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Accomplished Coach Shawna Davidson Makes Women’s Hockey History Twice

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Part of the generation that helped put women’s hockey on the map; Shawna Davidson was part of the inaugural IIHF Women’s World Championships in 1990. Appearances would also follow in 1992 and 1994 as Davidson not only established herself as an elite competitor, but was among the game’s builders.

Like so many of her peers that would eventually hang up their skates, she would continue to give back to the game in a coaching capacity. For Davidson, her coaching career would take her to the nascent years of NCAA women’s hockey, setting the foundation for the bright future to come. As a side note, she would win three NCAA Frozen Four titles (including the first-ever) as an assistant coach to Shannon Miller at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Once again, Davidson finds herself at the beginning of another new and exciting era in the female game. In addition to her role as a member of USA Hockey’s Board of Directors, Davidson can still be found at the rink.

Proudly serving as the head coach of the United States women’s ice sledge hockey coach, Davidson had the opportunity to be part of the first-ever IPC sanctioned women’s ice sledge hockey world championships. With the US contingent emerging as world champions, the gold medal outcome was of great reward and validation for such an ambassador to the game.

“It is a different experience but a new experience. As you can imagine, in 1990, being a player, I was part of history there. Number one, there was the tournament itself. Number two, being in the finals, part of a great rivalry with Canada.

To experience that years later (as a coach), it is giving back to the overall sport of hockey. Coaching women’s sled hockey, these are amazing athletes. To experience two amazing events, one as a player, and then to come back as a coach, it is amazing to think I have been involved with both events.”

Having made women’s hockey history twice, first as a player and then as a coach, Shawna Davidson has been part of some of the most exciting moments in the growth of the female game. With women’s ice sledge hockey poised to be a demonstration sport at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, Davidson can be proud of her coaching efforts.

“When you are a coach, you give insights or feedback. Whether it is able-bodied or sled hockey, it is about the x’s and o’s when you are coaching. The only difference is that in sled hockey, there is no back skate with a forward pivot.

There is something different as a coach as there are different levels of nerves. As a player, you get some of those energies out because you are enjoying the game. How do you channel that as a coach?

You remain calm and composed; you deliver your message and hope you give them all you need. As a coach, you hope you have done your job. They have to play, and you hope it all works out.”

While the gold medal game of the inaugural IPC Women’s World Ice Sledge Hockey Championships would prove to be an extension of the eternal hockey rivalry between Canada and the United States, there were only feelings of mutual respect and a validation that the game has reached greater prominence. Such feelings were evident by the final game at the event, which was a Friendship Game, mixing players from different rosters.

“The players were so classy. They had great character on both sides. You get to feel that it truly is all about the players. I am lucky to be able to coach them. Although I am very proud of my silver medals, I worked hard for them, but when you talk of Canada vs. the US, whether it be men’s, women’s or sled, it is gold you expect.”

Bright and articulate, there is no question that Davidson is a lifelong student of the game. Even at a young age, she looked at the game with a cerebral approach, always analyzing the possible outcome of a play. In many ways, this approach made it evident early on that she had all the makings of a coach.

“As a coach, you share your strategies and concepts with your players. I have to thank all the coaches that experienced me (as a player). Even back to my youth days, I was taking little tidbits that I experienced as a player, asking how would I apply those as a coach?

I had some tremendous coaching role models. As an assistant coach at UMD with Shannon Miller, we won several Frozen Four titles.”

Perhaps more impressive is the maturity that Davidson employs. Approaching the game and life with a positive outlook, it is testament to what makes Davidson such a valued member of the women’s hockey community. The fact that she has also graced the ice as a player at some of the highest levels possible, major university with the New Hampshire Wildcats and as a member of Team USA means that her experiences translate well in helping to mentor players and provide focus and direction to their careers.

I have been very fortunate. This game has been so good to me. I have some wonderful life lessons. As a player, I have also had the disappointment of being cut, getting silver medals. These are tips to share with players from those personal experiences.”

When not coaching, Davidson can often be found in meetings for USA Hockey. Having served as a Director at Large with the USA Hockey Adult Council, she has seen the game grow from the grassroots level, which now includes ice sledge hockey. While she has served in coaching capacities with UMD and with the Duluth Northern Stars HS girls ice hockey, a chance encounter with two of the builders in US ice sledge hockey would pave the way for a bold and empowering chapter.

