Coaching women’s hockey

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A Growth Sport is Stunting Female Coaches

By Barbara Matson, Globe Staff
In the constellation of women’s collegiate athletics, no star has burned brighter the last 10 years than ice hockey.

The US team’s dramatic gold-medal victory over Canada in the first women’s Olympic competition in 1998 splashed the sport across national newspapers, and a game that was played by only a handful of New England colleges in the 1970s has grown into a national sport with 74 varsity teams – 30 in Division 1 and 44 in Division 3.

It has been a meteoric rise for the pioneers in the women’s game. Only 10 years ago, Harvard coach Katey Stone was living with a family in Chestnut Hill, babysitting and running errands for three hours a day to make ends meet while she held a part-time job as the Crimson’s head coach.

“Five years later, we were national champs,” she said. Last year, Stone finally bought a house.

USA Hockey reported that 10,000 girls and women registered as hockey players for the 1992-93 season. By 2003, the number had grown to 48,483. As a result, the possibilities for a life in the sport should be growing.

Not exactly. As more and more women laced up hockey skates and committed their time to playing a game on ice, a funny thing happened.

Men took over.

Thirty years ago, before Title IX, before Geno Auriemma, before Ben Smith, and before the NCAA included women, it was women who coached women’s sports. They were primarily physical education teachers, and their network was rooted in that profession.

Then men stepped in, and women had to fit into the men’s model for the coaching profession. Their supports fell away.

Of the 30 women’s hockey teams in Division 1, 19 are coached by men (63 percent). Next year, three more teams will take the ice in Division 1 – including one with great expectations, Boston University – and all three will be coached by men.

In the last three years, 17 head coaching positions in women’s Division 1 programs have been filled: 13 have gone to men.

In Division 3, it’s the same story. There are 44 teams this season, 28 coached by men (64 percent).

Where did the women go?

“Women should coach women if at all possible,” said Minnesota- Duluth women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller, the swashbuckling former Calgary police officer who coached the first Canadian Olympic team in 1998 and who led Duluth to three consecutive NCAA championships from 2001-03. “Because there are plenty of opportunities for men to coach in the men’s side of the game. And it’s our game, and it’s different than the men’s game.

“Having said that, the game has grown rapidly and there may not be enough qualified women to coach all the teams starting up. I would hope ADs are selective in the type of man [they hire], that they would hire people that believe in equality, support Title IX – compassionate people. We’re teaching life, and hockey is the vehicle for teaching.”

Consider the University of New Hampshire, one of the nation’s oldest and most competitive women’s programs. Three years ago, when the contract of longtime coach Karen Kay was not renewed, athletic director Marty Scarano chose Brian McCloskey, an assistant for the men’s team, from a final group of three that included Julie Sasner, now at MIT, and former Canadian star and Duluth assistant Stacy Wilson.

McCloskey is an excellent coach with a wealth of experience; he has an imposing reputation as a recruiter, and he knows the university well. UNH’s student-athletes have been enthusiastic about him, and the team’s performance has improved. Is anything wrong here?

In the last three decades, since Title IX was enacted in 1972 and then boosted by the compliance deadline of 1978, girls and women have been playing organized sports in increasing numbers. Always well-represented in individual sports such as diving and figure skating, girls began flocking to basketball courts and soccer fields and ice rinks to play team sports.

As more colleges picked up hockey, the NCAA picked up interest. Programs began to receive some of the funding that used to be generated by bake sales and benefactors, and coaching positions began to offer better salaries.

It is about this time that the men strode in.

It is a familiar pattern. R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter report intimidating numbers in their annual study, “Women in Intercollegiate Sport.” In 1972, more than 90 percent of college women’s coaches were female; for 2004, it was 44.1 percent. Eighty percent of the coaching jobs for women’s collegiate teams have been filled by males since 1998.

Where did the women go?

Benchmark change

Ben Smith was coach of the Northeastern men’s team when he was asked to take over the US women’s national program in 1996. He agreed to a three-year deal, but was unsure, he said, what effect coaching women would have on his career. For many months, he deliberated with USA Hockey officials about the length of his commitment. But by the time the team reached the Olympics, he no longer considered coaching men.

“After Nagano, I never thought about it again,” said Smith.

Smith is well aware of the lack of women behind the bench.

“Title IX has been great for the athlete, but not great for coaching,” he said. “In the state of Minnesota, there are close to 150 high school varsity teams, and only about seven female coaches. It’s kind of a disturbing trend.”

Many of the men taking positions as women’s hockey coaches have been assistants or associate coaches for the men’s teams at the same schools, including McCloskey, Mark Johnson at the University of Wisconsin, Guy Perron at the University of Maine, and most recently, Brian Durocher, who will coach BU. The appointment at BU – a job many consider one of the plums in women’s hockey – was not an open process; Durocher was simply anointed by men’s coach/ athletic director Jack Parker.

“It’s not a glamorous position to be an assistant men’s coach,” Stone pointed out. “Being [women’s head coach] is an opportunity for them to be the boss.”

Added Miller, “I think there are some men who have come over to the women’s game, not because they have a true love for the women’s game, but because they couldn’t make it on the men’s side, and I think that’s unfortunate.”

It is also true that these men are experienced and accomplished coaches, and their expertise will benefit the young women’s teams.

“I made the jump for a number of reasons,” Durocher said. “One, the excitement of starting something new; two, the opportunity to be a head coach, which has eluded me in the past, and this is my 27th year of coaching. I bring experience in the game of hockey and I’m someone who loves Boston University.”

Durocher has a 30-year history with BU as player and coach, and Parker said the university tries to promote from within.

“We consulted with a lot of different people in the know, including the head of the Olympic team program, Ben Smith,” said Parker. “We noticed the success of teams like Providence and UNH when the men moved over, how well they performed right off the bat, and we felt we had somebody in-house who was a good choice.”

