Less than two years ago, Catherine Raîche had a lucrative job practising corporate and tax law for a Montreal firm. Yet she longed for the weekends, which she would spend working as an unpaid intern for the Montreal Alouettes.
Today Raîche is the recently appointed assistant general manager of football operations for the Alouettes, making her the only woman in the CFL to hold that position. She's among those evaluating talent at four CFL combines this month as Canadian football players showcase their skills in the hopes of being drafted. Most of her colleagues are men who once played or coached football. This 27-year-old shares their passion for the game, but her path has been different, and the Als believe her rare skillset gives them an edge.
A Montreal native, Raiche grew up in a family of football fans and played lots of sports in her youth, including flag football. While studying law at Université de Sherbrooke she attended games, and began to consider some day parlaying her degree into a job in pro sports – maybe as a football agent or in the front office of a franchise.
She wanted to establish her legal career first, so after completing her law degree, she joined the Quebec Bar Association in 2012. She practised at a business law firm called Gascon & associates in Montreal for three years before she contacted the Alouettes assistant general manager at the time, Joey Abrams.
Raîche did her homework, including reading the league's collective agreement front to back – multiple times – highlighting sections about which she was eager to ask questions if she ever got in the door with a CFL club.
Abrams offered her an unpaid internship during training camp in the spring of 2015 – simply a chance to observe how the franchise operated. She jumped at it. When camp was over, she just kept showing up every weekend during the season, while she also worked full-time at the firm and did her Masters degree in taxation.
"I was working during the day, had school at night, and was with the team on weekends," Raîche said. "I had no life during those six months outside of those three things, but I loved it."
She worked the long hours typical to pro sports and pitched in wherever she was needed, from legal insights to administrative tasks to travel logistics. Jim Popp, who was the general manager at the time, eventually offered her a paying job after the season was over, as co-ordinator of football administration. She quit the firm and joined the Als full time.
"At the law firm, the closest people to me knew and understood I had been thinking about a job in football for a long time, but for those who didn't know me as well, they asked why 'would you leave a great career like this for a sports job?'," Raîche recalled. "Some viewed it as me downgrading in my career. Others understood exactly why I did it and recognized the opportunity."
Like many in the CFL, she took on a varied list of tasks last season, handling contracts, advising on player-immigration issues and sponsorships, helping with travel plans, and scouting. She observed Popp as he communicated with players and agents, and was given lots of hands-on work with managing the salary cap.
She travelled with the team and watched games up in the spotter's booth with other staff members.
"At first, they were sometimes quite conscious of a woman being around and would say things like 'Oh Catherine, excuse my language' or 'I apologize in advance of the game about how I might talk up here in the booth,' but they got used to me being around pretty quickly," Raîche said. "You build the trust and that takes time. They have to realize you can do the job. When you are doing everything you can to help the team I think people can see that."
Popp and the Alouettes parted ways mutually after a 7-11 season in which they missed the playoffs. Kavis Reed was promoted from assistant coach to his first general manager's job after 15 years of various coaching jobs in the CFL.
He took careful stock of who he should keep. Raîche's knowledge of the labour agreement, the cap and experience structuring and negotiating contracts as a lawyer were valuable, not to mention some very pertinent research she had done during her Masters, which made her an expert on the taxation of signing bonuses for non-resident athletes.
Reed decided to hire two assistant general managers. Raîche would be the AGM of football operations, managing the cap, working with contracts and the collective agreement, and analyzing the market value of players at their positions. He also hired Joe Mack as AGM of personnel – a 62-year-old veteran football executive who had been GM of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
"Players and coaches alike can be very selective when it comes to who they allow in their inner circles, and Catherine has been able to break down those walls quite easily and be accepted and gain their trust," said 44-year-old Reed. "Her legal expertise has been exceptionally valuable. I think it gives us a competitive advantage to have an AGM right here who can instantly give us those types of answers. She's been a prize when it comes to her resources."
Back in 1988, the Ottawa Rough Riders hired the CFL's first female general manager, Jo-Anne Polak, who was 29. At the time, she was believed to be the first woman of that job title in any pro sports franchise in North America. Raîche has never met Polak, but strives to also be a GM someday.
"In the long term, I'd like to be a general manager, but stability in the sports world is tough. I'm focused on this team, the 2017 season and winning now – a championship for Montreal," Raîche said. "In pro sports, you have to win now. If I work hard and help bring success back here then opportunities will be there."