FROM BEHIND THE BENCH: Pioneer to Champion by Shannon Miller

Shannon Miller Pioneer to Champion Ice Hockey Coach Tips and Drills

Girls hockey has never been more popular but it hasn’t always been that way. Many of the opportunities female players have to day are thanks to the work and perseverance by coaches like Shannon Miller. From playing on a rag tag team in Saskatchewan when she was a kid, to coaching Team Canada in the Olympics, to becoming the most successful NCAA women’s hockey coach in terms of Frozen Four tournament wins and NCAA Division I national championships, Miller has broken down obstacles and barriers for women in hockey since the 1980s. As a pioneer of the game for female players, Miller has seen attitudes towards women’s hockey change, but it has not always been an easy road, to say the least.

In this instalment of FROM BEHIND THE BENCH, Miller walks us through her long and winding career on the cutting edge of women’s hockey.

I was 12 years old when I started playing hockey. I was lucky because there was a girls team in our town, Melfort, Saskatchewan, and there were also a few girls teams in the surrounding towns, which was really unusual. The kids on the team were from 12 years old to grade 12, so it was a real mix. I played every other sport under the sun as well, but really loved hockey. Of course, I never thought I could have a career in the game.

When I went away to university, I pretty much thought my hockey playing days were over. But when I got to the University of Saskatchewan, I saw posters in the hallway announcing that they were going to start the first ever U of S women’s hockey team. The tryouts were the next day, so I called my mom and said, “Overnight my skates and hockey gloves on the bus to me.” I went out and bought a stick at Canadian Tire and that was all I had for equipment at the tryouts, just my skates, gloves and a stick.

The feeling on the team was electric. We all came from smaller towns, and we probably all had the similar thought that we would never play again, so we just went out and had a lot of fun. We actually had quite a lot of talent on the team; most of us were the better players for our age from wherever we were from. I wouldn’t say we were well coached as we had players’ boyfriends coaching us and our coaching staff changed a lot.  But the guys that worked with us were great guys, and we all just worked hard, played hard and had a lot of fun.

The atmosphere at U of S was great. We had a really good relationship with the male hockey players, two of them being Mike Babcock and Willie Desjardins. The men’s coach at the time was Dave King and he came out on the ice with us a couple of times and taught us how to receive and give body checks because there was body checking in the women’s game back then. The men’s team and women’s team would do fundraisers together to raise money, so we all became good friends, and the experience there was very positive.

When I was going to university and studying Physical Education (Kinesiology), I knew that I didn’t want to be a Physical Education teacher like my dad. I enjoyed the subject, but I knew that I wanted to coach. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a living because I also knew that I couldn’t get paid to coach. But I knew that that’s what I wanted—to coach.

I knew that we were on the cutting edge of grass roots women’s hockey, I loved it and wanted to be a part of it, so I held a lot of roles. I was a player coach at times, I officiated and I was involved administratively as well. As an administrator, I represented Saskatchewan and was on the Canadian Hockey Female Council. There, on the Female Council, my experience was a mixed one. There were certainly some people who were excited to be adding women’s hockey to the bigger national picture, and they worked along side of us to make it happen, and then there were many who were not. But I wasn’t intimidated or scared by those working against us – I just put my head down and did what had to be done.

I decided I wanted to be a Police Officer in Calgary, and I made the move to the big city. I was accepted into the Calgary City Police, became a cop and I continued to play hockey and became a player coach.

When I got to Calgary in the mid 1980s, there was no girls hockey team. None. It was Calgary Minor hockey, not Calgary Boys Minor Hockey, but it was all boys nevertheless. So, myself and two other women, and we are still really proud of this today, started the first ever girls hockey team. It took us two years, and we had nothing but barriers put up in front of us by administrative people in Calgary Minor Hockey and Hockey Alberta. They stonewalled us every chance they could and did not want us to be part of these programs.

It was very difficult to get anything done at first, as there was a lot of backlash, no support, and they desperately tried to get us to go away. But we persevered, eventually got some great supporters on board to help us and we got it done. A lot of that success has to do with the two women I worked with, as they were outstanding individuals and extremely committed to starting the first ever girls hockey team.

So, we got a all girls team together and we played against all boys teams. We were absolutely horrible our first year, getting destroyed most games with scores like 16-0, but we all had the time of our lives! Then the next year the scores tightened, and by the time these girls were in their third season, we were winning games. They were moving up in the age groups and we were starting to become very successful. Finally, more people involved in minor hockey started to embrace us and work with us to grow the girls game. Now Calgary has it’s own girls league as part of Minor Hockey (and some girls play with the boys teams) and the grass roots program is strong.

That was one of the most difficult struggles in the hockey world for me, those first few years in Calgary. The way society thought back then was that boys should be playing hockey and girls should absolutely not be playing hockey, they should be playing ringette. I heard that at every turn, and that was the attitude that most of society maintained at that time. We would play guys teams and if they would score on us, they would skate by and grab their crotch and lift their leg in the air. And I would think, “who are your parents and why is the coach not doing anything about this behaviour?” That went on for years, it’s just what we were up against.

