Female football great Laurence Pontbriand an empowering presence in CFL

Having played for the Canadian national women’s football team, including the Team MVP nod at the 2017 IFAF Women’s Football Worlds, one of the finest at the wide receiver position in the celebrated lore of the Montreal Blitz, Laurence Pontbriand’s football odyssey has taken an exciting direction. Employed with the Canadian Football League, initially serving in the capacity of Coordinator of Football Operations, making history as their first full-team female operations hire, Pontbriand is part of an empowering generation of women finding new opportunities in the game on both sides of the border.

Worth noting, Pontbriand belongs to a remarkable number of empowering women providing leadership in the CFL Head Office. From the outset, the league’s Executive features Susan Jones Bouk as the Chief People Officer & Head of Office Operations, while Kelly Shouldice serves in the capacity of Vice-President, Content. Additionally, Camille Soldevilla belongs to the Grey Cup’s Management Team.

Reflecting on her first year in the CFL, one that brought with it a fascinating series of new experiences, it provided Pontbriand with a tremendous perspective. With a key function of her duties involving working with officials, she gained a profound appreciation and respect for the officiating position, one that can definitely be a thankless job. As a long-time competitor, she was witness to the frustrations, whether it be from a coach or a teammate, over the call of an official. Yet, Pontbriand also views officiation as one holding opportunities for women to become involved in football.

While the labours involved brought with it a significant reward, also learning the intricacies of the collective bargaining agreement, along with the duty of providing salary information to clubs, Pontbriand’s second year brought with it a new title, working as the Coordinator of Football Development. Although she humbly admits there was a learning curve, getting accustomed to spreadsheets and reporting, she accepted it as a personal challenge, and quickly became a fast study, employing an assiduous approach.

“I basically enjoy every part of it but if I had to say one thing from my first year spent at the CFL, it would be working with the officials. They are smart, caring, dedicated individuals with a very tough job. Working with them is 50% of my job. From hotels, payroll, officiating camp, apparel, I take care of whatever they need and try to make sure the only thing they have to worry about is officiating the best game they can.

The other 50% of my job is to receive the players contracts, input their bonuses in the database, share reports, answer to the Clubs and agents questions related to the CBA and bylaws. That is a challenging part of my job because when I started at the CFL, I did not know anything about it and literally had to open the books and start studying again but do not get me wrong. I love the challenge and I love getting better. The next year will be slightly different as I will be taking more responsibility on the development side of the game. My title changed to Coordinator, football development.”

Laurence Pontbriand at a football combine (Image obtained from Facebook)

Taking into account that CFL headquarters are based in Toronto, the relocation presented the biggest change for Pontbriand, who was raised in Montreal. Employed as a physical education teacher, uprooting to a new city, especially one in which the French language was not commonly used, presented a very different reality.

While an absence of friends was eased through the use of online tools, an integral source of comfort for Pontbriand involved remaining active in her competitive love of football. Immersing herself in athletics, temporarily part of the MIFA organization, while finding leisure in other variations of football, including flag and touch, it quickly proved to be a highly important facet towards rebuilding a social and support structure,

“The biggest adjustment was probably the change of environment. Before leaving, I was a physical education teacher, spending most of my days in a gym, interacting with kids. I moved to downtown Toronto in the business district, was now sitting in front of a computer all day and was given tasks that I had never even heard of.

Also, not having my support system in the same city was a challenge at first (thank you FaceTime) but I made sure to join sport teams (MIFA for a bit, a touch football team and a flag football league) quickly to get to know people in Toronto.”

In addition, the working relationship brought with it a tremendous sense of motivation for Pontbriand. Constantly focused on opportunities for women in the game, she has definitely adopted the role of builder. Serving as an instructor with the Ontario Football Alliance, the first female facilitator in their history, her efforts were essential in establishing a female football combine in spring 2019, along with a Women’s only Safe Contact Training Course, hosted at the University of Guelph.

Taking into account that developing the female game in Ontario shall be critical towards the Canadian national women’s team achieving its elusive dream of a world championship, Pontbriand is an asset. Another compelling example of her commitment involves establishing a second female football team in Southern Ontario.

Toronto Misfits helmet (Image obtained from Facebook)

Pondering the future with the dream of a new league that would involve clubs from Ontario and Quebec, Pontbriand’s creation, the Toronto Misfits female football club, holds great potential. Certainly, the initiative holds a personal element for Pontbriand. After numerous seasons in the Independent Women’s Football League, the Blitz spent the 2017 season in the Women’s Football Alliance, only to become an independent after one season. Although exhibition games against the MIFA Ontario All-Stars, an organization which has also played Team Mexico at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre in March 2019, marking the first-ever Indoor International Bowl Game, has been essential in further developing the game,

“I am working hard on getting more women into officiating in Canada to eventually give the CFL a bigger pool to choose from in their recruitment. I have also started a second women’s tackle football team in Ontario – the Toronto Misfits. The long term goal is to have a QC-ON league. The Montreal Blitz and the Mississauga MIFA All-Stars have started playing games last year and with the addition of a third team, that goal is becoming closer to reality.”

Making the transition from an educational position in Montreal to working in an administrative capacity in the CFL was made possible through a highly influential event, one which served as an essential bridge in her career path. Joined by fellow Blitz competitor Annabelle Chevrier and Tanya Henderson, both members of Team Canada 2017, plus Catherine Raiche, the Toronto Argonauts Director of Football Administration, and Kennedy Harvey, the first female football coach at Simcoe Composite High School, attended the Women’s Careers in Football Forum.

Held in Orlando, Florida in January 2018, there was a strong feeling of serendipity at the Forum. Initially held in conjunction with the Women’s World Football Games, one of the key speakers included Canadian Samantha Rapoport. A former quarterback for the Montreal Blitz in the early 2000s, Rapoport, recognized by People Magazine as ’25 Women Changing the World’ is employed by the NFL, currently serving as Director of Football Development.

Pontbriand at the Women’s Careers in Football Forum in Orlando (Image obtained from Facebook)

“First off, that was a great experience. Meeting women just as passionate as I am was very inspiring. I realized that I totally belonged in the world of football. I did not know how I was going to enter that world, but I knew I was going to be able to make an impact.

They gave us so many great tools that I actually apply frequently. In my interview for the job, I was not intimidated and was confident that I deserved a shot. I am glad they gave it to me!”

Of note, the Symposium definitely emerged as a “game changer” for Pontbriand. Among the defining moments in this fascinating new chapter involved meeting Christina Litz. During her time with the league, which she first joined in 2014, her role included Chief Marketing, Digital and Strategy Officer. Critical towards modernizing the league’s digital assets, another important role involved managing broadcast partnerships, including a deal with ESPN. Undoubtedly, an inspiration for Pontbriand, instilling in her the belief that she was capable of not just accepting a new challenge, but thriving in it.

“At the forum in 2018, I met with Christina Litz who was the Chief Marketing, Digital & Strategy Officer, who is a strong and smart woman able to make things happen in football. Just by meeting with her, I realized that being a game changer as a woman in the CFL was not a dream but a reachable goal.

Then when I started the job, I met with other powerful women who were not scared to share their thoughts and opinions like Kelly. Seeing those women doing so well in a very male dominant world is definitely inspiring.

I have big dreams for women’s football. I want a competitive league that will allow women to train and practice without having to spend all their savings. I want girls to join football teams as easily as they join a soccer teams and I want to see women’s football in the top 10 TSN Plays of the Week, because women CAN play ball.”

”All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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