It is easy to forget now with McGill University and the Université de Montréal dominating Quebec university women’s hockey in recent years, but Concordia University has a very rich women’s hockey history.
Concordia won the first two Canadian University women's hockey national titles and was one of the first competitive women's hockey teams in the country. They played against American university teams when there was no Canadian league for them to play in.
When Julie Chu took over the head coaching job last week, she became only the second head coach Concordia has had in 35 years. Chu took over as acting co-head coach last year with Mark McGrath after Les Lawton took a medical leave of absence. She then was named to the full time job on June 9.
"Unfortunately Les got sick last summer, later in the summer and we couldn't really know the status of his recovery at that point. When it started looking like it was going to be longer than anyone really knew, I officially started with the program as an acting head coach around September 1 or 2 and we were starting with the team a couple of days after that."
Chu had been an assistant coach the year before with Lawton and McGrath so she knew how the team worked in terms of practices, but she had a lot to learn.
"It definitely helped that I was with the team the year prior [...] but it didn't mean I knew a lot about how the university itself processed things, how the athletic department worked on the administrative side. Some of the details of making sure all of our travel was booked and what was booked at that point. Every night I came down with another 50 questions I'd have to ask someone the next day and then they would say 'oh you should go see this person' and I would think 'I need to meet this person.'
"I was forced a little bit to learn on my feet and it was a good thing because you don't really have a choice otherwise, and it was a great experience overall. [...] Last year was a good transition period. If anything I'm a little bit ahead of the curve now because I've got a few more things prepared in advance and hopefully come August and September there's not as much that I need to learn about. I think that's an advantage for sure and even with our returning players they know the expectations that we as a coaching staff have, and it wasn't far off from what Les was building as well, so it's all a continuation of the foundation he built."
Chu knew of Concordia’s history from a distance because of her connection to US Olympians Karen Bye and Cammi Granato, who both played at Concordia in the 1990s. As Chu was entering the US National Team system, she would hear stories of how they came to Canada. It was when she started immersing herself in Montreal’s women’s hockey community that she saw it more.
"I was able to run into the more recent players, and I got to know a bit about them and some of the other coaches,: Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, Kelly Sudia as well as Nathalie Dery, they are all Concordia graduates and had a chance to work with the program and they also introduced me to it more so I had known about it.
"But until you're a part of the program it's hard to know what a program is like and what I can say is that Les has done an incredible job with building something you can be proud of. The student athletes he brings in are quality people and they are people that we want to continue to develop. Not only are they great hockey players but then when we leave them, when they graduate, they go into the real world better citizens. People who are going to be able to make an impact in the local communities."
Chu’s playing career is not over. She will continue to play with Les Canadiennes, but made it clear that Concordia is her priority. This past season, when Concordia played she would miss CWHL games or road trips so she could be with her coaching duties. She famously came late to a Canadiennes playoff game after coaching a game with Concordia and had three points.
She says that there are benefits for her players seeing her play.
"I think being able to still be relevant to my current players at Concordia as a player and coach ... in a lot of ways there's a lot of benefits to that. [...] Seeing me make mistakes as a player and then also trying my best to correct them and get better hopefully allows them to see why I have such high expectations and why we want to give them feedback and want to see them develop and grow.
"When I was a young kid and I watched the 1998 team and all those teams compete in the Olympics, they were like these foreign people to me. They were these superstars that couldn't be like me even though we played the same sport. We can bring it down to more of a local level, more typical levels. The Olympics are this unbelievable experience that we get to have but most of our days are not like an Olympic experience. Most of our days are in a quieter gym, in a local community. A lot of them are practice sessions at random times of the day and not always the most ideal times, and meanwhile trying to balance training and getting and having a full time job or some type of job to make finances meet ... that's a lot of what the student athletes have to go through at the university level.
"They have to have that balance of getting their training in, balancing the academics and for a lot of them figuring out the finances of how do they interlace a job on top of it. When we can bring it to the community level I think they realize that we're very similar in a lot of ways. In the way that we should approach the game, our dedication and also our fun and enjoyment of it.
"Women's hockey has grown so much. 1998 to me is the time period that launched women's hockey into continual growth and development and improvement to the game that we have now. With that development, we're in a very fun stage of women's hockey where the gap is closing. Where there used to be a ton of disparity between the top and the bottom players — and there's still going to be that natural disparity — but at the same time we can have players who played at a high level in the CIS or the NCAA go on to the CWHL and go head to head with National team members either past or current and fit right in and be successful.
"That's what we need and that's what we want. We want great leagues that are immersed with a variety of different players that are able to contribute to this amazing product. That's what we have with Les Canadiennes. I think this past year, even though we have Olympians there are so many other players who contributed to our success like an Ann-Sophie Bettez or incoming rookie players who stepped into big important roles for us."