Shannon Miller had won an unprecedented five collegiate hockey national championships in 16 seasons when she was abruptly fired from her position, without cause, as the head women’s hockey coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth seven years ago.
Heartbroken that her career in hockey may have come to an end, Miller moved her life to the Coachella Valley, a place synonymous with peace and healing.
The desert was far from snowy Saskatchewan, where Miller grew up, the coast of Lake Superior, where she coached, and any college or professional hockey team. But the desert offered Miller a new beginning.
“It was really difficult and continues to be very difficult,” said Miller, who is now vice president of branding and community relations for Acrisure Arena and the American Hockey League’s Coachella Valley Firebirds. “I’m watching all the Game 7s in the NHL, and I would love to be on that bench coaching.”
After moving to the valley, Miller and wife Jen Banford started The Sunny Cycle tour service, a pedal-pub that takes passengers on a tour of downtown Palm Springs with electric motor and pedal assist technology. For the first time in her adult life, hockey was not Miller’s top priority.
Miller had won a silver medal as a coach with Team Canada at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and later won more Frozen Four games (11) and national titles than anyone in the history of women’s college hockey. Still, Miller wasn’t sure she’d ever again have a chance to work in the sport.
“I used to think about it all the time,” Miller said. “‘Wouldn’t it be great if hockey expanded into the desert?’ It was a little bit of a pipe dream for me.”
Then, in 2019, that dream suddenly became a reality when the American Hockey League announced that a $250-300 million arena would be built in the valley for its newest team, which would be affiliated with the NHL’s Seattle Kraken. It was a “say that again?” moment for Miller, a Palm Springs resident.
An exclusive tour of Acrisure Arena as construction continues
A quick look inside Acrisure Arena as it remains under construction in Palm Desert, Calif., on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022.
Andy Abeyta, Palm Springs Desert Sun
“I just thought that I needed to meet the people in charge,” Miller recalled, “and if the people in charge are good people with a good vision — people I would be proud to be associated with — then I’m going to knock on the door a little harder to see if I can get my name in the hat for a position.”
Miller grew up playing basketball, running track and playing hockey year-round. When the ice and snow came, she and her three siblings played outside. Her dad, who officiated hockey games, flooded the family’s backyard to create a sheet of ice for the kids to play. During the warmer months, they played in the street or even in the family basement.
“We had these little mini sticks, and we’d play on our knees,” Miller’s younger sister, Heather Miller, recalls. “We played on our knees with these mini sticks and a tennis ball.”
Miller’s dad died when she was 13, and she didn’t play hockey again until college. With popularity in women’s hockey skyrocketing in Canada, her school started a women’s hockey team her first year on campus. She made the team, played for years and began eyeing a career in coaching.
While in college, Miller played on a provincial hockey team that was a couple of hours away, and she’d make the drive back and forth just to be a part of something she truly believed could be great. It was the same reason she also started a women’s touch football league while in college.
“Part of it was liking sports but part of it was creating opportunities for people and females,” Heather Miller said. “Hockey’s important, and it’s big, but it’s even broader than that. It’s her influencing opportunities for blazing trails and girls and including people in positive things.”
Miller played in the first Canadian national championship in the early 1980s, which helped Team Canada learn about her. She was named the president of the Alberta Women’s Hockey League in 1985, before her 22nd birthday, and her career in coaching and hockey administration began.
By 1991, Miller had become an assistant coach for Team Alberta at the Canada Winter Games and began working with Team Canada shortly after. In 1999, she was hired as the women’s hockey head coach at Minnesota-Duluth, entering a male-dominated profession that she quickly took by storm.
‘She raised the bar’
When Miller took over at Minnesota-Duluth, she began to recruit players around the world, which was unheard of at the time in college hockey. While others were recruiting the United States and Canada, Miller turned to countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic and various places in between. She saw talent where others didn’t and made a point to utilize it to achieve success in the sport.
Not many college hockey programs were doing that, and it was not something the college hockey community initially believed would work. It ultimately became the most important part of her success.
“That is one of her legacies,” said Ira Salmela, who coached with Miller at Minnesota-Duluth. “The fact that she built the bridge to Division I college hockey for European players.”
Salmela said that Miller is unlike anyone she’s ever been around. She said that her hockey expertise is undeniable, but she insists that what makes Miller different is that she sees the big picture and works tirelessly to achieve big goals.
“She plans and organizes extremely well, but she also knows how to find ways to help people succeed in a team environment,” said Salmela, who is originally from Finland. “She knows how to motivate and to bring the best out of every single person. She understands the importance of the entire team, not just your superstars.
“In the business world, in everyday life, in sports, it’s all about how you work with people and how you motivate them to be the best they can be. She wants to help people succeed and find ways to better themselves.”
After her first season at Minnesota-Duluth, Miller’s teams began a streak that included three consecutive national titles and five championships in her first 12 years at the school.
“She has extremely high expectations for herself, and she lifts everybody else with her,” Salmela said. “Let’s put it this way, at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, there had not been national championships before she came to that athletic department, in the main sports. When she arrived, she raised the bar.
“You have to follow or you can just watch. You can be a part of it or you can watch.”
