Last updated: April 9, 2012 4:19 pm
The Mario Lemieux of women's hockey
Ex-Concordia Stinger Lisa-Marie Breton-Lemieux on her hockey career
MONTREAL (CUP) — Hockey Renaissance woman and former Concordia Stinger Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux lapped a life goal last month, winning the Clarkson Cup — for a third time.
The competition, however, wouldn’t have even come into fruition without Breton-Lebreux, who played a leading role in the development the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL).
Captain of the Montreal Stars, Breton-Lebreux and her CWHL team went undefeated in the Clarkson Cup — the Stanley Cup of women’s hockey — winning it for the third time in four years.
“We knew it was going to be physical and tough, we got the better of [them],” said Breton-Lebreux, listing off significant plays in the game with uncanny accuracy. Her voice rises in excitement when she talks about the final, where her team overtook the Brampton Hockey Club 4-2.
“We were just on our game that day,” said the 34-year-old.
It’s arguable, however, that she’s never really off it.
Breton-Lebreux has a hockey curriculum vitae that would make Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta jealous. She started off making the under-18 Quebec provincial team at the age of 15, and would regularly play at Concordia’s rink for tournaments in the early-to-mid ‘90s.
“It was during Concordia’s glory days and I said to myself, ‘Wow … one day I’m going to be the captain of the Stingers,’ and that became my goal.”
It was a goal she completed in style. Breton-Lebreux was captain of the Stingers and went on to win two national championships with Concordia under current long-reigning head coach Les Lawton. In 2001 she also won a slew of awards, including a Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) All-Canadian award.
“She came [to Concordia] and had trouble conversing in English,” said Lawton. Breton-Lebreux, who’s from the small town of Saint-Zacharie, QC, overcame that speed bump, and culminated by graduating with a sociology degree.
“She’s a very dedicated athlete — not only athletically, though, but academically too. She was probably one of the hardest working athletes I’ve coached,” said Lawton.
But overcoming obstacles and completing goals is a constant theme Breton-Lebreux’s life.
Part of Canada’s B-team in 1998, a team that practiced against the women who went on to earn silver at the Nagano Olympics, she was eventually dropped from the national squad after graduation.
“I was always among the top ten scorers in leagues, but never got to make it [to Team Canada],” said Breton-Lebreux wistfully. “My dream was always to compete at a national team level.
“The year Team Canada released me, I kind of lost hope that I would have that chance.”
But while Breton-Lebreux came close to abandoning her dream of representing Canada, she eventually did receive a call to play hockey for Canada — just not on ice. In 2006, the Canadian Women’s Roller Hockey team invited her to play in the World Championships. She won there, too.
And after completing this goal there was only one more thing to do, which was to win the National Women’s Hockey League championship again, which she did, also in 2006, scoring the game-winning goal for the now defunct Montreal Axion.
The sticks she played with during those games now lie in Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame, but despite that honour, Breton-Lebreux was soon faced with a pressing issue — one season later, she didn’t have a league to play in anymore, as the NWHL collapsed in 2007. Teams were losing up to $150,000 a year, and there was little to no structure — rookies could join whichever team they wanted, and there was no balance in pay. Some players didn’t get paid at all, as stadiums remained, for the most part, empty.
That’s when the entrepreneur in Breton-Lebreux woke up. The only other option to play regular hockey at a competitive level was to go west, which wasn’t a possibility for many. With guidance from six other players, two from Team Canada, a new league emerged — the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
“In 2007 we had a tough year, it was really a bit stressful,” she said.
Breton-Lebreux had to do everything — she was a league co-founder, general manager of the Montreal Stars (one of the seven new teams), as well as a player and the captain, too — like a super-charged version of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mario Lemieux, who returned from retirement in 2000 after becoming the team’s owner and played for five seasons as a player/owner.
“Some games, we would be like, ‘Do we have enough pucks for warm-up? Is there a DJ to play songs during the game and intermission?’” said Breton-Lebreux, who decided to start working at Concordia’s Le Gym at the same time.
“It grew, as well as my work … everything was just growing, both on and off the ice for me.”
The league has made strides over the last five years thanks to guidance from National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman and the creation of three new teams. Social media’s helped, too, leading the way for more advertisement opportunities and even spots on sports networks — this year’s Clarkson Cup was played on TSN.
“What we’ve improved the most is the level of play has gone up big-time. [If you watch] clips on TV, the passing, the nice plays, it’s fast. … We have offensive talent that we’ve never seen before,” said Breton-Lebreux.
“This year for first time we had a league banquet. Last year we just had a soiree, nothing much. Now it’s a red carpet banquet. [We had] steaks and crab to eat. [It] sounds like [we’re] celebrities.”
Breton-Lebreux is now Concordia’s strength and conditioning coach, guiding players from a range of sports to accomplish goals she sets from day one of training, something she’s been doing for herself for decades.
“I think she’s a big part of the department, not only women’s hockey but she’s training the bigger and best athletes,” said Lawton. “Working with some of the top female hockey players in the country, she brings that to our team.”
One of those players is Catherine Rancourt, a right-winger on the Stingers women’s hockey team. She’s a grinder, just like Breton-Lebreux, but she also put up a team-leading 11 points this season.
“We had a special relationship. She sees herself in me, I think,” said Rancourt. “She was pushing me a lot. I was always listening to what she was saying.”
“And [she] corrects you if you do something wrong, and just makes you want to do better,” teammate Maggie McNeil interjected. “It’s never personal, because [she’s] doing it to make you better.”
“Seeing her achieve something like [winning the Clarkson Cup] also makes me want to achieve something like this, but maybe not just on the ice.”
Winning the Cup certainly has off-ice advantages. The Montreal Stars have been named the Personalité de la semaine by La Presse, joining a list that includes names like the Montreal Alouettes’ Anthony Calvillo, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo.
“Because of the league, I’ve been able to do things,” said Breton-Lebreux. She’s been invited to press conferences at the Bell Centre, met several Montreal mayors over the years and she has the opportunity to host an annual breast cancer awareness fundraiser on behalf of the CWHL.
“I’m blessed to have my teammates beside me through rough times and good times. That’s why we’ve been successful.”