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‘The most well-liked coach in Ottawa’ Raz El-Asmar will receive Mayor’s Cup as 1 of 4 Ottawa Sports Awards lifetime honourees

By Dan Plouffe

For over 30 years, Raz El-Asmar has spent the vast majority of his evenings and weekends devoted to local soccer, with his eye always focused on developing youngsters into strong citizens as much as soccer players.

He’s coached at some of the highest levels and led local teams to groundbreaking championships, but on a summer Wednesday night, you could find El-Asmar volunteering his time to personally coach a free grassroots introductory program for low-income kids.

Over the years, El-Asmar has brought several of his teams to Shepherds of Good Hope to volunteer in the soup kitchen around Thanksgiving or Christmas. In 2017, he went on a mission trip to coach players in Ethiopia with Athletes in Action Canada.

“I strongly believe that often we as coaches feel like we come in to make a difference on the field in terms of x’s and o’s – but that’s such a short-sighted way of thinking,” El-Asmar said in an article about his experience. “The ability to be able to step out on the field and play, and the fact that you have a uniform and a soccer ball are already reasons to be thankful. Having this kind of attitude changes everything.”

Ottawa TFC Soccer Club coach Raz El-Asmar. Photo: Dan Plouffe

A builder not only for Ottawa’s soccer scene but also the community at large, El-Asmar has been selected as the Mayor’s Cup winner for Outstanding Contribution to Local Sport as the Ottawa Sports Awards unveiled their latest Lifetime Achievement Award winners yesterday. Nakkertok Nordic’s Dave Mallory (Volunteer/
Administrator), badminton’s Dominic Soong (Coach) and hockey’s John Reid (Technical Official) will also receive Lifetime honours.

After immigrating to Canada with his family as a 12-year-old, El-Asmar played high school soccer and became athlete of the year at André-Laurendeau. He got his first taste of coaching in helping the senior girls’ team in 1981.

El-Asmar went on to play Men’s Premier for Lusitania (a local Portuguese club) and later joined the Algonquin College Thunder men’s varsity team. He earned conference all-star honours and helped coach the women’s team before beginning his professional career in IT with IBM.

In 1999, he co-founded FC Capital United Soccer Club and led the respected organization throughout 20 years as a coach, director and administrator. Cap U had a small membership base, but consistently produced some of Ottawa’s best teams to compete in the top youth provincial leagues.

Raz El-Asmar. File photo

There were many championships and player accomplishments, though the club’s core values were not specific to on-field success – honesty, love and care were the key club pillars.

Cap U was renowned for its mesh of global cultures and its open-arms welcome to all members of the community. Operating primarily in the central/east part of town, including many of Ottawa’s less affluent neighbourhoods, Cap U was committed to providing quality soccer opportunities, no matter a family’s income level.

“We wanted to include everyone,” El-Asmar said in a 2018 interview with the Ottawa Sports Pages. “Look on the field on any team and you see kids from all over – representation from all over the world. Our priority was always giving the kids what they need on the field, and also off the field – make sure we are role models for the kids so that when they step in with us, they really feel a part of that family, and when they’re away from home, this is their second home.”

In recent years, El-Asmar guided Cap U to merge with Cumberland United and become Ottawa TFC Soccer Club, in order to provide local players a clear pathway to the top levels of the sport.

Ottawa TFC Soccer Club general manager Pavel Cancura remembers a moment from his early days in local soccer leadership that illustrated the respect El-Asmar earned from his peers. At a contentious meeting amongst the region’s clubs, El-Asmar walked in to one leader’s welcome of, “Here he is, the most well-liked coach in Ottawa!” Cancura quickly learned that in an often combative climate, El-Asmar provided a uniting force.

Coach of champions

Tokyo Olympic women’s soccer champion Vanessa Gilles. File photo

Always humble, El-Asmar carries an extensive list of championships and accomplishments. It includes a high school city crown with Franco-Cité, numerous regional youth, U23 and adult premier club titles, and Ottawa’s very first Ontario Youth Soccer League east division championship and Ontario-Quebec Cup win in 2013 with his Cap U U17 girls. As senior girls’ academy director, he helped the Ottawa TFC U17 girls to the region’s first national title (boys or girls) at the top youth age group in 2019.