Eventually, I got known in Alberta as a strong coach having a lot of success with my teams and in 1991 I made the Team Alberta coaching staff as an assistant coach. It was the first time girls hockey was going to be in the Canada Winter Games, which was huge. We were picked to finish fourth and we won gold. That was really significant because a few months later, I was on a plane flying to Ottawa for an interview to be Team Canada’s assistant coach.

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Canada had had a national women’s team at the 1990 IIHF Worlds, which was the first time women were invited to play in the tournament. I had gone to watch Team Canada play with our Team Alberta coaching staff, and it was very inspiring, but it was so new that nobody really knew much about it. So, heading to that job interview, I was definitely wading into the unknown. I had so many questions: What will it mean if I get this job? Will it be volunteer or paid? The team is spread all over the country, and so is the coaching staff, so how does it work? I was so young, and it was really exciting.

I became an assistant coach of Team Canada for four years, from 1991-1994, winning gold at the 1992 and 1994 World Championships. After the 1994 World’s I was named Head Coach through until after the Olympic Games in 1998. Something that I think is significant is that at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, I was the first female to be named as an Olympic Hockey head coach. I was 34 years old, and that was a huge milestone in my life. I was going to be the only Olympic female head hockey coach in the entire world, and that was a bit overwhelming, but it was a superb honour.

We won gold at the 1995 and 1996 International events, as well as winning gold at the 1997 World Championships. Unfortunately we won a silver medal at the 1998 Olympic Games where women’s hockey made its first debut. Not winning gold was painful, but winning silver is something to be proud of as well. You know that when you sign up for competition, especially when the top two teams are more or less equal, one’s going to come out on top and be jubilant, and one’s going to be devastated. We know this when we sign up. It’s part of the pride and pain of sport.

I should mention that all the coaching that I did for Team Canada, Hockey Alberta and in Minor Hockey was volunteer. A couple years before the 1998 Olympic Games, the Olympic Oval at the University of Calgary did something very cutting edge – they hired me to start an all female high performance hockey program – this was my first full time paid coaching job. This program had nothing to do with Hockey Canada, it was totally independent, but the women’s national team really benefited from it. The summer before the Olympic Games, Hockey Canada hired the coaches and paid us through the Olympics.  After the Olympic Games I really pushed Hockey Canada hard to hire and  pay the head coach because Team USA had hired and paid a full time head coach two years before the Olympic Games. I had been volunteering for a long time, and I wanted to stay on as head coach, but I wanted to be paid. And if they didn’t want me as their head coach, I still encouraged them to pay whoever they hired. I was offered to continue on as head coach, but as a volunteer.

After the Olympic Games, the athletic director at University of Minnesota–Duluth, who was Canadian and had previously been on the board of directors for Hockey Canada, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in applying for the job of head coach at UMD. The coach they would hire would be starting a Division I program from scratch.  Eventually, I left my Police career and volunteer coaching post for a paid gig in the United States.

Our UMD program had a lot of success right away, winning the first ever NCAA Championship ever held, in 2000. We also won the next two NCAA championships, achieving a “Three-Peat” which is almost unheard of in college athletics, any sport, men’s or women’s. UMD didn’t have the biggest budget or the highest university profile but we worked hard, had fun and really achieved great things together.

Over the years, I had a lot of opportunities to leave UMD and go to bigger institutions with bigger budgets, footprints and higher profiles. After we won our second national championship, University of North Dakota reached out to me (unofficially) and offered me a huge pay raise; Wisconsin’s top players approached me during their search for a new head coach and asked me to come and coach them as well. Eventually my athletic director at UMD got a position at the University of Vermont and encouraged me to apply for the hockey job there. In each instance, I said “I can’t, I just can’t leave my players or this program that we have built. My relationships with my international alumni and players is special because our program is so unique.” Looking back now, should I have left UMD and gone to a bigger school with more resources and a bigger university profile? Maybe. But my players had come there to play for me, they trusted me, and I wanted to be there for them. I also had strong relationships with people in the community. These relationships are amazing and hard to really put into words.

In 2008, Syracuse, a big time Division I school, offered me a fantastic job, which I was seriously considering. However, UMD and the community of Duluth was hosting the NCAA Championships that year. It was leaked that I was considering that position and when I arrived at the hotel for team check in and for our first NCAA Championship team meeting, players and parents were in the lobby and upset. The situation caught me off guard, and I managed it the best I could on the spot. Our team meeting was to start in a half hour, so I went to my room and reflected on this difficult situation. I was considering leaving, but UMD/Duluth was hosting this national event and our team was poised to win our 4th NCAA Championship. If the focus was on “the rumour” and not fully on our commitment to win, we would not win. I felt it would be unfair to the players, parents, the University and the community if we were not “all in”. I let my team know at the team meeting that I would not be going to Syracuse. The team cheered wildly, the focus went back to “us” and we went on to win our 4th NCAA Championship.

In 2010 we won our 5th NCAA Championship. I had been to the White House to be honoured by the President of the United States five times now.