“As a former player with Team USA, I have also been at various USA Hockey meetings with various committees and its governing bodies. I have met people from all over the USA. Tom Koester and Tom Brake, who helped start the women’s program, were out of the Atlantic district, which I believe is Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

They have been very active in sled hockey America, getting junior program going, even prior to the USA Hockey Sponsorship. They were very active with the national team, also appearing at USA Hockey meetings.

They had asked me, “Would you ever want to try and coach?” I was almost intimidated. I had never coached disabled athletes. They were so open and passionate. It was amazing for a woman coach to be involved with these feminine players. I thought that down the road, this team could be part of the Paralympics. I want to thank them (Koester and Brake) for kind of twisting my arm.”

While the experience would only enrich an already impressive hockey career, Davidson’s experiences with the players proves that one never stops learning. She has found new inspiration by coaching such a remarkable group of women, defining her tenure as head coach as a true labor of love.

“You know, it is hockey. I gave it a try and it is an amazing team. Coaching them, they are so inspiring, it makes me humble. I just keep looking for great words to describe them. I am constantly smiling and beaming, talking about the players.

Christy Gardner is such a pleasant surprise to our program. A military vet, unfortunately she suffered a head injury. She also serves as our team’s backup goalie if we should need. A unique aspect is that she also has a service dog.

It is another layer of inspiration with this team. Like so many players, she helps promote the sport as best as they can.

The experience of them meeting with able-bodied players from the US national team was great too. My players’ getting to meet Olympians is one of those wonderful things. They get to step back and see what they mean to each other and follow each other on social media.”

Perhaps the defining moment as head coach for the US women’s ice sledge hockey team came when she entered the sled. Approaching it with great enthusiasm, it gave Davidson a newfound appreciation for the game.

“It was one of the first things I told myself when Tom Koester and Tom Brake approached me about coaching. The majority of time with team, I am on skates but I am upright. I jumped in to the sled after a practice as we had a little extra ice time.

As we bring people to practice, the players are open and generous to letting people hop in their sled. The first time (for me) was about six or seven years ago. We were training in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, we got the group together and they had never met me, I had never met them.

We were socializing, figuring each other out. Right away, I wanted to get in the sled. I wanted to know the experience. I knew I would not be near what they could do, but out of respect for what they do, I wanted to try that piece of equipment.

When you skate, you use your upper body to propel yourself. Then they gave me a puck and it was like, how do I keep skating with the puck, while someone is trying to check them? In able-bodied hockey, they play from the waist up. You skate with the upper body, handle the puck and fight off the checkers with the upper body.

How humbling, it gave me a new level of respect. I remember they jokingly said, “We will check you.” I thought they would blow me up on the ice. People do not know how good they are, they are athletes.”

In the aftermath of Davidson’s attempt at the sled, it truly served as the moment that helped make the team stronger. It created a strong mutual respect that signified an even strong level of dedication and appreciation for the game. It would also have an impact on Davidson’s coaching style,  

“It helped me identify with them. When I coach, I do not stand up and holler over them.

I always set down on one knee drawing up plans because I want to be at their level, eye to eye. In between periods, I come off the bench and I kneel down, to address them. It is out of respect, so important to get down on one knee and be at eye-level, face-to-face and recognize them.”

While the next step in the evolution of women’s ice sledge hockey shall take place at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the strides that have been reached in the last few months have seen the game truly grow by a quantum leap. In addition to the first-ever IPC sanctioned Women’s World Championships (held in Brampton, Ontario), two members of the US national team, Christy Gardner and Laurie Wood had the chance to grace the ice outdoors at Nationals Park.

Competing with the USA Warriors, Gardner and Wood were part of the festivities for the NHL’s Winter Classic, competing in an outdoor scrimmage and meeting several members of the Washington Capitals and Chicago Black Hawks. It was just another glorious chapter in a remarkable narrative about the growing impact and acceptance women’s ice sledge hockey. There is no question that Davidson has made some great contributions to that narrative,

“As a coach, you are just so proud of your athletes. They are the ones who do all the work. It truly is them. I looked at it as I am just so grateful to share that gold medal win with those athletes.

It added another special feeling for me. Having played in those gold medal games (1990, 1992, 1994), I never won the gold. Sharing that with them, knowing how important it is, how amazing. I wanted them to win that gold and be part of that experience.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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