Calgary Inferno coach Shannon Miller urges funding rethink for women's hockey

She's a pioneer in women’s hockey and now she’s calling on Canada to rethink how we fund the sport.

'The athletes were paid very well ... we need to do that in Canada'

Shannon Miller is the new coach of the Calgary Inferno women's hockey team and she's got some ideas on how to move the sport forward. (Ellis Choe/CBC-Calgary Inferno)

She's a pioneer in women's hockey and now she's calling on Canada to rethink how we fund the sport.

Shannon Miller has decades of experience. She coached Team Canada to medal wins, has spent 16 years coaching college hockey, was a former Calgary police officer and was there for the birth of Calgary's first girls minor hockey team.

She's now the coach of the Calgary Inferno. Miller sat down with The Homestretch this week to share her goals.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the complete interview here.

Q: What's it like to be back in Calgary?

A: It feels fantastic. I love Calgary, I feel like it's home.

I was a police officer here and coached in minor hockey as well as Team Canada and it's great to be back.

Q: As the new head coach of the Calgary Inferno, what's at the top of your agenda?

A: Right now we are in the middle of team selections, we have tryouts going on.

We are going to have a real power house team with nine Olympians on our team this year.

Q: You started the first ever girls minor hockey team in Calgary. How has it evolved since that time?

A: People have kept in touch with me since I moved to Minnesota and kept me abreast of what's going on.

It has really evolved and I am really proud we were there in the beginning and got it started.

Q: What are your thoughts on the state of the game in Canada right now?

A: It is still strong. It has been and will always be.

In the United States, though, they do give out university and college scholarships, they pay the coaches well.

They treat college athletes like pro athletes more than anything. That has definitely helped the United States catch up to Canada.

Q: The Canadian Women's Hockey League only recently started paying its players and not nearly as much as the men get. This seems to have been an issue for years. What, in your opinion, is going on?

A: They started out calling themselves pro and maybe they weren't quite there yet but they were trying to get there.

They have gained momentum and the program is a lot stronger today than it was even three years ago.

When the general manager hired me, she said, "I really want you to come in and take this program to a new level. We really need to get to a pro team level."

So that is my vision, and I have worked really hard at it since she hired me in June.

We have brought some key business people from the community and key community people to the table. And we are going to take a giant step forward this year, not only with the talent on the ice and the coaching staff but also with the supporters, the financial piece of it.

Some big hitters have come to the table to support us.

Q: What is it going to take to drive it forward? What will you be doing this year, to make a difference?

A: Everything from getting more involved with the community with minor hockey. We really want to get more involved in the Calgary minor hockey community, with the business community and with the Calgary Flames.

There is a relationship there, but I feel like there could be so much more done. And that's my job, to knock on the door and establish some relationships and get more of a partnership going there.

Then, of course, just building a power house team and winning so that people are excited to come and watch us play.

Q: How do you move this forward in a united way, so that you can have a league that is similar to the NHL?

A: This has to become a united league across North America and we will bring in players from Europe, for sure, and Asia, but the teams will be in North America predominantly.

I would think it's going to happen relatively quickly based on some of the comments that have been made by the NHL people, by the CWHL and the NWHL people.

It is going to happen and the players want it to happen.

Q: Similar to what is happening in basketball, the relationship between the WNBA and the NBA? That seems to have made a difference.

A: It absolutely has to be.

We do need the NHL to take us under their wing, to treat us like we are the sister sport and have a good partnership.

Basketball has done it and they have done it very well, so why wouldn't we model ourselves after basketball?

Q: How far has the game come from a skill perspective and the kind of athletes you are attracting?

A: It is remarkably different and wonderfully so.

In the initial years when I was coaching with Team Canada, people were still drinking a lot of beer and some of them were still smoking cigarettes. It was crazy, but they were some of our best players.

Before they were good or great hockey players, now they have become great athletes and great role models. They really are wonderful role models for all these young girls around the world.

Q: What about the competition for athletes? Are you in competition with women's soccer or other sports for those top athletes?

A: That happens at a younger age, when they have to make decisions.

Back in the day, people played several sports in high school and then they made a choice when they went off to university or college, especially if they were getting a scholarship. But now they are making those decisions when they are younger.

By the time I see them at the college or national level, they are committed national team athletes.

Q: What's it going to take to keep some of these athletes in Canada as opposed to moving to the United States, where their education can be paid for?

A: I just got here a couple of weeks ago, so I have to figure out who to talk to about that. I gained a lot of information when I lived in the U.S. for 20 years, coaching college hockey for 16 of those years.

I was paid very well and the athletes were paid very well with scholarship money and taken care of with product and equipment.

We need to do that in Canada. It is not that we need to do it because the U.S. is doing it. We need to do it because it is the right thing to develop and keep growing the program. Otherwise, we will fall behind.

With files from The Homestretch.