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UMD women's hockey players sound off over decision to oust coach

At 19 years old, Minnesota Duluth sophomore biology major Ashleigh Brykaliuk was supposed to have just two things on her mind this week with the Bulldogs women's hockey team idle until after the holidays. This week was supposed to be about final ...

Zoe Hickel, UMD women's hockey player. (Photos by Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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At 19 years old, Minnesota Duluth sophomore biology major Ashleigh Brykaliuk was supposed to have just two things on her mind this week with the Bulldogs women’s hockey team idle until after the holidays. This week was supposed to be about final exams and a trip back home to Brandon, Manitoba, to see her family.
Instead, the Bulldogs center is worrying about her future two years earlier than she planned following the Monday night announcement that her coach, Shannon Miller, will not be back with the Bulldogs next season. Brykaliuk and her teammates were told last week Miller would not have her contract renewed after 16 seasons, cueing what’s been an emotional rollercoaster the past few days.
“All the girls, we’re all upset,” Brykaliuk said before practice Tuesday at Amsoil Arena. “We’re student-athletes and we do have to worry about school. Most of us do come here for hockey and when hockey is not going our way, that really does have an effect on our schooling. Obviously, hockey is not going our way and it’s taking a huge toll.
“We try to focus on school and it’s been really hard. I don’t know why they had to drop that on us right now, midseason. At least wait until after exams, after Christmas. We’re going home for the holidays. We’re going home to see our families. Some of us haven’t been home for six months. Now we’re going home with this emotion, this sadness. It doesn’t add up to me.”
Miller, winner of five national championships at UMD and the only coach the women’s hockey program has ever known, was informed on Dec. 9 that her contract would not be renewed after its conclusion this spring. Two days later, UMD assistants Laura Schuler and Gina Kingsbury, as well as part-time director of operations Jen Banford, were informed their contracts would not be renewed (Banford was retained as softball coach).
The news was broken to the team on Friday during a team meeting and late Monday - the first day of finals week - they received a letter from UMD athletic director Josh Berlo around the same time the media was notified of the move.
Berlo said out of respect for Miller, he felt it was necessary to inform the veteran coach as soon as the decision was made rather than at the end of the season. In the process, some players felt Berlo and the university offended the team and they felt no need to hold back when speaking to the media Tuesday.
“The way they approached it is an absolute joke,” said UMD senior Jenna McParland of Schreiber, Ontario. “I wouldn’t say childish, but it is not very adult-like or mature.
“I’m really disappointed in how (Berlo) went about doing this and how you do not renew a contract of a coach who is just so successful in building this program herself? What kind of coach doesn’t get a renewed contract with five national championships and you’ve won 12 of your last 13 games?”
Sixth-ranked UMD (12-5-3 overall, 7-5-2 WCHA) is 12-1 in its last 13 games. That includes a shootout win and regulation win at Ohio State two weeks ago. Those five league points leave the Bulldogs in third place in the conference behind Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The PairWise rankings have UMD seventh, meaning the team is in position to make a run at an 11th NCAA tournament berth in Miller’s 16 years as coach.
“It’s incredibly inappropriate for it to happen at this time of year,” said UMD senior captain Zoe Hickel of Anchorage, Alaska. “It’s so sad. This time of year, to let this happen, it’s extremely distracting. People are going through finals. We have to worry about our season. There is no one on our team or on our staff who should have to be worrying about this right now. This is the last thing we need to be worrying about.
“We’re doing very well as a team. We have a very strong team and it’s just going to show our true character how we come out of this, but we’re going to take every kind of motivation we have and put it into our play and our opponents. We’re going to make the very most of this season.”
On Tuesday night, Berlo said out of respect for the current coaching staff and players, the search for a new coach won’t begin until later in the season “when it feels appropriate,” but that may be too late for some who are looking at possibly leaving a Bulldogs program that doesn’t have Miller as its coach.
“Most of us, and I’m speaking for myself, we came here for coach,” Brykaliuk said. “My plan was to play for her for four years and learn and grow every day from her. Now, that she won’t be here for two of my years, it’s sad. It’s crazy and the way it’s happening right now. It’s not professional. It shouldn’t be happening like this.
“If that process doesn’t get going anytime soon, I think a lot of the girls are going to have to think about transferring. Other schools and other programs are filling their rosters so if that process doesn’t get going soon, I don’t know. Some of us could be heading out of here.”
Hickel was angry her freshmen, sophomore and junior teammates were even put in the position of having to think about their future in the middle of what they see as a possible championship run.
“Why should you be worrying about that right now?” she said. “Kids came here and they want to be here for four years and they are proud of the team that they play for and they are so proud of this. Look at what’s around us. Look at the walls (of championship paraphernalia). It’s amazing. We want to be a part of that. We want to be a part of this legacy. We have such a good team this year and we’re going to make the most out of this season. We don’t know what will happen.
“It’s impeccable timing, right?”
UMD plays back-to-back home series to start the 2015 portion of their schedule, hosting Bemidji State on Jan. 10-11 and St. Cloud State on Jan. 18-19. Players say the team will use the anger and sadness of this week’s news as motivation.
“We have to rise above this because we’re having such a great season,” McParland said. “It’s going to be such a slap in the face to all the people at UMD who’ve made this decision not to renew her contract if we do win a national championship.”

jenna mcparland
Jenna McParland, UMD women's hockey player.

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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