TORONTO — Pierre Lafontaine wants to keep more Canadian athletes at home.
The former Swimming Canada CEO and national coach was named chief executive officer of Canadian Interuniversity Sport on Thursday. Lafontaine, 56, will assume the post March 1 and said one of his priorities is ensuring more of Canada’s top high school athletes attend university on home soil than head south of the border.
"We need to be, we need to stay, we need to become the destination of choice for high-performance athletes in the country," Lafontaine said during a news conference at Rogers Centre. "We don’t need to go to the U.S. to be great.
"(There are) so many stories in my sport that our best athletes actually stayed in Canada (and went) through the Canadian system and that’s one of the great strengths of the CIS. It’s way more flexible than the NCAA, it works with the clubs, it’s not just the NCAA kids. If I was a CIS athlete I could work post-grad, I could work with clubs … I think we have so many plusses in the CIS system to reach our potential."
A major selling point of NCAA schools is they can offer Canadian athletes full athletic scholarships and the opportunity at a free education, which could easily amount to US$50,000 annually. But in Canada, the maximum a student-athlete can expect is to have tuition and compulsory fees covered in an academic year.
"I do think the whole discussion about scholarships needs to be addressed," Lafontaine said. "I think our coaches need to be great recruiters.
"There’s nothing more magical than being wanted and so we need to get our high school kids feeling wanted by our college program. We’re going to lose kids to the U.S., I have no problem with that. But I want to make sure they have a choice.
"When you lose a kid you lose an alumni, you lose a leader, you lose a catalyst of the program, you lose so much. You lose their kids. That’s why we have to repatriate our talented individuals."
Lafontaine will assume Canadian university sport’s top job from Marg McGregor, who had held the post for 12 years before resigning June 1. The native of Beaconsfield, Que., is no stranger to university sport, having served as an assistant coach at the University of Calgary from 1988 to 1992.
Lafontaine has been the chief executive officer and national coach of Swimming Canada since 2005. During his tenure Canadian swimmers earned consistent podium finishes internationally, including three Olympic and 39 Paralympic medals.
Lafontaine said there’s definitely a place for para-athletes in Canadian university sport.
"We need to find a way to incorporate them into some of the sports that we’re able to do," he said. "For us, it’s going to happen.
"It might not happen tomorrow, it might change some of the championships but we have to work with them."
Prior to joining Swimming Canada, Lafontaine spent four years with the Australian Institute of Sport and had a three-year stint as Australia’s head swimming coach (2003-’05).
Australia claimed six swimming medals at the ’04 Summer Games, include two gold.
But Lafontaine, a graduate of Concordia University, brings much more than a winning background to the CIS. An engaging individual, he’s also very well respected in Canadian amateur sports circles for his professionalism and dedication.
"The CIS has scored big with the hiring of Pierre Lafontaine," said CIS president Leo MacPherson. "The CIS is better today because of the addition of Pierre.
"Two things come to mind when I think about Pierre Lafontaine or hear him speak: passion and purpose. He has both of those in great amounts and any leader that is successful has great amounts of passion and purpose."
Lafontaine said his CIS operating budget will be less than what he had at Swimming Canada. But Canadian Interuniversity Sport will be unveiling a new television deal shortly that Lafontaine feels offers the organization a chance to get more exposure for its various sports.
"I think we have to build with TV, I think our brand needs to be everywhere through the high school programs," Lafontaine said. "We need to be way more better at selling who we are, better at building partnerships with great Canadian corporations and Canadian ideals. We’re not the U.S., we’re Canada and you know what? Actually, that’s very good.
"You don’t know but our track program competed at Notre Dame and our swim program competed in Washington against the Pac-12. We have to highlight and find and celebrate these stories that nobody knows about."
And Lafontaine said CIS schools can’t be afraid to beat their own chest and be aggressive in recruiting Canadian high school athletes.
"We need to be bold in our approach at selling our universities … and not be scared to put it right in front of them in big letters saying, ‘You know what? This is the place to be. If it’s to be, you could do it right here with me,"’ Lafontaine said. "Status quo is a non-existent entity.
"We’re either behind or we’re ahead and I’m telling, we’re going to be pushing ahead a lot."