March 8, 2018

O’Leary: Raiche living her dream of working in football

Before she had a football-related title to her name, Catherine Raiche stood in the doorway of a room full of 250 strangers at a conference in Indianapolis.

There was no title to her name yet, but football was woven tightly into the fabric of her being. It had always been that way. Raiche grew up in a football family in Montreal, both her brother and sister playing tackle while she played flag football in high school. Standing on the sidelines of one of her brother’s games, topping up water bottles while her mom managed his city-league team (“It was nothing too next level but they asked parents to volunteer and my mom was in charge of the logistics,” Raiche says), she saw up close how engaged the young players were, the relationships that developed and the highs and lows that come with winning and losing.

She fell head over heels for the game. She was seven.

After a slight fast-forward, Raiche, a practicing lawyer in Montreal by day that would eventually work on her Masters degree in taxation at night, stood at that doorway in Indianapolis. Desperate for a job in football, she came across a football conference for people looking to get a foot in the door. She flew herself to Indy, booked a hotel room and waded into what she admits today was an intimidating situation.

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» Argos add Raiche; finalize 2018 personnel

Raiche spoke at last weekend’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum in Orlando (Matt Twohig/Cultivator Lab)

“It was really hard because you know, people are already in groups talking. And you don’t want to be that awkward person and be like, ‘Hi,’” she says, laughing, mimicking a clumsy wave.

“But I felt like all these people were there for the same thing, looking for opportunities to get to know people, so it was kind of a smooth process. It took five, 10 minutes and the next thing you know you look at your watch and it’s done. It’s true that it’s a little like,” she takes a deep breath then leans forward, “let’s do this. But once you’re there it starts and it flows and it’s cool.”

Raiche, 28, has continued to build her career as a football executive. In 2015, she threw an unpaid internship on the weekends with the Alouettes into that jam-packed work-by-day, school-at-night schedule. By the start of the 2017 season, she’d been named the Als’ assistant general manager. On January 18, she joined the Toronto Argonauts as their director of football administration.

Over the past weekend, Raiche spoke at the Women’s Careers in Football Forum in Orlando. Whether you knew of her rise in the CFL over these last three years or you were like the majority of the 50 women selected to attend the forum and were learning about her for the first time, her relentless work ethic shone through in everything she said.

She credits her parents for that drive. Her father is an accountant, who has the same masters in taxation that she does. Her mom is a nurse that now manages HR, working with nurses for a private company.

“The way I was raised, my mom and dad, I really come from a driven family, working super hard, those were the values I was taught growing up,” she says.

Whether it was Raiche, Minnesota Vikings COO Kevin Warren, former New York Giants GM Jerry Reese, Stanford head coach David Shaw, or Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera (to name a few), the message and the paths traveled were the same: get a foot in the door and work your tail off to stay there; make yourself memorable and indispensable.

“For a year I’d work during the day at the law firm, go to school to do my masters at night and go to the Alouettes on the weekends,” Raiche remembers. “I was talking with some of the women here and they were asking me, ‘How was your life?’ I say, ‘What do you mean, life? I haven’t known a life. There’s nothing else.’

“But I’ve always seen this as let’s do the sacrifices now to get to where I want to be. I’m just glad I did that, because it brought me so many good things.”

One of those good things was reuniting with Argos GM Jim Popp in Toronto. Popp was in charge in Montreal when she got the internship and when it turned into a role as coordinator of football administration.

“I have an unbelievable respect for her as a person. Her work ethic, her passion and determination to do well in this business,” Popp says.

“There aren’t too many tasks that you can’t lean on her for and give her. She gets it done the right way and with integrity. I look for that in people, period.”

Popp says he doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on titles. He likes to give everyone in his football ops staff the opportunity to do things, to learn and grow from them.

“(Raiche) will be involved whether we’re meeting, deciding to hire people, working on salary cap, scouting, doing financial stuff, being on the road with the team, doing contracts or booking travel, training camp, we all work together. I try to involve everybody in every aspect so that they get great training if they get (future) opportunities.”

Raiche has been very clear about her long-term goal: She wants to be a GM in the CFL. She’s not putting a timeframe on it, though.

“It’s a long-term goal in the sense that I’m 28, I’ve been in the league for three years. I have to learn so many things,” she says. “The Argos are giving me the chance to put myself in the right spot to learn from the right people. I’ll take things one after the other, keep working hard, doing my thing and if it comes, awesome. it’s a goal, I’m not going to say it has to happen in five years, 10 years, 15 years.”

Raiche attended her first combine in 2017 during Mark’s CFL Week (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

A recurring phrase from the forum was “the chuckle,” brought up by Warren, the Vikings COO. He said that whenever you tell people your biggest dream, the end goal for your career, people will inevitably chuckle at it.

Looking to become the first female GM since Jo-Anne Polak made history with the Ottawa Rough Riders 30 years ago, Raiche has heard her share of chuckles over the last few years.

“I can recall two,” she says. “One of the two was when I left the career that I had in law. Most of the people were just like, ‘What is she doing?’ A lot of people didn’t understand.

“Also, whenever they asked me for my goals. I mean, I’m not afraid to say it and I always make it clear that I’m not looking for those goals tomorrow morning. I know there’s a learning curve and I’m completely honest about it but when you hear a female say, ‘GM,’ they give you the chuckle.”

She loved spending the weekend in Orlando, getting a chance to help steer 50 women down what can be a difficult path that she’s diligently navigated in Canada. She also knows that she had things to gain from the weekend as well.

“I love doing these things and talking to other women that want to get into sports and letting them know that it’s not all about gender, that they can do what they want to do if they’re competent. That’s what it’s all about,” Raiche says.

“Also for me it’s (a chance) to meet people. I’ve been here with people that are outstanding and have those great careers. I’ve been on the same panel as our Commissioner, that’s crazy to me. I’ve got to pinch myself. I got to meet Dawn Aponte (the chief football admin officer of the NFL), who’s one of the females I’ve been looking up to since I started. It was an amazing two days and I’m actually thankful that they invited me to come here to share my story and learn so many things from these women.”