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Getting to know your U SPORTS coaches: Lisa Haley, Ryerson Rams

U SPORTS Staff

U SPORTS sits down with one key athlete, coach, and staff member of each U SPORTS athletic program in our interview series “Getting to know…”

  • Name: Lisa Haley
  • School: Ryerson University
  • Sport: Women’s hockey
  • Position: Head coach
  • Seniority: 8th season
  • Previous school/position: Head Coach, Saint Mary’s University
  • Hometown: Westville, N.S.

1. How did you first get involved in coaching? What was your path to your position as head coach of Ryerson?

I played hockey at Concordia University from 1991-96, while earning a Bachelor of Science (BSc.) in exercise science. I started my placement for athletic therapy at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and ended up volunteering to coach the women’s hockey team, which was at the club level at that time. The timing was right, as it became a championship sport for CIAU – now U SPORTS – the following season in 1997-98. Our athletic director at the time, Larry Uteck, asked me to take on the position at a more serious level, and to coach the team at the varsity level. We got off to a great start, winning the AUAA – now AUS – conference in that first year. I haven’t looked back since and have been coaching at the U SPORTS level ever since. I believe it’s just myself and Howie Draper still coaching from that original season. Although, I did take a one-year sabbatical to coach at the Olympics so, I think Howie has the longer streak!

2. Who are the people that have influenced you most as a coach?

I had some terrific athletic directors at SMU in Larry Uteck, Kathy Mullane, and Dr. David Murphy. All of them were amazing leaders, and different in their styles but, I learned so much from each one of them about professionalism, setting and achieving expectations, managing people and personalities, perseverance, and so much more. Since coming to Ryerson seven years ago and working under Dr. Ivan Joseph – the athletic director at the time – I learned about having a vision, thinking outside the box, and that really, anything is possible, so dream big. When you look at where he has taken Ryerson Athletics in such a short span of 10 years, it’s clear he walks the talk. Just as important to me, my career at Hockey Canada has run parallel to my university coaching career, and that has allowed me to work with the best of the best in our profession. The list is so long but, for sure the likes of Julie Healy and Les Lawton at Concordia, Mel Davidson, Wally Kozak, Darryl Belfry, Kevin Dineen, and Danielle Goyette at Hockey Canada, and Ken Dufton at Ryerson have played a huge part in my development as a hockey coach. Finally, Dina Bell Laroche has been so key in helping me push beyond my personal boundaries to places I didn’t know existed. I am so fortunate and grateful to have found strong role models every step of the way.

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3. How would you describe your coaching style?

I’d say my coaching style is about teaching and patience. I believe in every one of my players and in the fact that they have a strength that can contribute to our team success. Every player has their own pace when it comes to learning and developing, and that’s where patience is key. I also believe in players deciding their roles by putting them in every situation possible early in the season. As a result, their performance dictates what their individual strengths are. I’d also say I have high expectations of myself, my staff, and our players. I don’t appreciate those who take shortcuts, nor do I like those who take advantage of another person or situation. To me, it’s about each person striving to reach their full potential. The closer we each get to that, the closer we get to team success. 

4. Which coach do you admire the most, and why?

Being a female, I know I should name a female, and there are many deserving female candidates. However, if I am to be 100 per cent honest, the coach I admire most would have be Ken Dufton. Wally Kozak would be a close second.

Ken Dufton has been coaching hockey for longer than I’ve been alive, and he continues to invest his heart and soul into the women’s game. He’s been retired from his job as a GM at LCBO for about four to five years now, and this year he’s coaching with four different women’s teams at four different levels. He’s been the coach and founder of the Toronto Aeros Girls’ Hockey Association, and still coaches their Midget AA team. He also coaches a girls’ prep school team in Toronto, he’s the associate coach for my Ryerson team, and he’s just started in his role as a coach advisor for the Toronto Furies of the CWHL. I’ve never met a more passionate, dedicated, smart, and professional coach in my 20-plus years in this profession. Ken is in his 60s, and there are many days when he is on the ice three times a day for practice, starting at 6:00 a.m. and finishing at 9:00 p.m. These are all volunteer coaching positions! I can only hope I have that passion for the game when I’m in my 60s. 

5. What is the most “out-of-the-box” thing you’ve done as a coach?

Well that’s a tough one for sure, because people who know me would say that I am quite organized and structured in my approach to things. I guess one thing that might be considered out of the box is during the time my son was an infant/toddler. I didn’t want me being a coach to stop me from being a good mom, and I didn’t want me being a mom to stop me from being a good coach. So, from the day he was born, my son travelled everywhere with our team – and that includes my time with Hockey Canada. I remember strapping his car seat into the bus seat and taking him on overnight road trips around the AUS when he was just two weeks old and flying to Germany with our U22 Hockey Canada team for a tournament when he was 11 weeks old. So, there were countless of random times when I had to breastfeed him in between periods, and so on.

