When it comes to most sports there are always those who were very much pioneers, forging a trail for those that follow.
In terms of women’s hockey, Shannon Miller is one of those pioneers, although I admit I was not aware of her early efforts until seeing she was among the most recent inductees into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.
That is particularly disappointing on my part considering Miller was born in Tisdale, my hometown, only three years after I was born, although by the time Kindergarten arrived she and her family had moved slightly west to long-time rival community Melfort.
In talking with Miller she said she looks at both communities as being her early home, adding once she started playing sports it was all across the Northeast in communities such as Star City and Porcupine Plain.
Hockey was a key activity.
“Growing up in Melfort I was always out playing hockey ... all the neighbourhood kids were,” said Miller.
But her participation was rather unique.
“As far as I remember I was the only girl,” she said.
Miller said she recalls there was a girls’ team started in Melfort, which she played on with girls almost twice her age. The team would last only a year or two, but by then Miller’s father took a job in Saskatoon and she was on the move again.
Her father would pass not so long after the move and that changed things. Miller said she played a variety of sports, baseball, volleyball and others but “never on travelling teams” staying close to home as she “stepped in and helped Mom out.”
But, in university in Saskatoon the door opened. They launched the first women’s’ hockey team and Miller said she knew she wanted to play so she called her mom.
“Put my skates and gloves in a bag and overnight (ship) it,” she said.
“I showed up (at the practise) in the hockey skates and gloves Mom sent me,” she said, adding she did have a $10 stick from Canadian Tire too.
In that first practice she took a shoulder check and was cut over the eye, and off to hospital for stitches.
“The rest is history,” she laughed.
From the moment of the cut above the eye forward Miller put together a resume of ‘firsts’ that is simply impressive.
She played in the first Canadian national championships in 1982.
She helped to form the first ever girl’s minor hockey association in Calgary in 1989.
But, it was as a coach where Miller would truly excel.
As an assistant coach she was on the bench when Team Alberta won gold at the Canada Games “which was mind blowing.”
Miller was an assistant coach for Team Canada at the 1992 and 1994 Women’s World Ice Hockey championship, and that solidified a course for her.
Interestingly her time with Team Canada while successful was also rather turbulent, which dulls the luster of her success as she looks back on her career.
Miller was a rarity then, a female head coach, and only 33. She also came out as gay, something she says Hockey Canada was not particularly pleased about at the time.
“It was really difficult,” she said. “I was under attack constantly. It was really hard on me and my team. “I wasn’t prepared for it in any way, shape, or form. I had no idea it (the hatred) was out there as big and bad as it was.”
So the Olympic medal ended up a tarnished one.
But, looking back Miller said she grew as a person because of it.
“I learned so much that year about myself, about people,” she said.
Then on April 20, 1998, Miller was hired as the first head coach for the Minnesota–Duluth Bulldogs women's ice hockeyteam. By October 2013 she had become only the third coach in NCAA history to record 350 wins, winning five NCAA women’s national championships along the way.
Miller said the college experience was gratifying because she got to build the program from start-up to national championship wins, adding five championships in a division where more than 30 teams fight for it is special.
And, now the Saskatchewan Hall of Fame has called with Miller among the 2021 inductees.
“It means a lot to me because it’s Saskatchewan,” she said, adding being from the province really did give her a foundation as people here are generally “kind compassionate people.”
Miller looks back at when her father died and noted the adage it takes a village to raise a child.
“It’s true,” she said, adding she is one of those children, with parents throughout their neighborhood watching out for all the kids.
“You don’t hear about that from big city kids,” offered Miller.