here and they put a smile on my face,” signals the Louis-Riel high school grad.
The current goal isn’t to create the next Team Canada great, but Ménard delights in seeing players go from hardly standing up at the start of the year to skating and stick-handling with the puck come the end, and watching friendships blossom.
“Seeing the way they’ve progressed, I can’t really put it into words,” indicates the product of her father’s Competitive Edge Hockey School. “I mean, it makes me very happy to see that they’re happy when they’re out here, and that they want to get better. That’s all I can ask.”