After winning her fifth NCAA women’s ice hockey championship in 2010, Miller became the third coach in NCAA history to reach 350 career wins when Minnesota-Duluth defeated the University of Connecticut, 6-1, on Oct. 5, 2013. But following the 2014-15 season, and 383 wins, Miller’s contract was not renewed.
That September, Miller and two other former Minnesota-Duluth coaches, including Miller’s wife, who coached softball, and women’s basketball coach Annette Wiles, filed suit against the Minnesota-Duluth Board of Regents. They alleged discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, age and national origin, and claimed that Minnesota-Duluth created a hostile work environment, violated equal pay laws and violated Title IX of the United States Amendments of 1972.
“The attorney said that when you initiate a lawsuit, there’s a very good chance that you will never coach again,” Miller said. “The three coaches, we talked about it and decided that we couldn’t just walk away from what happened to us, and that we had to stand up and fight and whatever the consequences were going to be, they were going to be. But it was the right thing to do.”
Miller didn’t believe it at the time, but she admits that there was truth to what the attorney had said. Being away from the game for so long, Miller said, was ultimately a difficult part of the litigation process.
So, after three years away from coaching, Miller took a job as the head coach of the Calgary Inferno, a club hockey team that was trying to make it as a professional organization. Miller discovered quickly that the job was not the opportunity pitched to her, and after 10 wins in 12 games (10-1-1) she resigned. Not long after Miller left, the team folded.
Zoe Hickel, one of Miller’s former players at Minnesota-Duluth, was a part of that team in Calgary. She went on to coach at Ohio State, helping the Buckeyes to a national championship, before joining Miller as the Firebirds’ manager of hockey programming and community relations.
“I would go through a wall for her,” Hickel said of Miller, “and I’m not the only one who would. That I came here to work with her, I think, says a lot about how much she means to me.”
In December 2019, after more than four years of litigation, Miller agreed to a $4.53 million settlement with Minnesota-Duluth that would pay her $2.1 million after attorney fees.
Still, she wasn’t sure she’d ever work in hockey again.
“I think I’m always going to wish I could have kept coaching,” Miller said. “But there comes a point in time, too, when you’re away from the game in that capacity as a head coach long enough that you have to accept the reality that maybe you have a different path to be a part of the game.”
After the announcement about the desert’s new hockey team, Miller met for dinner on a few occasions with John Bolton, a senior executive at Oak View Group, the company that will own the hockey team now known as the Coachella Valley Firebirds. Bolton is also the general manager of Acrisure Arena, which is on schedule to open later this year, north of Interstate 10 near Classic Club golf course in Palm Desert.
Miller said that in those meetings she found that OVG was aligned with her views on the importance of diversity and inclusion and that it had a vision for success that she wanted to be a part of. Bolton said the feeling was mutual.
“We strongly felt she was the ideal fit for heading up our branding and community relations for Acrisure Arena and the Firebirds,” Bolton said, “as she would help build and grow our two new brands.”
OVG hired Miller in November. For now, Miller is the face of the franchise as she’s the person engaging with the community at hockey clinics as well as with season-ticket holders and other events that the Firebirds plan to host to build excitement for the team and the arena.
One way Miller is already doing that is through the Firebirds’ Street Hockey Program, which introduces the sport to kids throughout the valley. It teaches them about the rules and fundamentals of hockey, from beginners to elite level. Miller and Hickel have hosted clinics for more than 5,000 youth in the valley.
“It’s an opportunity for youth and adults to get a taste of the game,” Firebirds president Steve Fraser said. “To be a part of it and to understand what’s coming here toward the end of 2022. That was a major decision to add her to the team and to make sure we are embracing somebody in the local community who has such deep roots with hockey.”
The second part of Miller’s role, Fraser said, will have to do with the community ice center, the auxiliary ice rink adjacent to Acrisure Arena. The rink will be available to the community for events and clinics, and Miller will play a major role in that, Fraser said.
Miller will lead a program designed to teach individuals how to skate, play hockey on ice and in organizing recreational leagues and tournaments. She also will help attract college tournaments, figure skating and other ice events to the arena.
Miller described this opportunity as her second chance in hockey. Those closest to her insist that they are just as ecstatic for her because of the challenges she endured after giving herself fully to the sport.
“As a friend, I also saw her pain and suffering,” Salmela said of Miller’s time away from hockey. “What bothered me most when she was fired is that the talent, the energy and the knowledge that she has about hockey was wasted every day. When she got this job, I was so glad that there was something for her to put her knowledge and expertise and leadership skills into. Whatever she does, she does it to the max and beyond expectations.”
Heather Miller testified at her sister’s trial in her lawsuit against Minnesota-Duluth years ago, and one thing from her testimony is still implanted in her memory. She said that Shannon still had so much to offer the sport, and she said at the time that she hoped that she would one day get another opportunity to be a part of something big in hockey.
“This is that next opportunity,” Heather Miller said, “for her to get back into a healthy place where she can find joy in hockey. Because some of the journey took away some of the joy. This is her chance to get that joy back.”
Andrew John covers sports for The Desert Sun and the USA Today Network. Email him at [email protected] and find him on Twitter at @Andrew_L_John.