El-Asmar has coached the Ottawa South United men’s Ontario League One side, the Carleton University Ravens women’s varsity team, as well as Team Canada at the FISU World Student Games. He holds a National ‘A’ coaching licence and has received training from FC Nantes in France.

His products have competed at the Canada Games, made youth provincial and national teams, and many have gone on to play university/college soccer across North America (the 2013 group produced nine university scholarships alone).

Once a tennis player, Vanessa Gilles remembers El-Asmar welcomed her into club soccer “as a 15-year-old who couldn’t pass the ball in a straight line,” but thanks to the help of a “great coach who’s still a very good friend to me now,” she went on to become a member of the Canadian senior women’s national team, and of course helped carve Canada’s biggest soccer triumph ever with her Olympic gold medal win this past summer in Tokyo.

“What a great story. We certainly talk about it a lot in soccer, but it can really be inspirational to anyone, from all walks of life,” underlined El-Asmar, who hosted Gilles and several of her past teammates for dinner with his family before the Olympics, which was “very special and a lot of fun” to see their “sisterhood” bond holding strong many years later.

Vanessa El-Asmar. File photo

Many players El-Asmar has guided over the years have now become coaches and leaders in the local soccer community, continuing to spread his philosophy on sport, underpinned by honesty, love and care. He coached his own kids (Toni, Adriana, Max and Vanessa) from the grassroots to the provincial level, with 3 of 4 going on to play varsity soccer. They also now serve as coaches at his side with Ottawa TFC.

Delayed from its usual late-January date due to COVID, El-Asmar will collect his 2021 Mayor’s Cup honour on the evening of June 16 under the big tent at The Canadian Golf Club.

“While this is a very exciting moment, it’s unexpected and I surely feel humbled,” El-Asmar wrote by email.

Coach, volunteer, referee honoured

Mallory, Soong and Reid will receive their Lifetime honours alongside many more 2021 Ottawa Sports Awards winners, to be announced at a later date, including major awards for male and female coaches, teams and athletes of the year.

Lifetime Award – Volunteer/Administrator: Dave Mallory

Dave Mallory. Photo provided

A volunteer coach who has also made a tremendous impact through his work on trail-grooming and equipment maintenance, Mallory has been invaluable to Nakkertok Nordic Ski Club for over 40 years.

Mallory’s contributions include providing introductory coaching to many lifelong skiers, and helping to build an engaged and supportive club community through his enthusiasm for helping athletes and promoting nordic skiing.

A wax team volunteer, snow-making operator, and set-up team member, Mallory is always ready to assist in keeping the club’s equipment and trails in top condition, including serving as assistant groomer for the Gatineau World Cup event.

A mentor to many in the Canadian nordic community, he is still an active volunteer coach year-round and was the main groomer at the Canada Cup event in December of 2021. Mallory’s energy and wisdom make him a pillar of the Nakkertok club.

Lifetime Award – Technical Official: John Reid

John Reid. Photo provided

A champion for promoting the development of officials, Reid has been a valued volunteer in Hockey Eastern Ontario (HEO) for over 20 years. He has served in many capacities, ranging from on-ice official, to local hockey executive, to District 9 (Gloucester) Referee in Chief, and now Referee in Chief for all of HEO.

The HEO supervision program ensures that thousands of supervisions are conducted each season which provide officials, both young and old, invaluable coaching and guidance; under Reid’s direction it has grown to be one of the largest in Canada.

An innovator and a builder, Reid also created “Referee University” and the Green Armband Program, which focuses on reducing the harassment of minor aged officials.

Lifetime Award – Coach: Dominic Soong

Dominic Soong. Photo provided

A widely recognized technical expert who has dedicated over 40 years as a professional coach, Dominic Soong has been integral in growing the sport of badminton in Ottawa and beyond.

Soong has worked with athletes who participated in the Olympic Games and earned multiple National, Provincial, and Regional titles, including at Canada Winter Games and Ontario Winter Games.

His coaching focus has always been on the development of players locally at all levels, and the building of a strong and solid foundation of players with good technical skills. He has built partnerships with local schools, community centres, sport associations, and the City of Ottawa, developing one of the largest and most successful junior badminton clubs in the country.

An NCCP Level 4 coach and coach developer, he has mentored, trained, and provided coaching job opportunities to over 150 NCCP coaches.

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