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Sports How green is Chantal Vallée? Coach brings winning record to historic basketball appointment

Chantal Vallée recalls the moment when she was a teenager growing up in the Montreal area that she informed her parents she wanted to become a coach.

At that time, it didn’t have to be a basketball coach, although that was the direction she was leaning after falling in love with the game while playing it through school.

Chantal Vallée, head coach and general manager of the Hamilton Honey Badgers, in her office.

J.P. MOCZULSKI

Vallée was attending a CEGEP but was having difficulty finding a French-speaking women’s team to play on. “It was kind of, ‘Well, if I can’t play, I’m going to coach,’ ” she said, her steely resolve already starting to take hold. “It was a way to satisfy my competitive need.”

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Her parents were not enthralled when she informed them of her desired career path. It was not that they were unsupportive of her dreams, she said. They were just being, well, parental.

“I remember them saying like, ‘What do you mean?’ ” Vallée recalled. “ ’That doesn’t exist [for a woman]. People don’t earn a living being a coach.’ They said I should try to find a real job.

“Maybe it was because I didn’t want to be a hockey coach for the Montreal Canadiens,” she added with a laugh.

Maybe that’s not as far-fetched now.

In a move being heralded as ground-breaking for the advancement of women in the near-exclusive male bastion of professional sports management, the 43-year-old was introduced on Thursday as both the general manager and head coach of the Hamilton Honey Badgers.

The Honey Badgers are a men’s pro team in the fledgling Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL), which is slated to begin play in May.

Vallée is the first woman in basketball history to hold both front-office positions and only the second woman ever to serve as a head coach of a male pro basketball team. The first was Nancy Lieberman, who coached the Texas Legends in the NBA Development League, now known as the G League, for the 2010-11 season.

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And it was Lieberman, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in the United States, who was among the thousands to take to social media to hail Vallée after word spread of her new job.

“Congratulation Chantal,” Lieberman wrote on her official Twitter account. “I know you’ll be a rock star. Nice Honey Badgers.”

For Vallée, who cut her coaching teeth the past 13 years at the University of Windsor, moulding the women’s team into a perennial powerhouse (five national titles from 2011-15), the outpouring of support caught her a bit off guard.

“I thought there was going to be a little bit of traction but for me, this is what I do for a living,” she said during an interview on Thursday. “I’m a coach.

“I never expected to be coaching guys and I never looked for it either. So it wasn’t like a goal of mine.”

But to others who have forged a living in the male-dominated executive wing that exists in pro sports, the ascension of a woman to a position of power, even in a league just getting started, is viewed as welcome news.

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Michèle Bélanger, who is in her 40th season as the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Toronto, said the move by the Honey Badgers to hire Vallée is fantastic. “It’s great for women over all, in all fields,” she said. “She’s cracked that boardroom ceiling.”

Bélanger said this is not something that would have happened even five years ago.

So what’s changed?

“You know what, I strongly believe – and I don’t want to say much about it – but I think the #MeToo movement has really altered people’s thoughts. And women have become a little bit more, I guess we’re being noticed – be it actors, politicians, as well as in athletics.

“The men are also supporting the women’s movement, in athletics as well as in business. I honestly believe that the #MeToo movement has created a lot.”

Glen Grunwald, the former general manager of the Toronto Raptors, said he got to know Vallée during his recent tenure as athletic director at Hamilton’s McMaster University.

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Now the chief executive of Canada Basketball, Grunwald said he has no doubt Vallée will be a forceful presence when it comes to directing a professional men’s basketball outfit.

“I think she’ll be just fine,” Grunwald said. “From what I’ve seen she has a very good presence, and talking with her during some conference calls, she understands basketball.

“And her team, her players, will realize straight away she knows what she’s talking about. So I think she’ll get their respect and support.”

After studying science and education at Université du Québec à Montréal, Vallée headed west to the University of British Columbia to take some courses and learn to speak English.

She returned to Montreal and attended McGill University, where she earned a master’s physical education degree in coaching and sport psychology.

For three years, she was head coach at Montreal’s Vanier College and, in 2005, landed in Windsor – where she turned a ragged program, with only four winning seasons in 45 years, into a juggernaut.

When the formation of six-team CEBL was announced earlier this year, John Lashway was appointed president of the Hamilton franchise.

Lashway is no stranger to the game, with 22 years of senior management experience in the NBA. He was one of the first front-office hires when the Toronto Raptors came into existence for the 1995-96 NBA season.

Back in those days, Robin Brudner was also an executive with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, owner of both the Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Lashway said it was Brudner who first suggested Vallée’s name to him when he started casting about for front-office leadership for the Honey Badgers. Brudner is currently the interim CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Lashway, who is well versed in women’s athletics, having acted as sports-information director of women’s sports at the University of Oregon, said he never thought twice about hiring a woman to lead the male Honey Badgers.

“This might be the only time in my whole life I get to hire a head coach or general manager,” Lashway said. “I was focused on one thing, and that was trying to find a winner, somebody who has won for a long time, somebody who could create a culture of success. That was the only thing I thought about.

“And when I started looking at Vallée and her past record, it became pretty evident she was that person.”

Belanger said that the role Vallée is stepping into won’t be easy for a woman.

“Obviously she’s going to be scrutinized, and that’s going to be unfair for her,” she said. “Her errors will become magnified.”

Vallée said she is not concerned with that.

“If anything, I hope it’s going to be great for basketball,” she said. “If it brings more interest, more fans, more people who want to play the game, then it’s all good.”

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