During the years of growth for women’s ice hockey in Montreal and other regions in Canada, a significant facet that has never diminished is the love of the game. It is an essential reason why the players endure the hard work and sacrifice required to play, while volunteers donate their valuable time to ensure that the chance to play is a worthwhile one which can see the players’ talents shine.
In the history of the Montreal Stars/Canadiennes organization, Fiona Robinson has exemplified the meaning of hard work and drive. Entering her sixth season as a volunteer, she is an individual that represents the strong volunteer spirit that has helped propel CWHL hockey.
To borrow from football, volunteers are a 12th Man of sort. Although the volunteers may not play the game, they have been welcomed as an integral part of the team, crucial to its progression. While Robinson may remain humble, her love of the game and desire to help it grow makes her a valued member of any team she is involved with,
“I have always loved hockey, I grew up in a community in Northern Labrador (Makkovik) where everyone played, including my mother and I. When I moved from there to other parts of Canada and the world I was dismayed to discover that women aren’t supposed to play hockey.
While studying for my PhD in Cambridge (England), I captained the university women’s ice hockey team. In a country where the sport is relatively unknown, I had to work very hard to organize games for the team, recruit players, find equipment, set up trainings, coordinate transportation, pretty much everything to keep the team going.”
Upon her return to Canada, Robinson discovered that sullen struggle and lack of acceptance were the difficult reality for women who graced the ice, even at its elite levels. In such conditions, Robinson found motivation, along with some future friends.
“When I moved to Montréal, I was appalled to learn that the best female players in the world were facing similar challenges! I resolved to do what I could to help out. I approached Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux who was the Captain/GM at the time. In September, 2010, we met with Meg Hewings, who had come forward at the same time to offer her help.
Together, we identified the most urgent needs in terms of support for the Montréal Stars, split those up between us, and got to work! We joke that we used to be able to hold all-staff meetings with 3 chairs. We now need to book a large room and we’d probably need at least 50 chairs!”
The combination of three amazing women such as Breton-Lebreux, Hewings and Robinson helped lay the groundwork for what may be one of the finest team cultures in women’s hockey today. While the effort culminated with a well-deserved sponsorship agreement with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, resulting in what promises to be an exciting new era for the game, the journey is one that Robinson proudly reflects on,
“It has been an amazing five years since that first meeting and I am incredibly proud of how far we have come as an organization. We have surpassed many of our original goals to support the team and the league. With the help of our many recent staff recruits, we constantly aim higher and push ourselves to go much further. We have been very fortunate to be joined by many, many exceptionally talented and generous people on this journey.”
Although Robinson’s time with the Stars/Canadiennes has provided a lifetime of memories, she has acknowledged that one single moment cannot be identified as her favorite. Rather, the experiences comprise a bigger picture in which the true moment is the growth of the game and the sense of family that comes from those collaborative goals.
“There are so many wonderful experiences every year. My first two seasons with the Montréal Stars culminated with them winning the Clarkson Cup. Celebrating this accomplishment with the players, being part of the tight knit family that shared in that joy, was a feeling I will never forget.
This season, I actually got choked up just looking at our staff spreadsheet, where everyone signs up with their availability to help out at different events. Just seeing all of these people giving their time and talents to the Stars, investing themselves selflessly in our shared vision, it really moved me.”
While the Stars/Canadiennes continue to work towards providing an even higher standard of elite women’s hockey, they have also carved a legacy as tremendous role models. There is no question that Robinson deserves consideration in this regard. In many encounters, Robinson not only represents the organization’s strong values, her hard work is a positive reflection of the team’s potential to inspire a new generation.
“Every time a coach or a parent tells me how meeting the Montréal Stars have positively impacted their daughters/players self-esteem and body image, and I hear it all the time, it just makes my day! During the 2013-14 season, we had our first fully sold-out game. Our annual breast cancer fundraiser game coincided with the return of our Olympians to the ice with the Stars and after we crammed 1400 people into our arena, we had to turn many fans away.”
