Hockey awareness could have prevented Miller issue

John Gilbert

When UMD made the decision to start women’s Division 1 hockey back in 1999, new athletic director Bob Corran knew of Shannon Miller from his time in Calgary, and sought to hire her as coach.

Miller had just finished coaching the 1998 Canadian team in the first women’s Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, where it was upset by the U.S. and came home with the Silver Medal. It was also logical because UMD chancellor Kathryn Martin had watched that Olympic tournament and Miller closely, and once told me that the way Miller had handled her players made her wish UMD could hire a coach like Miller.

So it worked on all counts. From the moment Miller arrived in Duluth, it was evident that she was some thing special, a dynamic and forceful coach who knew the game and could relate it to her players. She ignored major obstacles. When the early crop of talent from the new Minnesota girls high school hockey programs developed, Miller confided in me that she couldn’t get the top players to even consider UMD, much less come for a recruiting visit. They wanted to go to Minnesota, which had been playing varsity hockey for several years, or they’d go out East where women’s hockey was well-established. The WCHA was going to have a companion women’s league, and the entrants would have a wide disparity in talent, so in order to be competitive right away, Miller went recruiting to the World Championships — her area of familiarity.

She found several players who were highly skilled and were looking for an education, and she combined them with an assortment of Minnesota and Canadian players, including the blue-chip transfer Jenny Schmidgall, who was unhappy at Minnesota. Still, nobody knew what was coming. UMD won its opening series at Wisconsin, and never looked back. There was no NCAA tournament for women, just a coaches invitational. UMD went 21-1-2 to win the first WCHA title, and went off to the invitational, where it learned plenty, while losing twice. The Bulldogs finished 25-5-3 overall.

The next year, UMD won the WCHA tournament and went on to win the first women’s NCAA title with a 28-5-4 overall record in 2000-01. The following year, UMD went 24-6-4 and won the second NCAA title, and in 2001-03, the third year of women’s NCAA tournament play, the Bulldogs made it a hat trick, winning the WCHA season title, the WCHA playoff title, and beat Harvard 4-3 in two overtimes in the NCAA final, to end up 31-3-2. 

As names like Maria Rooth, Caroline Ouellette, Schmidgall and others, became stars on the national and international stage, I always enjoyed observing and discussing strategy with Miller. Over the years, I also had covered the UMD men who had been battling and struggling for more than 35 years without winning the big trophy, and here the women — with far fewer teams to beat, of course, but requiring their own brand of magic — had won three NCAA tournaments, out of three that had been held.

The fans didn’t fill the DECC for the women’s games, although they did for that third tournament, held at the DECC. A lot of men said they weren’t interested in watching women play because they didn’t allow bodychecking. But the games were physical, and success meant cleverly adjusted tactics. Miller, without question, was the best.

Under Miller, the Bulldogs won another banner in 2008, by beating Wisconsin 4-0 in the final. In 2010, after winning the WCHA regular season and playoff, they also beat Cornell 3-2 in a three-overtime epic for their fifth NCAA title in 11 years.

That was the year Lendley Black was hired to replace Martin as chancellor. He arrived from an administrative job at Kennesaw State, in Georgia, too late to see much hockey that year, but in time to accompany Miller and the Bulldogs on their fifth celebratory trip to the White House. Without question, UMD had the best women’s hockey program in the country, and Duluth area hockey fans came  to expect that the excellence would keep on keeping on.

But Wisconsin and Minnesota had improved year after year, under Mark Johnson and Brad Frost, respectively, to join UMD in a Big Three at the top of the league standings. The “private” flow of talent from Sweden and Finland started being diluted by Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Ohio State recruiting. UMD, in fact, lost 2-1 to Wisconsin in the NCAA quarterfinals in 2011, and lost 2-0 to Minnesota in the WCHA playoff final in 2012.

The UMD men won their first and, so far, only NCAA title in 2011, and Miller cheered them on with the rest of the city of Duluth. That next season, 2011-12, was UMD’s poorest women’s hockey record in its first 13 seasons, at 21-14-1.  One year later UMD had its only sub-.500 record under Miller, at 14-16-4, while going 13-13-2 in the WCHA.

It was about then that Josh Berlo came from Notre Dame, young and inexperienced but highly recommended by the search committee to replace Bob Neilson as athletic director. UMD had a 15-15-6 overall record in his first year, 13-12-6 in the WCHA, and Miller fought for some equalizing recruiting tools, such as getting a fifth year included on scholarships, and/or paid summer sessions, to allow her players to graduate on time. She lost those battles, which she considered hurtful to recruiting.

The following year, Miller gathered the team up from a poor start and they moved into league and national contention by winning 11 of 12 games by mid-December, rising to the No. 7 national ranking. It was then that Berlo abruptly told Miller her contract would not be renewed. She was, essentially, fired.

It made no sense to me, but I couldn’t reach Miller, who had gone out of town during the holiday break. So I called Berlo to see if he would come on my radio show,. which I was doing on KDAL 610 at the time. He agreed, so a day after the shocking news hit, I interviewed Berlo. It was a cordial conversation, during which I asked repeatedly why he made the move, and why had he made the move at midseason.

Berlo answered repeatedly, according to my copy of the transcript, that “it was really a financial decision,” and “we weren’t in a position to continue this sustained salary level.” So I asked if he had offered Miller less money, because I knew she had taken a budgetary reduction instead of a raise after winning her fifth NCAA title. Berlo said, “We weren’t in the position to be putting any offers out there.” He said contractual clauses were the reason he made the decision at that time, and couldn’t renegotiate.

“This was really a tough financial decision that we had to make...” he added.

A few days later, I reached Miller and she came on the radio show with her side of the story, insisting she had told Berlo and Black the previous summer she would be willing to renegotiate, and that she had no contractual clause precluding renegotiation or requiring her to be notified before the season ended.

After giving her salary as the sole reason for not renewing Miller, UMD’s side of the story changed after the Duluth News Tribune printed comments from University of Minnesota regents that there was more to it than that. The UMD story then started stressing the dropoff in team performance more than the financial decision Berlo had stressed “on the record.”

One of Miller’s Twin Cities attorneys sought out a podcast of my KDAL radio interview with Berlo from December 14, 2014, and a transcript of it was entered as evidence at the recent trial in U.S. District Court in Duluth. I was called to be a witness, and I took the stand to verify what was said during that interview.

I don’t know how much impact that all had, but Miller was awarded $3.74 million in damages in the unanimous verdict of the jury. There is more to come, in a state trial still pending in Hennepin County.

But in the aftermath, it occurred to me how simple it might have been to avoid the whole hassle. Two administrators were hired from colleges where they had no contact with women’s hockey, and maybe had never seen a women’s hockey game when they came to UMD. All they knew was this nice, small Division II college was paying its coach a high salary, and they might not have even known UMD had become known as the best women’s hockey program in the country. 

They had no way to know how important hockey is to people in hockey country. And I really believe that if Josh Berlo and Lendley Black had been at UMD to observe Shannon Miller as she assembled and maintained the UMD women’s hockey team back in 1999, they never would have considered the damaging move they made.  

As it is, instead of being known as the little Division II college with the best Division I women’s hockey program in the country, UMD will now be known as the college that dismissed the best women’s hockey coach in the country.