March 8, 2023

A Change Is Gonna Come

Things are changing.

And I don’t mean the flurry of players moving from team to team during the CFL free agency period, or the slow transition from “Calgary winter” to “Calgary spring.”

I’m talking about the progression of inclusivity throughout the CFL.

Last year, we saw BC Lions head coach Rick Campbell announce Tanya Henderson as the club’s defensive assistant coach, making her the first full-time female coaching hire in the league.

The CFL also introduced the Women in Football Program last season which saw each team welcome one woman to join their football operations or business administration departments for a four-week development opportunity coinciding with the start of training camp.

Assistant athletic therapist Hailee Coll is another one of those pioneers breaking barriers and challenging the status quo with their talents and passion.

“Definitely on the athletic therapy side things are changing,” began Coll. “When I came here in 2018, I was the first official female intern and then I was the first female seasonal and then the first female assistant.

“So, it’s kind of been interesting seeing the league change. It’s been really awesome.

“Last year, I’m pretty sure it was the first year every single team had a female on staff at least at the seasonal position, which is great to see. We have two female head therapists and two female assistant therapists, so we’ve really come a really long way, even since 2018. When I started, it was definitely more scarce in the field.”

Venturing into new territory comes its challenges and obstacles, but Coll is finding steady footing with the Red and White.

“You’re dealing with a lot of things as a female in a male-dominated sport, or even just a male sport because the locker room is just not set up for you, right? So, you have some challenges but as long as you have a team environment around you that’s willing to support you through that, it’s not a problem.

“I think we’re really lucky here in Calgary because they have supported me all the way through and it’s at every level: the administration, the coaching staff and the medical staff. I’ve really had no issues so we’re very lucky.”

It won’t be a surprise to see more women on the sidelines in time to come.

According to Coll, the change starts at the collegiate level and is affecting the future of the sports landscape.

“The thing that I would say is changing the most is,” she began, “if you look at the medical field and students that are coming up, it is female-dominated so, the tides are kind of changing.

“Before, you wouldn’t necessarily get hired because they’re worried about hiring females but now it’s going to get to the point where you don’t really have a choice.

“Especially, if you want to be hiring the best person for the job, you’re going to be looking at more and more females coming up because they are dominating the percentage in medical classes.

“When you’re getting hired, you always want to be hired because you’re the best candidate and not just because you’re a female. But I definitely think up and coming – it’s becoming a lot more common which is really great.”

The road for Coll to get where she is now begins 3,186 kilometres from Calgary.

The Prince Edward Island native began her journey at Acadia University where she completed her undergrad with a degree in kinesiology.

After working with the rugby team as a student athletic trainer, the East Coaster found herself in Calgary so she could pursue her goal of an athletic therapist.

“I originally thought I wanted to be physio and then I found out that ATs did everything that I wanted out of physio so that’s kind of where my career trajectory changed a little bit,” she explained.

“Then I applied to Mount Royal University here in Calgary because they have the only two-year program in the country.

“Going into my last year with Mount Royal I did an internship here with the Stamps. So, I was here for training camp and then I was lucky enough that I placed my practicum with UC football, so I was still around.

“Obviously, we share the stadium with U of C, so I made my presence known on this side of the stadium so that when I wasn’t working a U of C game, I was working the sidelines here with the Stamps. So that was obviously a really great experience.

“From there I applied to be a seasonal and then I was lucky enough to be hired after graduating right out of school and I’ve kind of been here ever since. So, full circle on that one.”

Like most jobs in the sports industry, being an athletic therapist is not your usual 9-to-5.

There is no clock-in and clock-out.

And the list of responsibilities is ever-growing.

“I think that athletic therapy in the CFL encompasses a lot more than people think, for sure,” Coll explained. “There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that sometimes people don’t even know that we do.

“So obviously, we handle all the medical side of things. On a day-to-day basis it is more rehab, treatments in the morning, dealing with any injuries that come up, we do all the taping, we go outside for practice and we’re all out on the field watching the entire practice for the day. After practice there is more treatment, dealing with injuries that happen during practice, and then sending out the injury report that people see online.

“And then there is a lot of stuff that happens behind the scenes, making sure the guys are ready to play. And there’s also a lot of different capacities, we do a lot around the clubhouse, we’re helping equipment with laundry and other equipment stuff, and a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that people may not necessarily know about. The fun stuff is definitely out on the field.

“During a game we’re obviously the people you see out on the field on the sidelines, running out on the field if there is an injury, dealing with taping, lost contacts, anything that you can imagine that can happen during a game, so a multitude of things.”

“There’s a lot of not so glamorous parts of it. We also do the hydration, so we are filling up all the water bottles and filling up the Gatorade refill jugs, putting them out on the field and taking them all down after practice.

“And after games we’re the ones unloading the truck and unloading the gear with the equipment staff. So, it is definitely not always glamorous, but it is always worth it.”

Although Coll’s field has historically been male dominated, there is a trailblazer that has inspired her.

“Claire Toffelmire from the Hamilton Ticats,” she said.

“I reached out to Claire when I was an intern with the Stamps . . . and she was a great resource to me, honestly from the beginning.

“Claire’s story is pretty cool, she started just like I did: student, student again, worked her way up, became a seasonal, worked her way up as the assistant, and then became the head therapist, so that’s obviously a pretty inspirational story to watch her climb that ladder in such a short period of time.

“She was great for me the first couple years. We would chat on the phone, I could email her, text her if I was having any issues and she really helped me navigate my first couple of years in the CFL.”

What advice does Coll have for others wanting to get into the industry?

“I tell all students that I talk to the same thing: apply for everything.

“If you think you may not be the best candidate for the job or you’re having doubts, just apply. The worst thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to get a rejection or maybe you won’t hear back but it’s really no harm done to you. So, just apply to everything. Networking can be as easy as messaging somebody on LinkedIn.

“When I first emailed Claire, I guessed her email. You can guess the company name and then how it figures out, so I just went out on a whim and emailed her, and that worked out really great for me.

“So, just reaching out and talking to people, I find that the more you reach out you’ll be surprised at how willing people are to talk to you and give you advice, sit down with you and have a coffee, and talk through where you’re at and what your next steps are.

“Obviously, volunteering and shadowing can be beneficial, but I would say networking and getting out there and finding out exactly what you want to do and then doing whatever you can to get there.”

While Coll and Toffelmire are among the firsts to break through in their field, they certainly won’t be the last.