It was a week before the final game of their regular-season when the Saskatoon Valkyries knew they had something special.
They were rolling through an undefeated season in the Western Women’s Canadian Football League and had just topped the Manitoba Fearless 37-0. They started their season with an exhibition win against a women’s team in Las Vegas and now had gotten a look at every team in their league. It was beginning to sink in that they had a legitimate shot at winning the whole thing for the first time in three years.
There had been something brewing with the team from the time they’d held their first meetings in January, when the cold and dark of the prairies makes the idea of football feel like it’s a lifetime away.
“It just had this different feel to it,” said Michelle Duchene, the Valkyries general manager, trainer and co-founder. She’d seen every iteration of her team over the last nine years.
“We are a pretty young team and we’ve been growing in the last couple of years,” Pat Barry, the team’s head coach said. “We kind of knew that this could be a special year, early on.”
“I definitely do remember watching some of our rookies this year and thinking, ‘Wow, this sport has really developed. There are a lot of athletic girls here that want to play at an elite level,’” said Ehjae Chan, a veteran defensive back with the Valkyries.
“There was a feeling in our team, a feeling of meshing, like (we knew) this is going to be a good year.”
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By June 2 the training, the practices, the meetings, the juggling act with life’s demands were all starting to feel worth it. The team bus rolled south to Regina with a spotty roster. Whenever the team plays in Regina, Chan said, players will drive down on their own.
She sat toward the front of the bus with her teammates. Duchene, Barry and his staff — also incomplete that day — always sat in the back. That’s where a conversation started that would change everything.
“We had gotten a phone call from one of Justin’s best friends, who was buddies with some of us on the team to tell us that he was missing,” Duchene said.
Justin Filteau was the team’s defensive line coach. He was flying back from Medicine Hat, Alta. to Moose Jaw and was going to meet the team in Regina. The small plane hadn’t reached its destination.
“We went to social media and were trying to find articles and saw that there was a plane missing,” Duchene continued. “Five minutes later…I got a phone call from our executive director at Football Saskatchewan and Justin’s friend called again. We found out from them at the same time that he hadn’t made it.”
Filteau was one of three people on the plane that had crashed shortly after its takeoff from Medicine Hat. There were no survivors. A former junior player with the Saskatoon Hilltops and a former University of Saskatchewan Huskie, Filteau shared his love of the game as a coach at numerous levels. A leader, an advocate for football and an irreplaceable energetic presence in the community was suddenly gone. Filteau was just 26.
Ask anyone what Filteau was like and before any words come, you get a laugh.
“Justin was amazing,” Duchene said. “At his funeral (Barry) said it best. You don’t just meet or know Justin. You experience Justin.”
She laughed again.
“He had this young, kid-like energy to him all the time, put into a man’s body. He just had so much energy and enthusiasm. He loved coaching and he loved talking and so the two combined just made him such a great coach.”
Chan remembers any time the defence would get a sack or an interception, she’d see and hear Filteau.
“He’d be jumping on the sidelines with both feet in the air. Like knees tucked. Straight jumping,” she said.
“He had so much energy and he had very funny ways of expending it. He’s definitely the type of person you wanted in your corner. You’re very drawn to his personality.”
“I coached tykes on spikes with him. It’s the Saskatoon minor football program for little kids,” said Valkyries backup QB and receiver Reed Thorstad.
“That was a lot of fun, he was great with them. This year when we went to Vegas I had the pleasure of sitting beside him for all of our flights, so I felt like I got to know him pretty good. He was a very fun guy. Our flight home from Vegas was the funnest flight I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve got those good memories.”
He was fun to be around and that was great, Barry said, but he wanted Filteau back on his staff — he’d taken a break from it in 2018 but had been there prior years — because of the type of coach he was.
“We knew that Justin was a winner. That’s the thing we really admired about him,” Barry said.
“We really liked all of his personal qualities. He was a friend of mine, but this young man was a winner in everything that he did and that was definitely why we wanted him back.”
Chan remembers his booming voice yelling out “Pursue!” during drills.
“He just always wanted the best from people. He always gave his best and he expected the same from everyone,” she said. “He was a very encouraging coach but very honest. You couldn’t ask for better from someone and also someone that was your friend.”
Duchene knew how quickly word about Filteau’s death would travel. The coaches called a meeting when everyone got to Mosaic Stadium.
“I wasn’t aware at that point that there was anything wrong,” Thorstad said.
“Pat had told us we’d have a meeting and so we all kind of gathered around. As we came in and saw all the coaches it was very obvious something was wrong.”
“That was that’s probably the most difficult thing I ever had to do as a coach,” Barry said.
