By Dan Plouffe
The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees hired Ottawa natives Chelsea Grills and Marcel Bellefeuille to lead their women’s hockey and football programs in May, thus completing their full palate of varsity team head coaches from the capital.
With the additions, the head coach of every Gee-Gee varsity team either hails from the area or has been here for over 30 years.
“It’s really nice,” uOttawa athletic director Sue Hylland says. “We’ve got people with really strong Ottawa roots running our programs, and very, very good people, first and foremost.”
Having coaches from the capital aids in recruiting as well as rallying community support and involvement, Hylland notes, though having a full cast with deep Ottawa roots wasn’t by design.
“It happens to be by coincidence that we have it. It’s not the be-all and end-all,” signals Hylland, whose teams also recently added Ottawa Maverick volleyball product Kaly Soro and St. Peter Knights/Ottawa Irish rugby coach Pat Thompson as assistant coaches. “Could others come in and do it? Yes, absolutely. You know, if you’ve got a really good person, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. But I think having roots here and connections here, it helps certainly.”
Considering they could certainly find work elsewhere, it was a coup of sorts for the Gee-Gees to draw their two recent head coach selections back to their hometowns.
A 2000 Vanier Cup champion with uOttawa early in his coaching career, Bellefeuille went on to coach extensively in the Canadian Football League with Saskatchewan, Montreal, Hamilton, Winnipeg and B.C., and also spent time in the U.S. with Omaha of the United Football League and the Texas Spring League.
“‘Coach B’ brings some great experience from his last 20 years with different teams,” highlights Hylland. “He’s a great leader, he’s a great communicator, and I think he has that ability to really bring people together.”
Likewise, Grills has worked on both sides of the border. As an assistant coach, the Stittsville native won a national title with McGill in 2014 and an NCAA Div. 3 crown with Amherst College in 2010. Grills also coached at the University of Vermont and the Canadian International Hockey Academy in Rockland before joining the Gee-Gees as a full-time assistant in 2017.
The former St. Lawrence Saints captain took over as interim head coach mid-season following the departure of Montreal-bred Yanick Evola, and posted a program-record winning streak shortly thereafter.
Hylland says it was a nice bonus to be able to hire a woman as a head coach in a field that remains dominated by men.
“I think it’s wonderful,” states the past Canada Games Council CEO, underlining that the long-serving Gee-Gees male coaches have done exceptional work too. “With Chelsea, here’s a strong female role model from the area who’s competed at a high level, has coached at a high level, and has won at a high level. It’s nice to create that understanding that other young women can strive for that same goal in the future.”
Pandemic key to Bellefeuille’s Gee-Gees return
The strike of COVID-19 knocked uOttawa athletics of course – take the men’s hockey team’s nationals getting cancelled on the eve of the tournament as a prime example – but it ultimately enabled them to land the Gee-Gees football hall-of-famer. Bellefeuille had been in the midst of pre-season preparations with the Montreal Alouettes when the CFL season was suddenly postponed.
“If I’d been coaching with the Als, I wouldn’t have even looked at Ottawa U, I wouldn’t have been able to,” recounts Bellefeuille. “So COVID actually provided the opportunity, and such a good opportunity, to come home and be with my family, and come back to my first love where I played, where I coached, where I went to school, where we won a Vanier. It’s pretty fun to come back.”
For a fair chunk of the time Bellefeuille coached in the pros, his wife and four children stayed put at their home in Orleans.
“Family is very important to me,” underlines the 54-year-old. “It’s been 20 years I’ve been pro football, and our family spent a lot of time apart.”
Being a pro football coach is all-consuming and can be difficult on family life, Bellefeuille indicates, though he’s pleased to have served as a CFL head coach, coached in a Grey Cup, and in the U.S.
“Those were all professional goals of mine, and my family supported me to do that,” details the past Ontario/Quebec university coach of the year. “We got to see a lot of North America, live in different places, have great experiences, and meet great people in Canada and the U.S. I’d never trade in those experiences.”
After rising to the top in just 3 years during his first run as Gee-Gees head coach, Bellefeuille is now eager to take on the challenge of creating a sustainable university program – tasks that go beyond coaching and play-calling.
“Now I have an opportunity to come back and lay the foundation for a longer period of time,” explains Bellefeuille, noting only uOttawa could draw him back to the university ranks from the pros. “It’s funny. Since I left, both of my daughters graduated from Ottawa U, and my sons may go too.”
Sharing “values to live your life on” with younger players during “a very important piece of their life” was another appeal of coaching university football.
“I enjoy setting a path and being able to influence the lives of young men, and hopefully being able to teach them and be an example to them,” Bellefeuille signals. “Some of the most satisfying moments I’ve had aren’t things that I’ve been able to do on the field.”
Winning the highest-scoring Vanier Cup in history at SkyDome for his hometown team is of course a treasured memory, “and for awhile, I looked back and remembered the hype, the trophy and how exciting that was,” Bellefeuille reflects. “Now when I think back, I see it differently. I think about the people that I got to work with, and I think about the players. I think about the relationships really.”
With the 2020 Ontario university football season shelved due to COVID, there’s a bit of extra time to implement initiatives to increase the Gee-Gees’ social impact in the community – work that Bellefeuille holds close to his heart.
“I only went to university and had the drive to go there because I wanted to play college football,” recounts the Ridgemont High School grad who grew up in the Hetherington Ottawa Community Housing neighbourhood. “Sports can be a huge piece (for youth from challenging backgrounds). It gives kids an opportunity to see a way out.”
Grills gung ho to grow Gee-Gees’ grassroots links
Community connections are a focal point for the Gee-Gees women’s hockey program too, echoes Grills, who wants to build on the momentum of their Future Stars program and further enhance relationships with local teams.
“We place a lot of importance on giving back to the community and providing opportunities for young players to see women’s hockey at the university level,” Grills says by e-mail.
Juxtaposed with other Gee-Gees teams, women’s hockey had just two Ottawa natives on its roster last season. Grills notes that they are pleased to locate talent from all over, and that they will add more local content next season with two recruits from Ottawa and a third Ottawa Senators Provincial Women’s Hockey League product.
The 35-year-old has observed “amazing” progress in grassroots women’s hockey since her days growing up playing boys’ hockey. Grills later joined the Ottawa Raiders of the National Women’s Hockey League as a high schooler and remains close to several teammates from that time.
“Of course being close to family and friends played a huge part in coming back to Ottawa,” indicates Grills, stating that the Gee-Gees’ values and expectations for sports and school align with hers. “I’m very excited for this opportunity. One of our goals is to be perennial national contenders and that is what we work towards every day.”