Being a full-time coach and mom is definitely a juggling act, and I know the stats show many women drop out of the coaching profession because of that. I didn’t want to be a statistic. I wanted to be a role model to my young female players that striving for success in both is possible.

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6. What is your greatest coaching moment or achievement?

Personally, I’d have to say coaching at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine, and the fact that we won, and the way that we won was pretty special. There is so much preparation and commitment, and literal blood, sweat, and tears behind the scenes that everyday Canadians don’t get to see when they watch the finished product on TV. For me, being responsible as an assistant coach to build that team, learn the personal journeys of our players and what they’ve invested to try and win that one gold medal game for Canada, uprooting my family and moving them to Calgary for the grind of that six-month centralized process, it’s such a life-changing and life-challenging experience. The sacrifices our families make to be apart from us so much is definitely the most difficult part. So, having them there at the Olympics with us was special.

The game itself was an emotional rollercoaster! With us going down 2-0, then scoring late in the third period – twice – to tie it but, not before Team USA had hit the goal-post on an empty-net, and then winning it in OT on a powerplay, everything was just so dramatic. To have my husband and son in the stands there to witness every moment with us was incredible as well. I cried uncontrollably when they finally got down to ice level and I got the chance to hug and kiss them. Then to share the gold medal and celebration with them, all of our staff, and players right in that moment was incredible. That was the best night of all our lives together.

7. What’s the best advice you can give to an athlete and/or athlete’s parents?

The best piece of advice I could give to a prospective athlete and their parents would be to take your time and do your homework on what schools interest you. When making your final decision, focus on what is the right fit for you, regardless of whether it’s the NCAA or U SPORTS or CCAA or something in between. This is your university experience so, do what’s best for you. I suggest that you make the academic program your priority, along with campus life i.e. rural vs urban, size of the campus, number of students, etc., then focus on the hockey program as a third priority. Being a former student-athlete myself, I 100 per cent believe that, that opportunity is so worthwhile. However, just be sure that the student part comes first, and the athlete part comes second. Be careful not to just jump at the first school that pays attention to you.

8. How have you changed as a coach over time? What principles/values, etc. have remained the same?

For sure I’ve become more patient as a coach over time. My perspective on my role has broadened. As a young coach, I was living and dying with every game we played, and it was all about getting the win. As time goes by, you start to recognize there is so much more to be gained than just the two points. I see my role as a coach to be about helping my players reach their full potential in all aspects. To do that means my players have to have self-confidence, accountability, and authenticity. So, I’m now likely to give them more rope in their performance, so long as they are being accountable, and authentic in their intentions and actions. If they’re taking shortcuts, that’s a totally different conversation.

I’ve also changed in the area of leadership. I used to try and take control of every key moment with my team. I wanted to be the only voice in the room between periods, lead the team cheer, be the problem solver in whatever was distracting my team, and so on. The issue with that is it’s not humanly possible to be there at every key moment, and so, if I haven’t developed leadership within my team already, we will fail in those moments. So, I invest a great deal of time and effort developing the leadership group with my team. I’ve learned how important it is to show trust in them, to give them a voice with both the team and our coaching staff. To do that, they need to know me, and I need to know them. The relationship between us is critical. I invest in our conversations together. We have engaging discussions about team issues, and then move forward together. I’ve learned that the conversation is not about the relationship, the conversation IS the relationship.

What has never changed over the years are my core values of integrity, transparency, and trust. I believe I act with integrity every day especially, in the decision I make, and I realize there should be no such thing as a momentary lapse in integrity. So, when it’s needed, my players appreciate the transparency in my communication with them, so long as the communication happens in a respectful and constructive way. When that’s the case, the level of trust is strengthened.

9. What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in coaching mode?

For sure my favourite thing to do away from the game is to spend time with my family. I am very much an outdoors person so, I love to ride my motorcycle, spend time at the cottage, or go camping, fishing, golfing – anything that happens outside. My son plays competitive hockey and lacrosse, and loves riding his scooter so, I love watching him play, and just being a mom in the stands, without the responsibility of being the coach.

10. What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you as a coach? 

A few years ago, I had arranged to play an exhibition game between my Ryerson team and Team China. For some reason, through all of my written correspondence with their team manager in arranging the game, in my mind, I thought I was arranging to host them on Dec. 5 but, when I was emailing them I was typing Oct. 5. I never picked up on it at all.

So, Oct. 5 rolls around and I am at our family cottage in Northern Ontario – because it’s the Thanksgiving long weekend. We were actually out bird hunting when I get a call from our rink guy telling me Team China has just arrived and asking what dressing rooms they should be assigned to. I could not believe it when I went back through the email chains, and there it was, I had arranged with their manager to play on Oct. 5th when the whole time I had it in our team calendar to be Dec. 5. I didn’t even have the ice booked for Oct. 5 so, it wasn’t like they could at least have practiced instead. Definitely, the dumbest thing I’ve done as a coach. In the end, thankfully Team China had scheduled multiple games during their trip, and they still got to play some OUA opponents, just not Ryerson.