Nfld. & Labrador

Rebecca Russell becomes first woman to coach in provincial senior hockey

An ordinary conversation about hockey between cousins turned into a trail-blazing move for one of Clarenville's best players.
Rebecca Russell: "I'm not too sure I would have been given this chance other than the town I grew up playing hockey in." (Submitted by Rebecca Russell)

When the invitation originally came from the new coach, Rebecca Russell didn't think it was a big deal.

Dustin Russell had just taken control of the Clarenville Caribous senior hockey team – the team's former captain stepping off the ice and going behind the bench to guide them from a different vantage point – and asked Rebecca if she would be interested in joining his staff.

Rebecca Russell says it took a while to realize the significance of her new coaching role. (Submitted by Rebecca Russell)

When they discussed the offer further, it was just two cousins talking hockey, like they had done many times before.

They talked about how to improve the power play, how to get the most out of the players and the best way to get the Caribous back on top of the Newfoundland senior hockey scene.

Having Rebecca, Clarenville's most decorated and celebrated female hockey player and one of the best to ever come from the town, back home and joining his staff was "inevitable." 

How could he not invite her?

Knowing hockey, inside out

She knew more hockey than most of the men in town. After her playing days ended at St. Lawrence University, where she played on a hockey scholarship, Rebecca Russell threw herself into coaching.

She joined the University of Calgary's coaching staff, working with Olympian Danielle Goyette. She was involved with both the Canadian under-18 female team and the national under-22 program, taking the under-18 team to a world championship as head coach.

Rebecca Russell didn't see coaching in her cards when she returned to Clarenville to work with the family business. (Submitted by Rebecca Russell)

Then there were four years at the Okanagan Hockey Academy, where she started a female program that last year put seven players on B.C.'s under-18 team and is now considered one of the best hockey schools in North America.

While at OHA, she also coached the boys' high school team that included current Ottawa Senator Curtis Lazar.

Russell agreed to come on board, although not in a full-time role. She had returned home to help her parents run the family business – ER Heating and Refrigeration.

Coaching wasn't in the cards. She was already busy as the technical director for the town's minor hockey association. But she agreed to help.

"I have a feeling I'm going to be there a lot more than I thought I would be at the beginning of the season," she admitted this week, saying she wasn't with the team in Grand Falls-Windsor for its two games this weekend.

"The past year I took a break from coaching competitively and just coached minor hockey. It's nice to be back at that level again. It's actually something I want to do and something I'm excited about," she said. 

"Being back, analyzing the game, talking to staff about systems and game plans, it definitely is something I love to do. It makes my heart pound, and every game I ever participate in, no matter what level, the adrenaline kicks in no matter what."

'I guess it is sort of a big deal'

But still there was no indication this was a big deal. Through the summer and early fall, training camp and practices, it was just normal. Rebecca Russell doing what she knows and loves – coaching hockey. Sure the local paper did a story on her, which made her think a bit. But it wasn't until opening night, Oct. 31, at the Clarenville Events Centre when the magnitude of what she was doing hit home.

As the team prepared to skate on to the ice that night, and Russell headed to her perch in the press box to watch the action, she noticed some young females watching her intently, waving to their coach.

"Just being around the rink last week and having some of the girls I coach in minor hockey stopping and waving to me, it makes me think it is a big deal," she said. 

"At first I didn't even think about it. I just talked to Dustin about hockey, and what role he wanted me to play," she said. 

"Then people started to make more of a deal of it. Now I guess it is sort of a big deal. You hope that it opens up some eyes that there are some women out there who have knowledge of the sport within our province and could be more involved at the senior game. Maybe hopefully if I do a good job here that they will get an opportunity to be involved as well," she said. 

'Before I didn't think about it, but now that people mention it and make it a big deal, then I concede that it is now."

No special treatment, either way

But that doesn't mean special treatment, for her or from her. Coaching boys is different than coaching men, Russell says. And coaching young girls is different than older women. But men and women? There's not a lot of difference.

"The biggest thing for me when coaching women, I always say you're coaching athletes and they deserve to be treated like that. I'm just as hard on girls as I am on boys. It's like coaching individuals – they're all different. Little things might get through to girls quicker than boys. Slightly different techniques. But overall you're coaching athletes, you're coaching hockey players."

About the only concession she admits to is that the opportunity before her now probably would not have happened in any other place but her hometown.

"The amount of support and respect, right from day one at age 7 when I started playing, the town has given me, as a coach, to hire me as technical director. Dustin said it was inevitable to have me involved," she said. 

"I'm not too sure I would have been given this chance other than the town I grew up playing hockey in. Those boys have always been super-respectful of me and the career that I've had, and I really appreciate it, to be honest."

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