By Charlie Pinkerton
Back before she was on the sidelines, playing with the boys was as simple as that, and now, in coaching, it’s no different for Fabienne Perrin-Blizzard.
But in the larger scheme of things in Ottawa’s hoops community, as well as the wider pro sports scene in the city, Perrin-Blizzard’s hiring by the Ottawa Blackjacks has a greater importance — it’s one that represents a local glass ceiling-breaking, alike that of San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon’s in the NBA.
You won’t catch her framing it that way, though, perhaps because for the humble and decorated Perrin-Blizzard, she’s always overcome implicit barriers.
“At the end of the day, I am a double-minority — being a female and Black — so my mum kind of put that in my head early on. I’ve always been different, or the only one like me, so I was used to it,” she recently told the Sports Pages in an interview.
Perrin-Blizzard was born in Brooklyn and raised in Sorel-Tracy, a small city in Quebec located along the St. Lawrence River about 45 minutes north of Montreal. It was her basketball journey that brought her to the nation’s capital to play for the University of Ottawa.
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During the summers of her uOttawa days, she’d often spend time at the court at St. Luke’s Park on Frank Street, a downtown hotspot for high-level pickup ball, where playing with men was simply a given.
“I’d be there for 3:30 ball and I’d be there playing because I just wanted to get better,” Perrin-Blizzard said.
She’d go on to become a Gee-Gees hall-of-famer, following a playing and coaching career that spanned from 1989-1999. She retired from her five seasons on the court as the school’s second all-time leading scorer, having also twice been named its most outstanding female athlete of the year. Her coaching tenure lasted from 1994-1999, the final season of which she served as head coach.
After her extended stint with uOttawa, she remained in coaching. Over the next two decades she’d coach just about every level of basketball, including both men’s and women’s teams. She’s been involved with junior national teams, has led Ontario teams to three national titles and co-founded, and continues to coach, Capital Courts Academy, a developmental basketball program for elite-level high school aged girls.
What exactly makes her such a successful coach varies depending on who you ask, but generally a common theme is noted: Perrin-Blizzard has an uncanny ability to connect with her players.
Tyra Blizzard, Perrin-Blizzard’s daughter, who was coached by her mother growing up before her own U Sports career, praised her mother’s adaptability as a coach.
“She’s always paying attention to her athletes and what they need,” said Tyra, who recently embarked on a professional playing career in Morocco. “She’s always learning from her athletes, which I find extremely admirable… She really focusses on the individual, because she’s well aware that every single person is different.”
Capital Courts alumna Merissah Russell, now of the University of Louisville Cardinals, said her “basketball mum,” as she calls Perrin-Blizzard, has a knack for earning players’ respect.
“She knows what she’s doing (and) she knows what she’s talking about, so everybody that she’s coached respects her and listens to her,” Russell said while reflecting on her time coached by Perrin-Blizzard, which included training with a Gloucester Cumberland Wolverines Grade 9 boys’ team while she was only in Grade 7.
Merrick Palmer, the founder of the Capital Courts Training Centre and director of the academy program, described Perrin-Blizzard’s effectiveness as being rooted in her compassion.
“The energy that she has is not just support for her players but more the care she has for them as people,” Palmer said.
“(Because she) gets down to the players’ level and finds out how each and every one of them is motivated. That’s at the core of making sure that everyone is giving their best and she kind of personifies the ability to do that.”
Palmer added: “I’m not surprised Blackjacks did their research and found the best candidate.”
Perrin-Blizzard’s recruitment to the Blackjacks began with a call from team president Michael Cvitkovic.
“He basically was going through my resume without me having submitted it,” she said.
After several interviews, a deal was done, and Perrin-Blizzard was announced as the team’s assistant coach in February.
The fact that she would be the only female coach of a professional sports team in Ottawa never came up during the hiring process, so it was only after she was announced as a new coach that it dawned on her, Perrin-Blizzard said.
“Basketball is basketball,” Perrin-Blizzard said. “To me, it’s an international language and it’s about being competent in what you’re doing.”
For Perrin-Blizzard, whose non-basketball career for almost three decades has been working as a project manager in the traditionally male-dominated IT field, coaching the Blackjacks is hardly a break from what she’s accustomed to. But between her and those she’s close to, they share a recognition that the step she’s taken has the potential to send a broader message.
“Being able to represent women at this point and understanding that a lot of these young ladies can actually reach for this is a priority,” Perrin-Blizzard said.
“This is huge,” Palmer said. “All these girls who’ve been exposed to her, who she’s been trying to motivate, can now look at her and see that she’s practising what she preaches: that if you keep working hard, good things will come to you.”
It’s doubly important being that Perrin-Blizzard’s a Black woman, Palmer added.
“Now young BIPOC (Ottawa) kids can say, ‘there’s a chance for me too to maybe coach one day at a high level, or even a men’s team,’” Palmer said. “She’s a walking, talking example of persistence and professionalism.”