TISDALE, MELFORT — During her coaching career, Shannon Miller has racked up countless prestigious accomplishments, honours, and accolades.
The Tisdale-born, Melfort-raised Miller led Team Canada to the silver medals at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, when women’s hockey made its debut. As the head coach, she guided the University of Minnesota - Duluth to five NCAA Division I national championships. Recently Miller was announced as a member of the class of 2021 for the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.
“It means a great deal to me, and maybe more than people would even realize. Because I'm really proud to be from Saskatchewan,” she said. “I’m in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto with Team Canada. I’m in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Alberta with Team Alberta because of one goal at the very first Canada Winter Games. But, you know, this is obviously an individual honour as a builder, which is being a pioneer. And it's from my home province, Saskatchewan. So, it means a great deal to me, because I really feel strongly that people from Melfort are humble, hardworking, kind, compassionate people that go out in the world and do great things.”
Miller certainly had ups and downs in her career. It is said coaches are hired to be fired. Especially in the early days, Miller was actually volunteering for these positions while serving as a Calgary police officer.
“I never, ever, thought about not coaching, never, no matter how difficult it got along the way,” she said. “It was like, ‘This is what I was born to do.’ And you're really lucky, if you're one of those people and you're doing something that you think you were born to do and you just hunker down, and you go through the bad times, and you enjoy every minute of it. And you learn from all of it. And I just wanted to keep going.”
Miller said the biggest honour of her life has been mentoring women.
“Whether it was in Calgary, and I was dealing with 12, 13, 14, 15-year-olds [in minor hockey], or the Olympic year, where you're dealing with adults that were a lot of them were as old as I was, actually ironically, we had one on the team that was older than me, and a couple that were only a year younger than me, but I was still a mentor for women. And it was an honour. And then when I moved to the States, and I had this opportunity to mentor these young girls coming into college that were 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 years old. I really took it seriously.”
Miller is still connected to and has a passion for her home province. She said her mother, sister, aunt and uncle still reside in Saskatoon. Miller’s passion for hockey growing up in Melfort. Even before playing organized hockey, she recalls mini-sticks games, driveway battles, road hockey contests, and playing boot hockey on lit tennis courts at night.
“All the neighborhood boys would come, and me - I was the only girl that I remember, and we would play boot hockey, like we get our running shoes on the tennis courts with our net,” Miller said. “And it got really physically, it was very competitive. So, I just I guess I just loved it. And then when I had a chance to actually get skates and play, phenomenal.”
Miller played girls hockey in Melfort. She remembers that Porcupine Plain, Star City, and possibly Kinistino also had teams.
“So, we just played against each other in these small towns, which was pretty awesome,” Miller said.
She was part of the first University of Saskatchewan women’s hockey team. Miller remembers being coached by three boyfriends of her teammates.
The physical education major had an interest in coaching – basketball, volleyball, track and also hockey - but did not want to be a physical education teacher. Miller thought she could become a police officer and be a volunteer coach.
“And then as these thoughts evolved, I started talking more on the team and giving feedback,” she said. “And I learned from older players, of course. And then I just naturally I mean, you're either natural leader in the locker room or you're not. And I just naturally evolved into being a leader that was talking and like became kind of a player/coach.”
After university, Miller played on a women’s club team. Her teammates suggested she coach and play.
“And I'm like, ‘sure.’ I always knew going to university I wanted to be a coach,” she said.
During her time in Saskatchewan, Miller represented the province on the Canadian Hockey Female Council (1985-87) as a volunteer administrator. She was also the volunteer chair of Women’s Hockey, Saskatchewan (1985-87).
Fighting for Respect
When asked about career accomplishments, Miller pointed to starting a Calgary girls’ hockey team with two other women.
“It was so, so difficult. Calgary Minor Hockey – they were so ignorant. And they put up nothing but roadblocks and barriers. And as soon as we knock down one wall or cleared a barrier, they put up another one. They didn't want girls. We were arguing with them and saying, ‘it doesn't say Calgary boys’ minor hockey. It's Calgary minor hockey. And times are changing, people. And you need to have a girls’ team.’ And we force it down their throats.”
Miller said she had never experienced that from adults before. She was “shocked at how sexiest they were, to be honest with you, and how abusive they were at meetings and the stuff they said to us.”
“We persevered, and it took two years for them to let us in. And then you can imagine how we got treated then,” Miller said. “That's a highlight for me, because as many punches as we took and as many walls that we had to smash through, and as tiring, and frustrating as it was. We did it. And that is a career highlight for me. Because now there's girls’ leagues, all ages in Calgary, flourishing.”
As an assistant coach, she helped Team Canada win the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in 1992 and 1994. In 1995, she was named the head coach. Miller was just 33. It was her first full time coaching position.
