DULUTH – Maura Crowell’s office is a shrine to her team’s glorious past, with wall-sized photos and the words “NCAA National Champions” painted above her desk.
That’s a crown she inherited from her predecessor, whose success and yearslong lawsuits against the University of Minnesota Duluth has long cast a shadow over the women’s hockey program.
Crowell is only worried about one of those legacies.
“That’s what keeps us motivated every day — getting there,” said Crowell, head coach of the women’s hockey team at UMD. “I want UMD to be in the conversation for top programs in the country every single year.”
Now in her fifth year leading the Bulldogs, Crowell has yet to unfurl a championship banner of her own. The 39-year-old came to Duluth from Harvard in 2015 following Shannon Miller, who coached the team for 16 years and brought home all five of UMD’s national titles.
With the publicity surrounding Miller’s still-unresolved discrimination case, Crowell is fighting to make her mark. It is Miller’s face, not Crowell’s, that shows up when googling “UMD women’s hockey coach.”
When the 10th-ranked Bulldogs take on the top-ranked Gophers in Duluth this weekend, none of that will matter, Crowell said, for her or her players.
“We’re focused on the here and now. We’re trying to win hockey games and get to the national championship.”
Best of the best
Crowell carried a look of intense concentration as she stood behind the bench on a recent Friday night inside Duluth’s Amsoil Arena. Her gaze traced her players from missed shot to missed shot, line change to line change. St. Cloud State had taken an unexpected lead — unexpected because the Bulldogs were dominating by every measure — but that was about to change. With less than half a period left, the tying goal eased the tension.
Fourteen seconds later, the game-winning goal lit up the home crowd, and at last Crowell beamed.
Here’s a team that thrives on momentum, which at last seems to be behind the Bulldogs.
Crowell entered this season with a 70-60-14 record and said she’s had this year circled in her mind for some time. The team is more experienced than it has been in years, and the coach has reached a Zen-like confidence in her Bulldogs.
“By staying in the present and continually getting better, things take care of themselves,” she said.
That said, UMD has eight games to play against the best two teams in the country.
Western Collegiate Hockey Association heavyweights Wisconsin and Minnesota have won nearly all the 22 national titles that haven’t gone to the Bulldogs, and so far this year the Gophers and Badgers are sitting atop the national rankings and have just one loss apiece.
Crowell said those games are winnable. Her players have a “chip on their shoulder and fire in their eyes” after finishing each of the last two seasons with a 15-16-4 record, she said.
These are players of international caliber, after all, be it gold-medal-winning Olympian Maddie Rooney in the net or fellow national team forward Sydney Brodt, now in her third year as team captain.
“You need to come here ready to be coached,” Crowell told the team at the end of a morning practice last month.
Amid the sound of pucks bouncing off the boards during that session, Nick Bryant said he took the director of women’s hockey operations job because he wanted to work with Crowell.
“I saw the person she was and how she saw the game, how she pushed the players,” he said. “Her version of coaching has brought a lot to Duluth.”
When asked about herself, Crowell instead talks about her team, her program, her community.
“Coming from the East Coast we have nothing like this, where you run into people all over town who know who you are, they know your team and they support you,” said the Massachusetts native. She’s taken pretty well to Duluth, in other words.
Crowell started her coaching career as an assistant at Connecticut College in 2003 before taking the helm of the University of Massachusetts Boston team in 2005. In 2010, she moved to Harvard and held several roles, including interim head coach, before coming to Duluth in 2015.
She inherited a program that brought UMD its first national title in any sport when it won in 2001, but the team had visited the NCAA tournament just once since last winning in 2010. And it was engulfed in controversy over Miller’s firing.
“When I first got here that was the talk of the town,” Crowell said. “With the players, that was the last thing they wanted to talk about.”
It was a difficult start, but Crowell said “our players are super resilient — in the early years they steered the ship and I followed their lead.”
The Bulldogs returned to the national tournament in 2017 and Crowell won coach of the year for her part in the turnaround. She also coaches the national under-18 squad, where she first coached Brodt.
“She’s been a great mentor helping me grow in my leadership ability,” Brodt said. “We’ve been building every year and are shooting to bring a title back to Duluth.”
That’s the goal, as it is every year, Crowell said from her office, where she’s been waiting for another championship year to add to the wall.
“I love it here, I’m comfortable here, and I have a lot of work left to do here.”