In the world of hockey, is it harder to be respected as a woman or as a 30-year-old?

Émilie Castonguay thought for 20 seconds before offering an answer. And 20 seconds of silence in a telephone interview is relatively long. Especially when it is impossible to see the facial expression of the person you are interacting with.

While waiting for the answer, back in time.

One morning, when she was “7 or 8 years old,” Castonguay was enjoying lunch in a restaurant on the corner of rue Saint-Urbain and avenue du Mont-Royal, in Montreal. During the meal, she tells her sisters that one day she will play in the National Hockey League. “Both looked at me and said I’ll never play in the National League, because girls don’t play in the NHL. »

At that time, Manon Rhéaume had not yet put on the pads for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Castonguay, on the sidewalk, looked his father straight in the eyes: “Dad, I’m going to be in the National League, even if it’s not as a player. »

The assistant manager of the Vancouver Canucks is now 39 years old and was far from suspecting, at that precise moment, that she would make her life a battle to, one day, reach the NHL. Either way.

Long premise to finally return to the original question. While neither women nor young people are numerous in the highest levels of the NHL, Castonguay offers his answer, still somewhat hesitant, after 20 seconds:

“It’s hard to answer, because I don’t know what it’s like to be a guy in your 30s. As a woman, there are challenges. If I had stopped at each of them, I wouldn’t be where I am today, because it can get heavy and I probably would have given up. I had to create a shell for myself. I know it’s tough for women, it still is. We still have a lot of work to do and I know that I have a responsibility, as a woman, to pave the way for those to come. »

Castonguay answered La Presse’s call from his office located on the upper floors of Rogers Arena, the home of the Canucks.

She has been there since January 2022, when she became the second woman in NHL history to serve as assistant general manager. She was 37 when she took office. Angela Gorgone was the first to hold the position in 1996 with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

When Jim Rutherford, the team’s president of operations, called her almost two years ago, she refused to believe it. As soon as she saw the name on the caller ID, she understood why she was receiving this call. “I didn’t have any players in Vancouver. I texted Jim to tell him I was going to call him the next day. I was too shocked. »

For her, it was the achievement of a goal. The realization of a dream.

Hoping to become a CEO in the early 1990s was akin to wanting to explore Saturn or live to be 200. It was inconceivable.

Even in his early days, and still today, some people had difficulty coping with his presence: “Sometimes, people don’t even look you in the eye when they talk to you, because there is zero respect. You have to get through it, not take it personal. I must continue to survive in difficult times. »

However, the Montrealer is today on the rise in the world of hockey. She became a pioneer. She has left her mark on the history of her sport and she is only just beginning. She hasn’t even reached her forties yet.

While the average age of NHL general managers is 54.9, Castonguay doesn’t see her youth as a disadvantage because she knows her turn will come. In the meantime, she embraces the wisdom and experience of chairman Rutherford, 74, and the team’s general manager, Patrik Allvin, 48.

“It takes everything, like a hockey team. It takes young people and veterans. […] And Jim has this concern for diversity, not just guy-girl, but age,” she emphasizes.

And if she takes pleasure in listening to the advice of her oldest colleagues, she only hopes that it will be reciprocal.

Castonguay nevertheless senses a “turning point” in hockey and elsewhere in the sport. She sees this desire “not to always recycle the same ideas, the same people”.

In fact, “sport needs that. At the same time, I am young, but not that young,” she adds, full of humility.

At 39, Castonguay feels like she’s where she was meant to be. “I convince myself every day that I belong here. I know I have it, but I have to remember it. »

It was in 2016, when she became the first certified player agent in Canada, that she realized her uniqueness. Not only thanks to messages from students or young women in the business world, but especially during his first meeting at the summit.

“At the first agent meeting, with Don Fehr in 2016 in Toronto, I walked into the room and it was 150 men dressed the same with the same shoes and the same haircut. »

She eventually convinced herself of it, because she never skimped on her efforts. When she played in the NCAA with Niagara University in the United States, she worked hard with the goal of becoming a general manager in the NHL in mind. “They told me it was cute at the time. »

By the time she was in her twenties, evenings at the bar with friends were replaced by study sessions. Hockey video sessions, through law homework. The team bus had become his library. Every opportunity was good to perfect your knowledge. She knew she didn’t just have to be good or adequate. To succeed, she had to be better than everyone else. Especially to get ahead of her male colleagues.

“I took risks. I had a bachelor’s degree in finance, I played college hockey and I went to law school. At first, I made peanuts, because I was trying to be an agent. I told myself that no matter what happened, I was never going to give up,” she explains.

This story is that of a little girl, aged 7 or 8, who cried at the corner of Saint-Urbain and Mont-Royal, because the impossible wanted to block her path. By tying double knots in her ambition, she went to the edge of the Pacific, to live from her passion, and above all to realize a dream that seemed like fiction.