VANESSA GAGNON: THE WHALE’S FRENCH CONNECTION

As the Whale began to tune up for their stretch run to the Isobel Cup Playoffs this past season, they made a few roster moves to add depth and to plug some holes that had developed. One of this exciting group of late season additions was our #2 Vanessa Gagnon, a former star for Clarkson University and an NCAA National Champion with them. She joined the Whale in week 14, at home vs New England rival the Boston Pride, in our You Can Play Game. She wore #21 in our special jerseys designed for that game, and wore it as a starter. And from the opening puck drop and the first shift, Vanessa fit in seamlessly with the Whale scheme of play. She showed speed, strength, and great situational awareness. It was hard to imagine she had just joined the Pod.

So when Cetacean Nation connected with Vanessa for this interview, one of the first things we asked about was how she was able to come in hot, four years after her Clarkson career ended, and never miss a beat. Vanessa explained “ I continued playing hockey in a competitive environment (tournament team) during the winter, and joined a CrossFit gym after college so I could stay in decent shape. Nice of you to say I ‘didn’t miss a beat’ – but let’s just say it definitely took a game and a few practices with the Whale to adjust – the speed of execution is much faster than what I was used to with the travel team. I was finally starting to feel like myself again on the ice just before I got injured…” That season ending injury came in a collision of teammates, and by then, it certainly did seem like there was a scoring opportunity every time she had the puck on her stick.

So five years out from all of her success at Clarkson, we wondered how it came about that Vanessa joined the Whale. She explained “ After college, I was faced with a difficult decision: go back to my native land and play professional hockey with les Canadiennes de Montreal in the CWHL or accept an attractive job offer from a Fortune 500 company, headquartered in Ohio. It was extremely difficult to decide, as I was still on a high from my senior year in college, and just loved the sport so much. However, I decided to be realistic and rational – it was time for me to start building my pedigree in the business world and support myself financially. My parents had done enough! I really hope the next generation of female hockey player get the chance to make a living off hockey, but it is not the case today. The transition was very hard – I questioned my decision more than once, while sitting at my desk staring at a computer screen all day.”

Vanessa continued “The following summer, the NWHL league was announced, and I realized there would be a team based in Buffalo. The first PAID North American professional women’s hockey league? I just couldn’t pass on the opportunity to at least try out – or I thought I might regret it one day. I wanted to be a part of this historical year. I didn’t have much expectations – I just showed up in Buffalo and tried out. Next thing I know I had a contract from the Beauts in hand. This was exciting. However, due to complicated legal stuff related to my visa and my Canadian citizenship (I will spare you the details), I had to decline the offer. I therefore continued watching the league develop from the “side line” until fast forward to a few weeks ago when I received the call from Ryan Equale. This time around, the legal “stuff” was all squared out, so I actually had the green light. Since there were only a few games left in the season, I arranged my work schedule accordingly and decided to embrace the opportunity – and I am very happy I did so even if it didn’t end as planned (… with the injury). Very grateful that my current employer was supportive as well.”

Her employer that Vanessa references is Saint-Gobain NA, who has not only supported Vanessa but celebrated her achievements both in business and hockey. Take a look at this totally cool video about Vanessa.and how her sport and work fit hand in hockey glove:

https://twitter.com/saintgobainna/status/1102948068843028480?s=21

We also asked Vanessa, who holds an MBA degree (obtained with a 4.0 GPA), if she felt the lessons learned as a hockey player had a positive impact on her business career, She replied unhesitatingly “ Definitely! As a business professional, you are constantly working under pressure – whether it is because you have to meet a specific timeline, or because you have to deliver a presentation in front of an executive committee, or because you have to deliver bottom line results – ultimately your performance has an impact on the success of your organization which is very similar to being on a sports team. Hockey has given me some of the tools that I use to manage stress, perform under pressure, and face adversity. In addition, hockey has taught me the importance of teamwork and gave me some experience in a leadership position. I could go on and on…. But I think most importantly, hockey made me discover what it means to have a passion.”

Cetacean Nation values and is awed by the passion for hockey that our Whale display. We asked Vanessa, who hails from St Constant, Quebec (south over the St Lawrence River about half an hour from Montreal) how she got her start in the game she loves. She replied “I started playing when I was 9 yrs old thanks to my dad. I’m pretty sure it only took a few strides before I fell in love with the sport. My dad was always my coach growing up – and it is actually because of him and other parents that believed girls could play hockey that we now have elite programs in Quebec with all girls’ team. I’ve only had to play with the boys one year. The remainder of my career, I was lucky enough to always be playing on elite girls team.” Vanessa continued, speaking about some other sports she was involved in, and why that is important  “I tried/learned to play various sports when I was a kid – soccer, baseball, golf, flag football, tennis… but ended up dedicating most of my time in my teenage years to hockey. Today, besides hockey in the winter, I enjoy playing golf in the summer when times allow for it. I think it is super beneficial for the development of an athlete to play various sports growing up – and would encourage all parents to consider enrolling their kids in more than one sport as they are developing their abilities at a younger age. For example, soccer will develop your footwork, tennis your hand eye coordination, which are important skills to have in hockey.”

