Yet that’s exactly what happened to Shannon Miller just before the Christmas break in 2014. She and her entire staff at the University of Minnesota-Duluth were told they would no longer be needed after the current season finished.
Miller was hired by UMD in 1998. The university was starting a women’s team for the first time the following year, and she was considered the best person to get the program off the ground. The hiring came shortly after she coached Canada to the gold-medal game of the first Olympics featuring women, in Nagano. She had been an assistant coach for Canada at the 1992 and 1994 Women’s World Championships, and was the head coach for 1997. All three tournaments brought Canada gold.
In the ensuing 11 years with UMD, Miller led the Bulldogs to five national titles, including three in a row (2001-03, 2008, 2010). No coach can claim as much. But after a couple of mediocre seasons, she decided to make changes.
“We had a couple of average years, which is not acceptable to me, so I made some drastic changes,” Miller explained. “The program director told me he fully supported the changes, told me I was doing a great job, gave me great evaluations, told me he couldn’t believe how well I was doing with what I had. So after making all these changes, halfway through the season and getting ready for our Christmas break, he called me in and fired me, Gina Kingsbury, Laura Schuler, Robb Stauber. The entire coaching staff.”
Kingsbury and Schuler had sensational playing careers with Team Canada, and Stauber went on to lead the U.S. women to Olympic gold last year in Korea. Miller was not going to take this firing as any normal course of action by a program director who was trying to do the best for the university.
“What kind of person fires you in the middle of a winning season, with that quality coaching staff after five national titles?” Miller asked rhetorically. “There have to be other reasons. I didn’t hesitate. I knew I was going to sue them for discrimination and retaliation. It was an easy decision.”
And therein lies the gap in coaching activities between the spring of 2015 and today. Miller wasn’t suing because she lost her job; she was suing because of the WAY she lost her job.
“The non-stop retaliation against me and other female coaches for trying to fight for our program, for our players, under Title IX, where male and female athletes are to be treated equally, as well as coaches, was unacceptable,” she explained. “I would ask for more resources, because I’d see what the men’s team was getting, and they just kept cutting back on my program. We were winning even when we didn’t have the resources the men had or the bigger schools had. And then discrimination against me and other coaches who were openly gay was disgusting.”
Miller is no wallflower and isn’t one to let others do her work, so although she hired a lawyer in her suit against UMD, she was hands-on involved in every aspect of the case.
“It was a painful time,” she admitted. “I was in shock for a long time. I became like a paralegal for the first couple of years. I dove right into the lawsuit. It was important for me to do that, and it proved to be very fruitful.”
In an effort to find a diversion from the stress of the lawsuit, and completely unable to take on a new coaching job with the legal action dominating her every thought, Miller and her partner settled in Palm Springs and began a business far removed from the sporting world. Sunny Cycle provides tourists with a big, VIP-style bicycle to tour the city.
“I bought a condo in Palm Springs and another in Las Vegas years ago, so I was coming here long before I got fired,” Miller explained. “We moved to Palm Springs first and started Sunny Cycle. It did quite well, so we hired staff and decided to relocate to Las Vegas and expand the business. In Vegas, the Golden Knights had the greatest first season ever. I went to their rookie tryouts and to some of their practices. I was there a lot.”
Miller’s case went to trial in March last year. She won, and the courts found UMD guilty of sexual discrimination and retaliation. Her time and emotions were free again to think about hockey, and as further reward fate was on her side.
“Gina Kingsbury lived in Calgary and worked for Hockey Canada,” Miller continued. “She was my assistant coach in Duluth and knows the person that I am and the calibre of coach that I am, and she heard a coaching job with the Calgary Inferno had just opened. She called me right away because she knew I wanted to get back into coaching, but it’s a difficult thing to do when you’re in the middle of a lawsuit. So, I won my scheduled trial, and Gina was at my trial as a witness. I talked to her and then to the GM of the team, Kristin Hagg, and we felt it was a good fit both ways, so I accepted the job.
“I can’t tell you how excited I was when I got off the phone with Kristin Hagg and accepted the job. I was surprised how excited I was. I dove right into it and am working non-stop. I’m alive again!”
Shannon Miller came back coaching, back in Canada, and back in a variety of conversations pertinent to women’s hockey.
