The ties that bind

by Gary Francoeur

The athletes at the Sochi Olympics are getting all the glory, but there are a lot of people behind the scenes who’ve quietly supplied vital support to the sporting stars reaching for the podium. Whether they are moms, dads, siblings or coaches, these unsung heroes have devoted countless hours – and often countless dollars – so their loved ones can perform on the world’s biggest stage.

McGill arts student Alexandra Duckworth, a member of the Canadian National Snowboard Team and a participant at the Sochi Games, knows this full well. Her mother, Anne Fouillard, and her father, John Duckworth, BEng’61, have seen her through all sorts of ups and down, including three concussions, two broken wrists, a broken thumb and a dislocated shoulder.

“They’ve never been resistant to my wanting to pursue this, and whenever I’m injured, they give me a nice place to come home and recover,” Duckworth told the Lunenburg County Progress Bulletin. “I’m really lucky.” Her rooting section at home also includes half-sisters Tiffany (BEd’90, BScN’95) and Samantha (BMus’92) and her sister, Anna (BA’06).

The McGill News recently caught up with some other alumni who have played pivotal roles nurturing some of the top athletes now competing in Sochi.


From the backyard to the big time 

Ed Vlasic, BSc’79, BEng’83, MEng’87, first put his son Marc-Édouard on hockey skates when he was 18 months old, and it did not go well. “He skated for all of one minute and he was crying the whole time.”

Undeterred, he and his wife Marie-Josée Lord, BSc(PT)’84, tried again when Marc-Édouard was three, this time teaching him on a rink they built in the backyard of their West Island home. He caught on quickly, and by the time he was enrolled in organized hockey two years later, he was already distancing himself talent-wise from most of the other kids.

“Marc-Édouard has always been very athletic. Sports are a part of who he is, and we knew early on that he’d never have a normal desk job,” says Lord, a physiotherapist.

They were right. Today, Marc-Édouard Vlasic is one of the NHL’s elite defensemen, having made a name for himself as an ultra-reliable, stay-at-home blue-liner for the San Jose Sharks, one of the league’s top teams. The eight-year NHL veteran is also a member of Team Canada, representing his country at the Olympics alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Carey Price.

It’s an incredible achievement, but also one that might have been unattainable without the tireless support of his parents. And when you factor in the many early-morning practice skates, weekly games and long road trips to participate in tournaments, those costs were high indeed. Ed Vlasic even went one step further and volunteered as a coach on several of his son’s teams.

“It has meant a lot of time and a lot of sacrifice,” says Vlasic, an engineer for Pratt & Whitney. “If you looked at the calendar we kept on our refrigerator, there was rarely a blank day on it. But we knew he enjoyed hockey and we wanted to support him wherever his talents took him.”

Marc-Édouard has an impressive hockey pedigree. His father and his uncle, Thomas Vlasic, BCom’83, both played varsity hockey for the McGill Redmen. His parents continue to play the sport recreationally, as do his three younger brothers, Thomas, Charles, and James – and all five of them are defensemen for their respective teams.

When Marc-Édouard laces up his skates in Sochi, Vlascic and Lord will be there to cheer him on. And the role that his parents have played in his development has not been lost on the Olympian.

In an interview for, the younger Vlasic explained that the best piece of advice he ever received came from his dad. “He said you should always believe you can do things that may seem out of reach. He said, ‘A lot of guys have the talent, but if they don’t believe they can reach their goals – they won’t.’”


Subban’s spark

Belleville Bulls head coach George Burnett, BEd’85, thinks back fondly on the first time he met P.K. Subban. It was 2005, and Subban, who had just been selected by the Bulls in the sixth round of the Ontario Hockey League draft, boldly informed him that he had every intention of playing on the team in his first year.

“P.K. was just 16 years old at the time, but he was very confident. He told me that he had designs on making our team from the start,” Burnett says.

Belleville Bulls coach George Burnett

True to his word, Subban earned a spot on the Bulls and went on to have four stellar seasons in Belleville. He’s carried that same determination with him to the Montreal Canadiens, where he has established himself as an NHL star and Norris Trophy winner, and earned a spot at the Sochi Olympics on Team Canada’s blue line.

“Most people recognize P.K.’s natural ability, but what has really set him apart is his competitiveness and confidence. He is constantly working to get better,” Burnett explains.

In some ways, Subban’s road to Sochi has been paved by Burnett’s good intentions. The head coach, after all, saw the defenseman’s true potential when he was just a teenager and Subban blossomed during his time in Belleville. Under Burnett’s tutelage, Subban emerged as one of the best and most popular players in the OHL, amassing 42 goals and 148 assists in 234 games. Plenty of fans took notice – and so did NHL scouts.

Burnett, however, is quick to downplay his impact on the hockey phenom. “We gave P.K. guidance and an opportunity to play, but everything else came through his hard work and belief in himself,” he explains.

Burnett has always had an eye for talent and an instinct for the game. Following his junior hockey experience with the London Knights, he suited up for the McGill Redmen while pursuing a degree in physical education, earning all-Canadian honours in 1983. He started his coaching career in 1989, and served as assistant coach with the NHL’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks from 1998 to 2000. He has been with the Bulls since 2004.

Though Subban played his last game in Belleville back in 2009, the two remain in regular contact – after phoning his parents to tell them he had made the Olympic squad, Subban’s next call was to Burnett. The coach will be paying close attention to his former pupil’s play at the Olympics.

“He is fun to watch and I know he is going to be a factor in a very positive way,” he says.


Hot chocolate and careful budgeting

Mere minutes before mogul skier Hannah Kearney stepped into the starting gate at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, her mother, Jill Kearney, BEd’79, texted her a few words of inspiration.  “I told her that I am proud of her, I told her that I love her and I encouraged her to give it her best shot,” Kearney says.

Hannah and Jill Kearney

Hannah undoubtedly delivered, playing the role of spoiler and edging out heavy favourite Jennifer Heil, BCom’13, to become the first American to win a gold medal in British Columbia. The stakes were just as high when Hannah hit the mounds in Sochi to defend her title this year. And on February 8, she once again delivered a strong performance, earning a bronze medal behind Canadian sisters Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe.

But long before she was an Olympic champion, Hannah was a little girl growing up in Vermont learning to ski with her mother’s help. “When she was two years old, we would go to the baby hills on warm winter afternoons and then drink hot chocolate together,” recalls Kearney, the recreation director for the town of Norwich, Vermont.

Hannah had such a knack for the sport that she was running expert slopes by age five and freestyle skiing by the time she was nine. Kearney and Hannah’s father, Thomas Kearney, MA’79, who met as students at McGill, tried to give their daughter every opportunity they could to follow her passion.

“From the very beginning, it was clear that she had an aptitude for the sport. She had excellent balance and caught on very quickly,” Kearney says. “But skiing is an expensive sport, so we often had to get creative with money,” adding that they relied on sponsors from the close-knit Norwich community for additional support.

Hannah has not let those sponsors down, becoming a dominant competitor in freestyle skiing throughout her career. In addition to her two Olympic medals, she is a 40-time World Cup moguls medalist, a 14-time dual moguls medalist and a three-time U.S. moguls champion.

“She trains incredibly hard every day and she wants to win each time she gets in that starting gate,” she says.

Kearney has advice for both amateur athletes and their parents: “For athletes, I’d say dream big and go for it. For the parents of athletes, I’d say dream big and support them as they go for it.”