Parker said Durocher’s personality, perhaps more than his gender, was a factor in his appointment.

“I think there are a lot of men’s assistants and men’s coaches who wouldn’t be good,” Parker said. “There’s a different emotional approach. I know my approach with my guys wouldn’t work with women.”

Career path

Men have not shown the same interest in being assistant coaches for women’s teams. There are 56 assistants for the 30 women’s Division 1 teams; 22 are men. That’s 39 percent.

If what you see is what you get, will women think of coaching as a career if they don’t see any other women behind the benches?

“Out on the road, recruiting, I see a lot of women who just graduated and are in their first year of coaching, which is good,” said Claudia Asano, a Harvard assistant. “I just wonder where they’re going to go.”

Said Stone, “If you have an opportunity to hire a qualified female for a women’s hockey team, my hope is that the administration will do that. It’s about supporting women, not about not supporting men. And in turn, women need to be willing to make sacrifices, geographic sacrifices, social life sacrifices, to work their way up the ladder.

There are contradictions at every turn. Former Union athletic director Val Belmonte said the women he contacted about the head coaching position that was filled by Tim Gerrish this summer were reluctant to move – both physically, to upstate New York, and in terms of competition and pressure, from Division 3 to Division 1.

Athletic directors said they believe it is important for their female student-athletes to have role models.

When Brown coach Digit Murphy takes her position behind the bench, there is no missing her energy. She is a female voice that is impossible not to hear.

“First, let’s state the obvious,” said Murphy. “Being the same sex, we have a lot of insight into what it’s like being a woman. Two, we’ve played women’s hockey. Three, it’s the words you use and the intuition you use. I have three boys and one girl, and I use different words with my girl.

“How about knowing how hard you can push them without being afraid of abusing them? Women are tough. How about knowing mentally what they can handle?”

It’s a man’s world

Thirty years ago, when women coached women’s teams, the coaches were graduates of schools such as Northeastern’s Bouve College. Experienced teachers served as mentors to young coaches. That’s not the way men became college coaches. After their playing careers, they began as assistants, sometimes even volunteer assistants, or coached scholastic or junior teams. They were mentored by their head coaches. They jumped from job to job, gaining experience until they landed a head coaching position.

Now, the old path for women has disappeared. The men’s path is unfamiliar. Women have not traditionally coached youth sports – Little League, soccer, hockey, AAU basketball – and little has changed there.

It’s not a simple story. There is a much smaller pool of qualified women because the sport is so young, and it is a harder job for women with young children, so it sometimes takes young mothers out of the pool.

“As a woman, I feel very motivated to mentor them because, quite frankly, it is still a man’s world,” said Murphy, who is the only female head coach who is also a mother. (Judy Oberting, 114-40-8 at Dartmouth, resigned after the 2002-03 season when she was expecting her second child to raise her family and was replaced by her associate coach, Mark Hudak.)

“There are things you learn just by being around women. I used to carry my breast pump through airports and I pumped in front of the kids in the locker rooms. One of the players once said, `Dig, that’s gross,’ and I said, `That’s not gross, that’s life.’ ”

McCloskey agreed the demands are even greater for coaches who are parents.

“Grant Standbrook [Maine assistant coach] used to say to me 10- 15 years ago our sport is not really compatible with having a family,” McCloskey said. “If a woman has family aspirations, I just think there’s a price to be paid.”

“There’s a battle in your own mind,” said Asano. “If I had the weekend, would I be happier? Would it be easier to drive your kids around, go to friends’ weddings?

“I mean, I love what I do. But I wonder whether it’s easier to check in and check out of your job, 9 to 5.”

Salary discrepancies

Athletic directors insist they take the women’s programs seriously, and because of Title IX, they are obligated to. Coaches and ADs alike said that other than the pressures of a bigger audience and more media attention, coaching the men’s team and coaching the women’s team are the same job. But there are undercurrents, subtle questions of respect.

According to multiple sources, Stone, who has 17 years of coaching experience (11 at Harvard), is paid $30,000 less per year than men’s coach Ted Donato, who had a solid playing career in the National Hockey League but is in his first year of coaching. Scalise said Harvard coaches are paid in relation to their accomplishments in their marketplace. In this case, that has been narrowed to the Ivy League.

At the University of Maine, first-year women’s coach Perron – a man – is paid $39,128, while the second assistant for the men’s team is paid $44,000, though both have been coaching for about 10 years. The salaries, according to assistant athletic director Brent Williamson, are “both based on a combination of experience and also the position itself.”

Scarano said women’s teams are benefiting from the recruiting of experienced male coaches who have joined the game: McCloskey, Perron, Tom Mutch at Boston College, Durocher – men who know each other from their years in men’s hockey.

“They’re going to do a hell of a job coaching women,” he said. “They’re going to recruit harder than ever because now they’re really competing with each other; that changes the dynamic.”

Stone once had a conversation with the parent of a recruit who was also considering the University of New Hampshire. The parent told Stone how impressive UNH coach McCloskey’s practice was, and how good a recruiter he was. Stone asked the parent what he knew about her practices. He shrugged his shoulders. Nothing.

The responsibility lies with athletic directors, said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna (the first coach for Harvard’s women in 1978).

“When an AD has to make a hire, what responsibility does he have to women in the bigger picture versus his responsibility to undergraduates now?” he said.

Laura Schuler, a two-time Canadian Olympian in her first season as head coach of the Northeastern women’s team, knows why she wants to be a hockey coach and how she wants to turn the Huskies’ program around.

Her national team coach showed her the way.

“Shannon Miller is by far the best coach I’ve ever had,” Schuler said. “When you play for her, you find energy you didn’t know you have. That’s who I want to be.”