On top of processing the news, the team had to figure out what they wanted to do about the game they were there to play. They’d made the trip, the venue was booked and the Regina Riot was there, waiting to see what was coming next.
“At some point we had to make that decision,” Duchene said.
“We actually talked to Justin’s mom, who strongly encouraged us to play the game. She said that Justin did everything with heart and she wanted us to go out there and do what Justin would want us to do and play the game with heart.
“She was absolutely amazing. I can’t even explain how as his mom she was so strong. You could definitely see where he got his traits from.”
“I told a few people she’s my new hero,” Barry said of Justin’s mother, Nancy.
“I don’t know how she was able to be so upbeat and positive in that dark moment. I relayed that message to the team and we got it together and got ready to play the game.”
How a team is dealt crippling news and in the same day goes out to play a game that requires your complete focus is remarkable. To an outsider, at least.
“For us it was no question. There was no other option. We had to play,” Chan said.
“There was no other way to honour him in that moment, because that’s what he would have wanted. Even in the changeroom before we officially got word that the game was going to go on, we were talking and saying that we had to play.
“There’s no other choice here: We have to play this game and we have to win it.”
In a season that was laced with success, that the Valkyries were able to pull themselves together and pay tribute to their fallen coach that day might be their greatest one. As the clock ticked away in the final seconds of their 22-7 win, they held their helmets to the sky. Each helmet had his initials, J.F. taped to it. They would go from the regular-season finale into the playoffs dedicating the rest of their season to Filteau.
In the locker room, the team signed the game ball and tried to give it to his family.
“We wanted to give the ball to her and their family and (Nancy) said, ‘No. I want you to keep it and touch it, everybody touch it before every game and you give that ball to me when you win the championship,’” Chan said.
“It was kind of our good luck charm,” Thorstad added. “It felt like we had a little piece of Justin there with us.”
With Filteau at the centre of their mission, the Valkyries rolled through the postseason, beating the Winnipeg Wolfpack 66-0, then taking down the Edmonton Storm 53-0. They topped Regina in the final on June 29, 25-3. The Riot was the only team to score points against the Valkyries in non-exhibition games this year.
“That championship game, there was not a moment where we did not feel connected,” Chan said.
“It was a really cool feeling. It felt like we were one mind that whole game. I’d say that was one of my favourite experiences in my entire football career.”
Almost a month after Filteau’s death, the team was able to make good on his family’s request. They presented his father, Ron with the signed ball.
“Giving his dad (the ball) at the end of that championship game was really exciting. We all had a group hug and it was a very moving moment,” Thorstad said.
“They were so supportive to us,” Chan said of the Filteau family.
“Obviously football is family but Justin was literally their family and they were the ones coming behind us and supporting us. It just speaks to the strength and the character that Justin had. I know it came from his family.”
The story of the Valkyries season ended that day, but it’s still early in the healing process for everyone. Behind the laughter that the memories evoke sits a heavy pain. From top to bottom, the team takes solace in the timing of the plane crash. They couldn’t imagine going through this without each other there, without the comfort that practices and workouts and game days brought them. Filteau found that closeness with people through football. His passing brought it to an entire team, pulling them together more than the game could have.
“There’s no one else I would have wanted to be with in that moment and weirdly enough I think playing a football game with that kind of emotion behind you is the greatest way to express some things that you don’t know how to express otherwise,” Chan said.
“There’s something about football. You’re literally putting your body on the line for your teammates and I think that in itself bonds you to each other in ways that just being friends wouldn’t.
“Being on a women’s team in a male-dominated sport in itself is difficult. It kind of bonds you together as warriors in a different way as well. We’re all fighting for something beyond ourselves, something beyond even just the sport. The existence of the Valkyries has opened up opportunities for younger girls and enabled them to believe that their dreams are possible. I think it’s the best sport I’ve ever played.
“I don’t think I would have wanted to be anywhere else with anyone else doing anything else in that time.”
Toward the end of May, Barry had a conversation with Filteau. He’d told Barry how much he was enjoying coaching and Barry had encouraged him to get involved with Team Saskatchewan for next year’s women’s national tournament in Edmonton.
“I told him he was a great young coach and that he does a lot for women’s football and that he should apply for this next year,” he said.
“I’ve actually thought about that a bit over the last five or six weeks. That’s definitely the last conversation I had with him. I feel pretty blessed that it was a positive conversation. It wasn’t sort of a throwaway conversation like you sometimes have in life.
“As a young coach Justin brought so much to the table, just so much knowledge about defence. Volunteer coaches are…oh my goodness they’re so essential. Someone as powerful and positive as Justin was, it’s a blow to amateur football in Saskatchewan to lose him.”