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Winning Without Apology

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

2020 WRCRA Conference Keynote, Shannon Miller

By Kerri Heffernan

When I first suggested Shannon Miller as the keynote speaker for the 2020 WRCRA Conference some of my board colleagues said, “the gymnast”? I said “no, Shannon Miller the hockey coach, and not just any successful coach, arguably the most successful women’s hockey coach ever.”

Shannon Miller was Canada’s first female Olympic Head Coach and the youngest Head Coach, leading the Canadian women’s ice hockey team to a silver medal at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. She has coached three World Championship women’s ice hockey teams and five NCAA D1 Championship teams (an NCAA record). During her 15 years coaching in the NCAA, she produced 28 Olympians from several different countries and worked as a mentor-coach with national team coaches from Sweden and Russia. Shannon was the head coach of the Calgary Inferno for the 2018-2019 season, which is part of the professional Canadian Women’s Hockey League. In 2018, Miller won a landmark federal case against the University of Minnesota Duluth for sex discrimination and retaliation of Title IX complaints.

The federal case stemmed from the University of Minnesota-Duluth declining to renew Coach Millers contract, despite her record on the ice, as well as the contracts of two other female UMD coaches. All three coaches filed discrimination suits on the basis of sexual orientation. March 2018, a jury found UMD liable for sex discrimination and Title IX retaliation, initially awarding $4.2 million in compensation to Shannon. That award was recently reduced to $1.96 million but, with attorney fees, the University is still on the hook for $4.49 million in damages. But it’s not all good news, the judge refused to hear the cases of Jenn Banford and Annette Wiles, claiming he lacked jurisdiction in federal court. Moreover, UMD is refusing to accept the verdict and is assessing whether to appeal.

I met Shannon Miller and Jenn Banford in April 2019 at the Tucker Center Conference. Both were resolute in their commitment to fighting UMD and appropriately pissed off. Their stories sent a chill through every coach in the room. But what I was struck by most was their strength and resolve. Shannon Miller, the winningest coach in hockey, was stripped of her sport, her reputation, her home, her players, her livelihood, all without cause. She was ‘black-balled’ in the coaching world. But Shannon was not a woman accustomed to losing. She and the other coaches fought UMD with the understanding that, win or lose, UMD administrators would be exposed for their blatant sexism and discrimination.

Fighting a large corporation like UMD is a massive undertaking, one the University knows will gut you financially, professionally and emotionally, but still these women persisted. That commitment to justice is heroic and deserves our admiration. But while the journey to justice is compelling, the coach in me was drawn to Shannon’s coaching record – she knows how to win. She knows how to build team cultures that sustain winning for years and how to produce players that can achieve their personal goals while keeping the team first. Every coach wants to know the ingredients to sustained excellence and happy players. Shannon Miller knows how to win. She also knows firsthand the challenges women coaches face when they win too often and too big. I can think of no better keynote for the 2020 WRCRA Conference: Winning Without Apology than Shannon Miller.

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