Another part of Vanessa’s early hockey life was with a team called the Dawson Blues. We asked Vanessa about this, as it was where she skated just prior to Clarkson. Her explanation included some insight into the scholastic hockey experience in Quebec. Vanessa explained “ The Dawson Blues is a team I played with for two years after high school in Montreal. In Quebec, the school system is different than in the USA. Quebec's education system provides for a step between high school and university:I’m cégep. "Cégep" is a French acronym that stands for Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel. The vast majority of Quebec students start cégep at age 17. Depending on their educational objectives, some will then continue on to university while others will enter the workforce with strong practical skills and knowledge following three years of technical studies. I went to the "Cégep” Dawson College in Montreal, and played for the school’s team – The Dawson Blues.”

When it came time to move into the college ranks, Vanessa chose Clarkson University. At the time she said “A couple of the reasons why I chose Clarkson are for its proximity with Canada and for the small campus. But I mainly chose to come here because of the hockey program and the coaches." It was a great decision by Vanessa, and she excelled both in the classroom and on the ice. She played in all 148 games the Clarkson women were on the ice during her four year career, scoring 33 goals and registering 36 assists, and was named ECAC Defensive Forward of the Year as a senior,. She was an NCAA National Champion, had nine game winning goals in her career, and won nearly 60% of her faceoffs.

She was a first team ECAC All-Academic selection all four years, and among her many awards she was recipient of the Mandi Schwartz Student-Athlete of the Year Award as a senior. Another part of her academic experience that Vanessa told us about, was a program at Clarkson that afforded her the opportunity to spend some unique time in Africa. Vanessa filled us in, saying “I traveled to Uganda in May 2014 as part of a global experience with Clarkson University to implement the first system to screen, support, and grow microfinance-funded projects by working along with students from Mbarara University and 10 to 15 leaders of different groups of entrepreneurial women from Kabwohe. It was an experience of a lifetime.”

When we asked Vanessa about her favorite moment on or off ice at Clarkson, she told us “I have so many great memories from Clarkson – it is difficult to pick one. But of course, what comes to mind immediately, are the final minutes of the NCAA championship game. Ending my career on such a high note was amazing. The celebration following the game with the fans… the community that was waiting for us at Cheel Arena when we came back to Clarkson the next day, it was so special. Besides the obvious choice, some of my best memories from Clarkson are: just hanging out with my teammates on a daily basis, the road trips, our game day routines, and hearing that crazy loud horn at Cheel Arena when we scored a goal.”

Vanessa was adept at winning faceoffs, had nearly perfect balance between goals and assists, and was recognized for her defensive skills as well. When we asked her how that particular style of play developed. Vanessa had this to say: “ Good question… I think I have always valued the quality of what I would call a “2 way” player – someone that you can count on not only to produce offensively, but also put on the ice to defend a lead towards the end of the game. Growing up playing center, I always took pride in protecting my own net, and not getting scored on while I was on the ice. I am typically more disappointed at myself after a game if I am on the ice for a goal against us vs. not having any point.” She added “When it comes to face offs – this is probably one of my favorite statistic to track! On a personal level, it’s just really satisfying to win a clean face off. But if you look at the bigger picture, a face off win can be the difference between a OT win and a loss. If you look at the latest OT wins in the NCAA and NWHL, from Clarkson and the Minnesota Wildcats, both goals came following a clean face off win. If the centers didn’t win those face-offs, there could have been a different outcome. On the flip side, that’s also how you can prevent a team from scoring. Often an overlooked play, yet so crucial.” Spoken not only as a skilled athlete, but a true student of the game.

Vanessa has coached at both Gilmour Academy and Kent State, so we wondered, with her busy schedule, if she was still coaching. Vanessa said “Currently, I do not. I love coaching, and I am sure one day I will dedicate more time to it – especially if I have kids one day that play – but for now, I am focusing on my professional work and playing (while I still can!!!) Well, if there is one thing all of her fans in Cetacean Nation are sure of, it is that our #2 Vanessa Gagnon, our French Connection, can sure still play! Many thanks to Vanessa for letting the fans get to know her a little better, and we all wish her a speedy and complete recovery. We can’t wait to see you on the ice again next season. Fins Up!