Of note, the organization’s fundraiser for breast cancer is not only poised to become a key event in Montreal’s sporting calendar, it is truly one of the signature events in the CWHL’s season. As the disease has hit close to home, having affected the families of Breton-Lebreux and Ouellette among others, the effort involved to put together such an event truly exemplifies the volunteer spirit.
Considering that the fundraiser also auctions off game-worn pink jerseys, it is not uncommon to see Robinson at the tables, either collecting donations or providing successful bidders with a player’s pink jersey, destined to become a key piece in a fan’s collection. For Robinson, it is the type of platform that truly displays the best of what the organization and the game has to offer,
“I was so proud to showcase what I have to come think of as “my girls” to all of these fans, not only their spectacular on-ice skills, but also the kindness and genuine commitment to the community that the fundraiser represents. Five years ago, several players came to Meg and I saying that they wanted to do something to support women with, and survivors of, breast cancer.
Since then our players and volunteers have put countless hours into every aspect of the event, making it our annual showcase, the highlight of our season, raising over $55,000 for the cause. Every year, the players make a point of personally thanking me for my part in organizing the event. It is always a very touching moment that ends a very emotional day.”
When Robinson first volunteered with the Stars, it was in the aftermath of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. While gold medalists such as Caroline Ouellette, Kim St. Pierre and Sarah Vaillancourt were among the heroes that called the Stars home when not donning the Canadian jersey, Robinson would meet many more world class talents in the years to come.
Heading into the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, eight members of the Stars, including the likes of Meghan Agosta, Haley Irwin, Charline Labonte and Catherine Ward, to name a few, were looking to extend Canada’s gold medal dominance. For Robinson, the chance to get to know so many of these players prior to Sochi, and to see their importance as role models, provided her with an even stronger appreciation for the game,
“The gold medal match in Sochi was a very special event for me as well. Knowing how hard the players had worked to get there, and how much it would mean to them to win that gold medal, I was just beside myself watching the game. When they won, I was so happy for them, but also for the sport.
I believe the fact that 13 million Canadians watched that game is one of the by-products of the tireless work of CWHL volunteers promoting the women’s game, striving to raise its visibility, insisting on its validity as truly excellent hockey. The more than deserved and well overdue recognition that our athletes received for their performance in Sochi was a milestone for women’s hockey. I feel like we made an important leap forward there.”
Throughout the progression that has seen the Stars become Les Canadiennes, the ability to recruit elite women’s hockey talent has been mirrored by a growth in its group of dedicated volunteers. While players such as Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux and Caroline Ouellette provided strong leadership, inspiring others to play with them, Robinson’s exceptional dedication ran parallel to their efforts, resulting in new volunteers looking up to her as what is good about volunteering with the club.
“From the perspective of a volunteer, the biggest and most important change has been in the growth of our support staff/volunteer team. Every year, we recruit many new and immensely talented individuals who continually blow me away with their generosity.
Whereas, at the beginning, we just had to get a few people into a few key positions to produce the bare minimum of a game day and operate the team for the year, we can now recruit people into positions that really capitalize on their skills. We have an expert nutritionist who specializes in hockey, with a managing our meals on the road program. There is also a volunteer who adores stats, looking after everything stat-related, along with photographers, videographers, graphists, etc., all contributing their specific skills to the benefit of the team.”
While Robinson may not be a name noticeable to all Montreal hockey fans, she is one that is truly important. In so many other sports, there are many long serving individuals such as assistant coaches, broadcasters and trainers that may not easily gain recognition among fans, but their presence helped bring stability and a sense of consistency to their resepective clubs. While they may have seen many players come and go, their presence ensured that new arrivals felt like there was a friend in place. For the women of Les Canadiennes, Robinson is more than just a cherished friend, but an individual whose love of the game sets a gold standard that exemplifies what the sport can become.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Images supplied by Fiona Robinson