VANCOUVER — When Ã‰milie Castonguay was a girl, her family had a cottage in Mont-Tremblant, about two hours northwest of their home in Montreal.
She and her sisters would go skiing there. But the frigid winter temperatures in the Laurentians would often turn the snow to ice, and Ã‰milie remembers sitting on the chairlift one morning with her older sister, Valerie, watching skiers clatter and crash on the crusty slopes below them.
â€œWe said, â€˜You know, we need to go to Vancouver. That’s where the big mountains are. We can have fresh snow all day,â€™â€ Ã‰milie recalled Monday. â€œWe always talked about Vancouver and how amazing it is.â€
A few years later, when Ã‰milie came home for the summer before her fourth year at Niagara University, Valerie reminded her of their conversation. On a hockey scholarship at the college above Niagara Falls on the New York side of the border, Ã‰milie had undergone shoulder surgery and figured the injury ended any chance of a playing career in womenâ€™s hockey.
â€œI was lying in bed watching Friends re-runs and she came in and we had a conversation,â€ Ã‰milie said. â€œI made a joke and she said: â€˜Oh, I think we’ve known your career has been over for a long time in hockey.â€™ I was third-line winger in the NCAA… so obviously I wasn’t going to have much of a career playing after college. But she said: â€˜You’re going to do your law degree like me. You’re going to go to law school and then you’re going to become GM for the Vancouver Canucks.â€™
â€œShe passed away the next day. It was really the last conversation I ever had with her. Vancouver was where I scattered her ashes.â€
Valerie Castonguay went into hospital for what her sister says was a routine surgery and died on the operating table. She was 25, one year older than Ã‰milie. Their younger sister is Alexandra.
Ã‰milie Castonguay did go to law school at the University of Montreal, passed her Quebec Bar exam and became a National Hockey League player agent. And on the â€œvisions boardâ€ she kept at home, Castonguay wrote â€œ38 Vanâ€ — her goal to work in Vancouver by age 38.
â€œI had put Vancouver on my vision board because I thought that’s where I want to build my life,â€ she said. â€œI don’t know how I’m going to get there. I had a business in the east… but I’d figure it out. It’s just kind of strange how the universe makes things happen sometimes.â€
On Monday, the Canucksâ€™ new president, Jim Rutherford, named Castonguay the organizationâ€™s first female assistant general manager. She turns 38 in about six weeks.
â€œFor Vancouver and Jim to call me, and have such a vision and a plan — I love what I’m doing and I love being an agent — but if this isn’t a sign from (Valerie), I don’t know what it is,â€ Castonguay told Sportsnet in an interview after her Zoom call with reporters. â€œIt’s a personal decision, but also a professional one, kind of mixed together.
â€œI can tell you, when I saw Jimâ€™s name pop up on my cell phone, I told myself: I have no players in Vancouver, so he’s not calling me to talk about a player. And that’s when it kind of dawned on me that maybe this was about bringing me on. And it definitely took me a second to compose myself at that moment.â€
The hiring of Castonguay is much bigger than the Canucks. With a client list that included former first-overall pick Alexis LafreniÃ¨re, ex-Canuck Antoine Roussel and Canadian national team captain Marie-Philip Poulin, she became in 2016 the first female agent certified by the NHL Playersâ€™ Association in Canada. Her role with the Canucks is ground-breaking for women in hockey.
But several times during her virtual press conference, Castonguay emphasized that she has always viewed her journey in hockey in â€œnon-binaryâ€ terms.
â€œI grew up playing hockey with the boys, same as them,â€ she said. â€œI watched hockey, same as them. I played with the boys when I was young, and then I played with the girls when I was older.
â€œI never thought: Hey, you know, there’s only men in this industry; I can’t do this. I just put my head down and did the work. I think if you let gender get in your way or you let it intimidate you, that’s when it will do that. And I never really let that happen to me and my journey. Doors open up, and if you can do the work, you’re going to get the jobs. Hopefully this is the start of just more women getting jobs in sports and in hockey particularly. But for me, I just never let gender get in the way.â€
Later, she said: â€œI’ve always had such a good reception from everybody in the sport. It’s important for women that want to be in the sport to know that. Sometimes you get intimidated, but you shouldn’t. If you have the knowledge and you’ve done the work, there’s a place for you here. And if it needs to start with me, then good.â€
Castonguayâ€™s duties with the Canucks will include salary-cap management, player contracts and all issues related to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Rutherford said her voice will be heard in all aspects of hockey operations, and that he hired Castonguay because she was the best candidate — not because she is a woman.
â€œI’m not just doing this to do this and then people are going to be happier or pacified or whatever,â€ Rutherford said. â€œIt’s because I believe in this. It’s another voice from somebody that came up through the system in a different way. And I think the more voices we can have that’s coming from a different place, the more beneficial it’s going to be.â€
Last week, the Canucks hired Rachel Doerrie for their analytics department, and Rutherford told Sportsnet he has his eye on another candidate, who also happens to be female, for another position.
Castonguay said the hardest part of taking the Canucksâ€™ job was telling her player-clients she could no longer represent them.
â€œWhen she called me the other day, she was crying because she couldn’t represent me,â€ Roussel, traded to Arizona from Vancouver last summer, said Monday. â€œI’m like: â€˜Are you kidding me? Like, it’s a dream job, like everybody wanted. Dude, it’s the best thing that can happen.â€™
â€œShe’ll do awesome. She’s a great, great woman. She’s the best. I think she’ll have a tremendous career in the National Hockey League.â€
Asked if he thinks Castonguay will one day become the NHLâ€™s first female general manager, Roussel said: â€œOne hundred per cent. I think she’ll be the one.â€
If thatâ€™s the case, it may have to be with the Canucks. Castonguay said she wants to stay in Vancouver.
â€œI’ve spent a lot of time in Whistler and Tofino, and Squamish is probably my favourite place,â€ she said. â€œEverything from Granville Island to Stanley Park, just everything, Vancouver is my place, where I feel at home the most in the world. It’s crazy to say that, but I’m not even making it up. That’s where I feel at home.
â€œI plan on being there for a long time, for the rest of my life if I can. I’m taking this challenge very seriously. Failure is not an option here for us. We’re going to do things the right way and with the right people, and players are going to feel like they want to be there. That’s my goal.â€
Castonguay first visited Vancouver in 2009, the year after her sister died. She brought Valerieâ€™s ashes as a way to fulfill the girlsâ€™ promise of going to Vancouver together.
Ã‰milie scattered the ashes on the shore as the sun was setting across the Pacific.
â€œVancouver is the place that I always wanted to be,â€ Castonguay said. â€œI’ve always felt my sister there. Every time I have a chance to go on vacation, that’s where I go. I have a very personal relationship with that city. And so for it to turn out this way, it’s just kind of serendipitous.â€
Itâ€™s more than that.