Jessica Christopherson brought an alumna’s pride plus a combined eight seasons of college-level playing and coaching experience when she was hired in 2010 as the girls’ hockey coach at Coon Rapids.
None of it convinced Cardinals players who could not get past her gender.
“They told me, ‘We don’t want you,’ ” said Christopherson, who replaced Rob Potter after six seasons. “They had never played for a female head coach.”
Christopherson could relate. Never during a decade of playing hockey did she have a woman head coach.
Things have been slow to change in Minnesota, where men dominate the head coaching ranks in girls’ hockey a generation after the sport began at the high school level. This year, 26 women are head coaches, representing 21 percent of the state’s programs.
While that’s the most in any year, there’s also this reality: As recently as 2008, every team in the two-class state tournament was coached by a man. No team led by a woman has won a state title. .
The situation concerns Christopherson and other girls’ hockey coaches, male and female, who have never been more vocal about raising the number of women coaches in Minnesota, a national leader in all things hockey. Their efforts to attract more women come against a backdrop of challenges including doubts from players, questions from parents about competency and snubs from male coaches.
“Hockey is sort of a man’s world,” said Burnsville’s Tracy Cassano, in her ninth season as a head coach after stints with Rosemount and Chaska/Chanhassen. “But a woman can be competitive, strong, tough and gritty, yet beautiful and confident. Girls can look to you as a female coach and see that. I’d love to see more of that.”
Challenges inside and out
Already tasked with managing players, dealing with parents and handling various on- and off-ice tasks to maintain a program, female head coaches also cope with unflattering perceptions.
More than any other sport, “the male coaches in hockey are perceived to be more competent,’’ said Nicole LaVoi, associate director at the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “Women are assumed to be less competitive than men when they step on the ice, so they have to work twice as hard to prove themselves and that’s exhausting.”
Laura Slominski, in her eighth season at Edina, said she has “coached kids whose dads played in the NHL. So sometimes you feel like you need to prove yourself in terms of the X’s an O’s.”
Caesare Engstrom, in her eighth season as an assistant at Hill-Murray, said she attended a coaches educational function last fall in Blaine. The male head coach of a team on Hill-Murray’s schedule throughout Engstrom’s tenure asked who she coached for.
Mounds View co-head coach Christina Hanson said that on several occasions, opposing coaches shook hands with Aaron Moberg, her male counterpart, but ignored her.
“You cannot be a weak-minded female and coach in this game,” Hanson said.
Ascending the ranks
A passion to stay involved with hockey, a calling to teach or a desire to give back to the sport motivates some women to coach.
Instilling confidence was a term used by both the veteran Cassano and second-year Centennial coach Kristina King.
Cassano graduated from the University of Minnesota and served as a high school assistant coach for three seasons. She said she was “offered a head coaching job twice” but declined each time because she didn’t feel qualified. When she did apply for her first head coach position, Cassano said she told the activities director, “I’ve taken time to learn.”
Cassano’s approach is welcomed among veteran coaches. Hiring an accomplished former player with minimal coaching experience to run a varsity program can be a huge risk, said Tim Morris, who coached two state championship teams at Eden Prairie and serves as executive director of the Minnesota Girls’ Hockey Coaches Association. A coach’s failure to succeed or rapid burnout could dissuade activities directors from future female hires, Morris said.
Undaunted, King applied for the Centennial head coaching job as a 20-year-old with one season of experience as a volunteer junior varsity assistant in the program. She got hired to replace Dale Sager, who resigned after his first season at Centennial despite support from school administration to return. Clashing with combative parents, he said, became too much to bear.
“Everybody warned me going in,” King said.
It took King, a two-time state champion at Stillwater and a Division I player, a month to win over players, especially skeptical seniors.
“I had to prove to them that I was serious and committed and that they could learn something everyday from me and my staff,” said King, who graduated from Bethel University with her marketing and communications degree in December.
Ready and waiting
A more traditional path to a head coaching job starts for many as assistants.
Hill-Murray’s Engstrom, Eden Prairie’s Christina Lee and Blake’s Taya Kent were local hockey players who played in college. Each has been an assistant coach for at least five seasons, developing their skills and experiences. Their responsibilities have increased to include managing practice drills for the forwards or defensemen, calling out lines or defensive pairings during games, and running the penalty kill or power play.
Strong female assistant coaches are vital, said Minnetonka’s Eric Johnson and Blake’s Shawn Reid, who are head coaches at two of the state’s top programs. They said beyond hockey knowledge, women often possess an innate sense of young players’ moods and emotions and can better relate to young women.
But the trio of assistants aren’t in a rush to be a head coach.
Engstrom, who held co-head coaching duties with the Columbia Heights track and field team, said being an assistant allows her “to contribute, but you don’t have to be fully involved with every aspect of the program.”
Said Lee, “I’m just trying to be a sponge because I don’t want to dive in someday not ready.”
Kent, who served as an assistant with the Minneapolis Novas before coming to Blake, called a move to head coach “a long ways off. I think it’s a combination of personal growth and your progression as a coach. Someday I might crave more of a sense of ownership. But it depends on where.”
Without a specific initiative by the coaches association to attract more women into coaching, coaches are taking matters into their own programs.
Minnetonka’s hockey development committee helps keep the seven former Skippers players now coaching at the youth ranks connected with Johnson and the varsity staff. Coaches attend a mandatory fall meeting and are invited to weekly “chalk-talks” to gain additional experience.
When assistant Maureen (Hardwick) Greiner left after last season to coach at the University of St. Thomas, Johnson replaced her by promoting former Minnetonka captain and JV coach Gina DeNucci.
Cassano helped steer a former player toward a JV coaching position at Rosemount. Lakeville South coach and former Olympian Natalie Darwitz invited a former college player to volunteer once or twice per week while working a full-time job.
Two years ago, Champlin Park coach Jim Koltes helped former assistants Aubri Lindberg move into a head coaching job at North Metro and Melissa (Sailor) Volk at Andover.
But Koltes, co-chair of the coaches association membership committee, said he did not get any female applicants for those vacated assistant positions at the time. But last summer, he said he had “five to seven” calls from prospective women coaches interested in finding jobs somewhere.
Kent said a male coach once encouraged her and other females to make male coaches “extinct.” Kent said she doesn’t share that viewpoint but noted “there are fewer of us than there should be.”
Said LaVoi: “There are a lot of amazing hockey players in Minnesota who would make great coaches. If girls rarely see a female coach, they don’t see coaching as a viable pathway.