Remember – UMD is a middle-sized school that doesn’t have the profile or resources that some other programs have. We knocked ourselves out to get it done. At the end of each season I was typically quite ill.  With the landscape of women’s hockey changing, and after winning the university five NCAA Championships, I began asking for more support from them. I felt we had done our part and it was time for the University to step up. We had built a dynasty, but we needed more resources if we were going to stay at the top. The support we needed never came. UMD simply said it didn’t have the resources that Wisconsin, Minnesota and some others had. So, we put our heads down again and persevered.

In December, 2014, after we had won 12 of our last 13 games, I got fired mid season.

We were ranked third in our league (Western Collegiate Hockey Association ) and sixth in the PairWise ranking (the PairWise national ranking is the closest ranking to what the NCAA Selection Committee uses). The WCHA is the toughest league in the country, and we were only ranked behind Wisconsin and Minnesota, and ranked ahead of North Dakota and all other teams.

Prior to that season starting, I made a coaching staff change and some player changes. My top assistant coach was Laura Schuler, who is the head coach of Team Canada now, and my new assistant coach was two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time World Champion Gina Kingsbury. It was an all-Canadian coaching staff and an extremely strong one at that. I did what needed to be done and it was paying off. We had an amazing staff, a great team and we had really found our rhythm. Our theme for the season was that of a jeep. Teams like Wisconsin and Minnesota were the limousines with the four lane paved highway. We were the jeep that had to take the back roads. We knew it would be rough, we knew we would get dirty, we knew we might end up in the ditch and have to pull ourselves out, but either way, we were going to get to where we were going. We knew it could be done because this program had done it five times already!

It was so difficult to know what to say to my players when it was time to tell them. This all happened right before final exams, mid season, mid school year.  The players seemed to go into shock. They sat in silence for a while, some of them started crying, and they asked why? Some of them, kids from Switzerland and Sweden, while crying, said, “we came here to play for you.” They started talking about transferring in the middle of the season and were asking, “where should I go?”

What was really sad is that I spent my whole coaching career trying to get players to go from me to we, and that focus shattered and shifted back to “what’s going to happen to me?” A couple of kids had transferred to us so they couldn’t transfer again because there’s a one-time transfer rule, so they had to stay. Those kids were trying to convince the other kids not to transfer because they couldn’t go anywhere. Parents and players panicked about what to do, talking about if they should transfer or stay, and wondering what was going on. It was all I could do to try to keep the wheels on the cart. UMD created a horrible situation for our program and each and every one of us.

The captain, Zoe Hickel, spoke at the going away party. Zoe said that we were having a great season, we loved each other, we were playing hard and we were having fun—that we were the jeep taking the back roads. “Then,” she said, “our jeep got hit by a bus.” And I thought that couldn’t have been a better analogy of what happened to us that season.

Myself and the other three people on my staff that they fired were all Canadian, and all openly gay. There was a climate that I had to live in at UMD for a long, long time that was very uncomfortable. But like I said before, you put your head down, work your butt off and do the best you can.

I experienced sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia (pro American, pro Minnesota) working at UMD. Not everyone wants to give scholarship money away to players from other countries. Not everyone is a fan of having an all-Canadian and all-gay coaching staff. There are a lot pieces to this. The school told me they had a six million dollar budget deficit. Men’s and women’s hockey are the only Division I teams at UMD, all other programs are Division II.  The men’s and women’s hockey programs were not treated equally.

The community threw a going away party for me, and it was very well attended and a lot of people spoke at it and made me cry. Then I sold my house and I said goodbye. I moved to Palm Springs, CA, started a fun business and decided to regroup and figure out the next stage of my life.

I’ve been on the cutting edge of this sport my whole life and been very driven. One thing that’s been on my mind is that one day I would maybe own a small business when I was done coaching. That was obviously going to be in the future, but life has changed, so it’s happening now.

My partner came up with the idea of bringing a 15 person pedal bike to Palm Springs to do tours around the city. It’s really important to both of us to be involved in the community, and when you become a business owner, you’re part of the chamber of commerce and you become involved right away. It was also really important that we do something fun, because what we’re going through is extremely difficult.

I still want to coach, there’s no question about that. I have that fire, the desire and an exceptional skill set. I’m open to any opportunity that comes along.

My experience as a coach and advice for coaches is that you should always be a student of the game, stay creative, and strive to be inspiring. Coaches need to challenge themselves to reach in and touch the players’ hearts, getting the best out of each and everyone. Knowing the X’s and O’s is important, and being able to teach them is as well, but always remember that there is more you don’t know than what you do know.

The attitude toward girls hockey has definitely changed, but it was slow and it was painful. Now Team Canada has a huge following and there’s a large grassroots girls hockey movement in Canada. There’s definitely a new attitude in society about girls and women playing hockey and that’s inspiring to see.

If you’re a girl playing hockey, you’re probably playing the game because you love the game, and that’s no different than it is for boys or it was back when I started playing. Girls need to know that they will have more struggles than most male hockey players. They will face sexism and there will be barriers even today. But they should persevere because they love the game and they should understand that it will strengthen their skills to work against obstacles and to work against people that don’t want them around. So, be strong, be resilient and just keep going.


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