Not only does she have 15 years of NCAA experience, she is just about the most successful and experienced coach in women’s hockey at a time when the women’s hockey landscape in North America is changing with the NWHL coming in from the U.S., the CWHL disappearing and calls from top female players for a new, bigger league; and in international ice hockey, when Canada has clearly fallen to second place in the world order to the now dominant United States. Times, they are a–changin’.
Miller knows all about change. She was a pioneer as coach of the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in the early years of the program, recruiting Europeans at a time when no one else was.
“When I took the job at UMD,” Miller explained, “I expressed one concern to the athletic director and chancellor before I took the job. We’re in a smaller city in a smaller school, up against Division I institutions like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and I said that even though I’m coming off an Olympic year, I feel that I’m going to have trouble recruiting to be competitive with these guys. I have to be in the winning bracket – that’s how I’m wired – and I didn’t want to sign up for something that wasn’t going to work. They told me there were a lot of Canadians in Duluth but also a lot of Scandinavians who have settled here. I found that interesting because I have a lot of contacts in Europe after being an Olympic coach, so I asked them if I could recruit in Europe, and they said yes. It was a gamble, but the chancellor said she would support me and the program, and she did. She put us in the position to be able to win. I felt that recruiting top players from Europe could be an equalizer against the bigger schools, and it was.”
Fast forward to 2018, and Miller continued to push the envelope. She joined a Calgary team that has had plenty of success, but she wanted to make her own mark.
“I know there are a lot of great Canadian and American players, but I also know that we need to continue to grow the game, especially if we want to grow the pro leagues as well as the Olympics and World Championships,” she said. “We need to recruit the best players we possibly can no matter what country they’re from. And if you do that, you’ll see you have a mix of North Americans and Europeans on your team.”
Canadians like Rebecca Johnston and Brianne Jenner or Americans like Brianna Decker and Alex Rigsby were among her top players but she also had other international players such as Finnish forward Venla Hovi and Japanese defender Aina Mizukami on her roster.
When Miller came, there was quite a border in women’s hockey in North America since the NWHL began operations in 2015. The NWHL has not been home to many Canadians, and Americans in the CWHL were equally exceptional.
“Anyone who thought the CWHL should just have Canadians and the NWHL just Americans is out of touch with the global game, the bigger picture. We have to come together. We need players from all over, and we need one league, and we will. It’s just a matter of who’s going to guide that and when.”
With her first season back in Canada, that also raises the possibility that she’ll be back behind the Team Canada bench one day.
“Everyone who’s actively coaching would be very proud to represent their country. I don’t know anyone who would say no to an opportunity like that,” said Miller, whose Inferno team was located in the same facility like Hockey Canada. “I know Mel Davidson and Gina Kingsbury very well. We have a strong relationship. It’s not out of the question, but it’s not a conversation I’ve had with them. Still, we know that they change coaches very two or three years usually. I was fortunate back in the day because I was there for seven years, which is a long time.”
Consider that Canada won gold at the World Women’s every year between 1990 and 2007 with one exception (nine out of ten) and four straight Olympic gold, but the Americans have won nine out of 11 since 2005 as well as the most recent Olympics. The games are close, but it seems that all the W’s are on the U.S. side of the ledger. The results are not lost on Miller.
“The U.S. has won the majority of the World Championships for quite some time, and you can’t ignore that, nor do I think Hockey Canada has,” she started. “The United States has an incredible college system; it’s why I moved there. I wanted to be a professional coach, and that was the only way I could do it. I’m grateful I had that opportunity because I developed so much in those 15 years. It’s phenomenal. You have players from Canada as well, but most of the players come from the U.S. That’s just a fact.”
In essence, Miller argues, it’s like having a developmental league for USA Hockey built into the fabric of the country’s culture. “Those are important years for the players – mentally, physically, emotionally,” she continued. “They’re developing as young women and athletes. The U.S. college system has been the difference in churning out top players and then having success at the World Championships over the last few years. The coaches are developing; the players are developing; the goaltenders are getting phenomenal, competitive play every weekend. Canada always had the advantage with goaltending, but now the Americans have great depth and the goalies are battling for playing time. That wasn’t there previously. I saw youth and speed and skill for the past several years with the USA.”
It’s a fact, but it also sounds like a challenge Miller would like to tackle.
With the Calgary Inferno she reached the ultimate goal of the season on the ice. The Inferno beat Montreal 2-0 to win the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup. It was unfortunate when it became known a few days later that her team would remain the last champion as the CWHL ceased to exist.
After more than a quarter century coaching she remains at the top of her game looking for more.