March 8, 2019

O’Leary: Pontbriand taking her game from the field to the CFL office

Laurence Pontbriand hears from her classmates from university fairly often. A substitute phys. Ed teacher when she lived in Montreal, she gets caught up on her former colleagues lives, thinks about the family she misses and about the life she was living up until almost a year ago.

She left all of it behind last April to come to Toronto to become the Canadian Football League’s coordinator of football operations.

She is the CFL’s first full-time female football ops hire.

She splits her time between working with referees and registering contracts, updating the daily status report and providing clubs with salary information and reports on the structure of rosters.

As hard as it was to leave a place that she was very happy in, Pontbriand followed her passion, which for half of her life has been football.

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She started playing flag football at 14 and while she was studying at the Universite de Montreal, played rugby for five years. That led into her taking up tackle football in 2010 and that’s where the game came together for her. She loved it, but there would be a learning curve for her.

“I was expecting to be a superstar right away,” she laughed, “but it’s very different than flag football. There are many other elements in the game. It gets much more technical in tackle football.”

She poured herself into the game and in a couple of years it had started to pay off for her. She became a standout receiver in the Women’s Football Alliance for the Montreal Blitz, then became a key contributor to Team Canada, competing in the Women’s World Championship in 2013 and 2017. In Canada’s silver medal finish in 2017, she was named team Canada’s MVP.

She was splitting her time between football and substitute teaching in Montreal when she was selected to go to the NFL’s Women in Football Forum last year. She was one of four Canadians at the forum and went into it with a goal. She wanted to come out of it with a job in football.

“It was great, I learned a lot,” she said. “I took everything that was thrown at me. I tried to talk to as many people as possible to build a network.”

When the CFL was planning its regional combine in Montreal a couple of months later, Pontbriand was invited to volunteer for the day.

“It was kind of a job interview/chance to get to know her a little better,” said Ryan Janzen, the CFL’s senior director of football operations.

“She really impressed me there. She did everything we asked her to do. She was actually went above and beyond doing stuff. It felt like it was a natural environment for her. She was a football player and she got it right away, so that was kind of the initial interview. That went really well.

“We sat down with her a couple of times before we gave her the job, but that day at the combine, I knew she was what we wanted. She seemed like a self-starter and she knew the game well and would be a good fit in our department.”

She’s brought the same approach into her job at the CFL. She never thought she’d have a desk job but she’s loved learning the CBA and working with the league’s referees.

“Waking up and thinking about football every day, I feel so grateful,” she said. “I love the job so much. It’s just fulfilling me. It’s a challenge every day.”

Janzen looks at the last year with Pontbriand and sees the department as a stronger one.

“As soon as you start getting different ideas and seeing things differently…it’s just a benefit to our department in general to have diversity, for the ideas that come from it. Just the positivity that can come out of not having the same sort of person at every job.”

The challenge Pontbriand wants to take on in her football career is involving more women in the game.

“That’s one of my big, big goals. That’s basically why I’m here,” she said. “I want female officials on the field and I want to maybe try to develop a WCFL. That’s the ultimate goal.”

The CFL will have a female USPORTS official at its ref’s clinic in May, along with one of Pontbriand’s former Blitz teammates. It’s hard to think long-term when she’s still learning so much, counting down the days to her first anniversary in her present role, but she hopes for a future where the idea of women in football doesn’t seem so foreign.

There’s a saying, that if you want to get from A to B, you have to have someone screaming for C. Taking on instructing roles with Ontario Football Alliance and working to set up a women’s football combine on March 30, Pontbriand seems happy to be that person.

“I want big things for women’s football. I want it to be just as good or even better than women’s hockey — we’re not there yet at all,” she said.

“Name a sport that is so…less developed on the women’s side. Even boxing or other typically male sports are more developed on the women’s side than football.

“We’re so behind. It’s fun because we are so behind that we can make a lot of progress fast, but it’s like, geez. I want to change the mentality. Football is also for women.”