Raphaëlle Tousignant's historic inclusion on Canada's Para hockey team 'big step forward' for women's game
'Everyone is looking at me,' says 20-year-old Terrebonne, Que., native
Raphaëlle Tousignant is realizing her dreams and making history in the process.
The Para hockey player from Terrebonne, Que., was recently named to Canada's national team for the upcoming world championships, becoming the first woman ever to land a roster spot.
Everything is still sinking in for the 20-year-old.
"I'm part of this team but I don't realize it yet. It's so unreal because I wanted that for so long. Hopefully by the end of the world championships I'm going to realize it," she told CBC Sports with a laugh.
It will be the first worlds hosted in Canada, which take place in Moose Jaw, Sask. The Canadians begin their tournament Monday against Korea. The event runs through to Sunday.
Tousignant's historic first is part of a dream she has been working toward for years, with the ultimate goal of becoming a Paralympian. While Para hockey is technically a mixed sport at the Paralympic level, only three female players have ever competed in the tournament. Tousignant is hoping to be the first for Canada.
WATCH | Tousignant ready to make history:
Tousignant's drive of becoming a Paralympian began in 2018, but she was quickly met with naysayers who thought she was being naive.
"My only way was to be part of the men's team to go there; it's still the only way right now. So I just started to say to everyone, 'I want to be part of the men's team' ... and people were like, 'you're just young, you're still a child, you're not being realistic. You're a woman, they are men and they are way bigger,'" Tousignant said.
"I kind of stopped telling people that this was my dream. But at the end of the day, when I was training and when I was in competition or training camp with the women's team or provincial team, in the back of my mind I knew that I was working to achieve this goal."
Tousignant, along with Alanna Mah, took part in Canada's selection camp last September in Calgary, marking just the second time female players had participated. Christina Picton was the first in 2019.
She was named to the 2023 team after shining on the ice last month at the Défi sportif in Montreal, a multi-sport event for disabled athletes.
Para hockey pioneer
The Para hockey pioneer continues to prove doubters wrong.
Canada is one of the top programs in the sport, capturing six Paralympic medals and 10 world championship medals, making Tousignant's groundbreaking accomplishment even more impressive.
Head coach Russ Herrington is excited for what Tousignant brings to the team, including the playmaking ability that helped her become the top female player in the world.
"The important thing is that Raphaëlle, like the other players that were named to the roster, earned her way onto that 18-athlete final roster," Herrington said.
"She brings a feistiness and a competitive spirit to the ice. I think that her hockey IQ and her spatial awareness really show. She's got great vision and the ability to make plays. She communicates well and brings a real good spirit."
Along with her outstanding skill set, Tousignant's character and drive have also helped her achieve history — traits that make her a natural fit with her new team.
"I think what stood out to me is just her ability to rise to whatever challenge is presented," McGregor said.
"Her skill set is excellent, but she's not willing to back away from any challenge on the ice. She works incredibly hard and you can see how much she cares."
Tousignant is hoping her spot on the national team helps grow the women's game, which is progressing toward Paralympic inclusion. The sport is governed by the International Paralympic Committee through the World Para Ice Hockey organization, which hopes to have a women's tournament added to the Paralympic program in 2030.
"Our biggest problem right now is that most of the countries don't have a women's team," Tousignant said.
"Hopefully when they see me perform [this] week, they're going to say the women's side of the game can be as good as the men's side and we really need a women's team."
But being a trailblazer comes with major pressure, something Tousignant is overcoming by focusing on what got her here — her love for the game.
"Everyone is looking at me. I'm representing the women's side of the game right now, so it's a big pressure. I'm just trying to not focus on that," Tousignant said.
"I play this game because I like it and I have fun doing it. If I didn't have fun, I don't think I would be here."
Adjusting to the physicality of Paralympic-level hockey is a major hurdle for any young player, man or woman, but Herrington said Tousignant's playing style quickly erased any concerns about her ability to handle that side of the game.
"She doesn't shy away from any of that. She goes to all the hard areas on the ice, all the dangerous areas, and goes there repeatedly," Herrington said.
Tousignant said the team has welcomed her with open arms.
"It's new for me but it's also new for them, so we're all going through this with open minds. We want to all learn together from this experience. Everyone has been so great, so welcoming. They're supporting me," Tousignant said.
McGregor and other Canadian veterans also advocated for her to make the team, knowing she belonged among the world's top players.
The three-time Paralympic medallist understands exactly what it takes to excel on the international stage, and he looks forward to seeing Tousignant make an impact.
"We're so fortunate to be a part of that history and have her alongside us competing in Moose Jaw. She's a special young girl and I think it's going to be amazing and exciting for the future of women's Para hockey in Canada and around the world for sure," McGregor said.
"Hopefully this is just the start of what's to come for her and others."