“And why on earth, they hired me, I have no idea,” Miller said. “I know I was really successful and very driven, and I wanted it, but I had never coached full time ever.
“It's just like, it's almost hard to understand it when you're 33 years old, but you try to embrace it. You try to recognize the importance of it for how much you know when you’re 33. … I embraced it. And it was so remarkable. It was kind of surreal. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I'm coaching the Olympic team. And women's hockey is going to the Olympics?’ I mean, it wasn't that long ago that it was fighting to start the Calgary girls minor hockey team. And so, it was really monumental for me.”
She led Canada to the 1997 IIHF world title, Pacific Rim Cups in 1995 and 1996, the 1996 Three Nations Cup and the Olympic silver medal in Japan. Miller was the only female head coach at the Olympics and she was out as a gay woman.
“What I guess I didn't understand was how sexist and homophobic the world was,” she said. “And I got punched squarely between the eyes with both those forms of discrimination immediately after I got named the head coach. And I was proud to be from Saskatchewan, I was proud to be a woman, and I was also very proud to be out. And I wasn't going back in.
“People were very cruel. The media was very cruel to me, and not just in Canada. In the U.S., Japan, I mean, the questions that they asked me and the stuff they talked about was just horrifying. And it sort of opened my eyes to ‘Wow, I've lived in this world where my family is accepting and my friends and my neighbors are accepting, but I had no idea there was this much sexism and homophobia’. And so, it was a really important life lesson for me. … But nonetheless, as difficult as it was, it was still a good experience, of course and an honour.”
Miller does wonder what would have happened if herself and the team had been supported by the media.
“It would just would have been a much better experience for all of us. And I wonder how we would have finished. Instead of winning silver, we maybe we would have won gold. We'll never know. But we all know that when you support a child or an athlete, or any person, a senior citizen, they all do better when they're when they're being supported and loved and respected versus when they're being attacked and ripped apart. So, I think we've all learned those lessons in our life. That's the one thing I'd love to go back and do again, with now the world seeing women and specifically gay people with a different lens. And I'd love to have that experience again and see where we land. It’s still the highlight of my life, right?”
Moving onto Duluth, Minn., to build the Bulldogs program from the ground up, Miller piloted her teams to five NCAA Division I women’s hockey championships – the most by any coach. Her teams made the NCAA playoffs 10 times and she racked up 250 and 300 wins faster than any other coach. She coached 26 Olympians and 12 First-Team All-Americans. Still there was the fight for respect.
“There were 34 teams when we won those five national championships in 15 years, that's unheard of in any sport, men's or women's. But the cool thing is, people would say to me, ‘oh, well, there's not that many women's hockey programs.’ And I'd laugh and I say there are more Division I women's college hockey programs in the U.S. where I was competing, than there are NHL teams, and people being like, ‘Oh, oh.’ And I said, ‘You're going to discount the NHL because they have fewer teams than women's NCAA Division One hockey,’ like, just for perspective, you know.”
Miller took very seriously helping her young student-athletes become what she called “warriors.”
“I'm talking about you got to get ready for life and you've got to graduate. And you got to spend four or five hours a day working out and playing hockey and watching film,” Miller said. “And on top of that, you got to take a full course load. And then you got to graduate, get a job and take the knocks that life's going to hand you and I really took that responsibility seriously, embraced it, and I loved it. It was a great honour.”
Development & Today
Miller was at the University of Minnesota-Duluth from 1998 to 2015. Years after her dismissal, Miller won a dawn-out discrimination lawsuit and received a settlement. She coached the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2018.
While strides certainly still need to be made, Miller has seen things develop. She said that acceptance is the big thing. She remembers asking Hockey Canada for a laptop like the men’s program instead of travelling around evaluating players and scribbling things in a notebook.
“But again, I wouldn't trade it for the world. But boy, did it ever show me people's prejudices, the amount of sexism there was and how deeply rooted it was and how hard you had to fight change it. And how tiring that was,” Miller said. “And I always think about the women that came before me, always. That's who I am, and I am so grateful.
“Whether it's in the hockey world or not just in the sporting world or in the world, whether it's your grandmother or anybody, the women that have come before you and fought and fought and just scratched and clawed to gain an inch for women. And so, it was a real honour for me to be in that position to be doing it. I just hope the people that are coming after me and us, realize how hard these women fought and the punches that we took, and how many times we got knocked down and got back up and kept fighting to create the opportunities that they're getting today, because there's a whole long line of women that have really, really fought hard, and given a lot of their life and their energy to create a better situation and I'm proud of everything that I've done and others, for sure.”
Now Miller splits her time between homes in Las Vegas and Palm Springs. She is looking into opportunities in the game she loves, including with National Hockey League franchises.
“I feel I have so much to offer… I think I'm a really good human – being very grounded, very driven. And I feel like my career is far from over. It's just a matter of where what am I doing next?”