Hockey Trailblazer Continues To Give Back To Game That Gave Her So Much
If you visit enough hockey rinks in Minnesota, there’s a chance you’ll cross paths with Shawna Davidson. You can’t miss her beaming smile stretching ear to ear, which she wears daily, often with some form of USA Hockey apparel. Few people dedicate their entire lives to one passion—taking in all they can and giving back even more—but Davidson has done just that.
In 1990, when Davidson was a sophomore in college, she and her Team USA teammates stepped on the ice in Ottawa, Canada, to play in the first-ever 1990 IIHF Women’s World Ice Hockey Championships. They didn’t realize the impact they would have on the game of hockey in years to come. Thousands of young girls playing the game now would not have the opportunities they do without women like Davidson and their leadership and persistence in growing the sport.
After a successful hockey career at the University of New Hampshire and with the U.S. National Team, the Duluth, Minnesota native returned home to coach the University of Minnesota at Duluth Bulldogs women’s hockey squad in 2012. In addition to a successful career at UMD, where she collected three NCAA championship titles, she has worked as a scout for USA Hockey and served as the Team USA Women’s Sled Hockey coach until early 2018.
Now, Davidson is invested in youth programs, coaching young girls who will one day understand how lucky they are to have learned the game from such a brilliant hockey mind. GoodSport caught up with the hockey legend about her career, impact, and growing women’s hockey.
At what age did you start playing hockey? How did your parents help support your drive to play?
My route was being the only girl playing with boys for a long time. I was seven, which now, that’s a little “old” to start—now most males and females are in skates at 3 and 4. The older generation like myself usually had an older sibling that played, and I had an older brother.
I just remember coming to the outdoor rinks and watching him play and thinking that that looked cool—not thinking that I didn’t see any other girls playing, but that it was something I wanted to try. Sometimes I would even put on all of his equipment at the house, of course, two sizes too big, but wearing it all around.
Fortunately, I had a great mother who said ‘sure, let’s sign you up.’
As a young player, did you play with boys’ teams, and if so, what was that like?
I played at Congdon Park, of course, with boys that I went to elementary school with. It was the typical getting changed in the warming shed, and getting teased or laughed at, and I remember being a little upset. Then, we got out on the ice and I skated circles around all of them, and all of a sudden there wasn’t anymore teasing. They all wanted me on their team or their line. I still had typical struggles of being the only girl on that team or in that association, but I never looked at it like I was a pioneer, I just wanted to play the game.
I was the first girl ever to play for the Duluth Stewart’s, which was the highest level of peewee hockey there at the time. They couldn’t cut me because I was as good if not better than all the boys, but when I tried out for the high school team, which was made up of the same players I had grown up playing with, the program wasn’t sure how to handle it, so I got cut.
What fueled your competitive drive? What separated you from other women at the time?
I found about colleges on the east coast through a magazine called the Women’s Sports Magazine and they did an article on women’s hockey at the University of New Hampshire, Russ McCurdy, their coach at the time, and their major success. I remember turning to my Mom and saying ‘that’s where I’m going to go play hockey,’ to which she replied ‘Sure, right, Shawna!’ I knew I wanted to be part of that success.
I wrote to McCurdy who told me about the girls’ hockey camps on the East Coast, so I headed out there to see what it was like. I felt good. I was solid, I was better, I think because I was a product of the boys game at that time, and I felt those types of challenges made me better. But I now think that with the level that our women’s game is at and the coaching, the resources, the training, and the phenomenal women’s programs in the country, there are more paths for girls and women to take.
Were there any professional female athletes or NHL players who inspired you or helped shape your game?
I would watch women’s tennis, it wasn’t like we had a ton of professional female athletes to watch at the time, but I loved the rivalry between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. I loved this type of pioneer, this type of female athlete.
Hockey-wise, the automatic answer is always Wayne Gretzky, but someone who I really admired was Mark Messier. I don’t know if it was his edginess, his confidence, or his grit and grind, but I remember being intrigued by his game.
As I continued to play, I also found great respect and value for some of my college and Team USA teammates like Cammi Granato. One of the greatest pioneers of the game, and still so classy, so humble, and a wonderful ambassador for us.
No school in Minnesota or Midwest offered women’s hockey at that time so you played hockey at the University of New Hampshire from 1988 to 1992. Was it hard leaving home?
When I started to look at these schools, the girls’ hockey camps taking place on the East Coast were a big part of it. I remember going to Babson College for a camp. I showed up, this little Minnesota girl, meeting all of these Massachusetts players and prep school coaches who asked me to come out and play, but I loved and was loyal to my high school experience back home. I wasn’t in that mindset that I was going to leave Minnesota and go play girl’s hockey.
But, college coaches saw me at these camps and reached out, and that’s when my Mom was like ‘wow, this could be a real deal,’ and I said to her ‘I told you I’m going to that school.’ We booked a trip and did a swing. St. Lawrence and UNH were two of the schools interested in me and both were smaller campuses, outdoors—reminded me a lot of Minnesota and of home, which made the transition much easier.
In 1990, when you were a sophomore in college, you and your teammates on the United States Women’s National Team played in the 1990 IIHF Women’s World Championships. Tell us what that was like?
They had named Don MacLeod as the coach and it was ‘OK let’s have a weekend tryout’. They knew most of their talent because everyone was out east. It was very raw all over the map, we didn’t know how it would all work and run. Once the team was selected, we went to Lake Placid for a bit of training, and then we were up in Ottawa for the first-ever women’s World Championship right away, so nothing like it is now with multiple phases and teams.
The respect and the hate with the Canadians that we have seen in the past few Olympics is very different. I think there was more dislike in the early 1990s and early 2000s than what you see now because so many players are also teammates in college. But, Canadians were not playing in the U.S. in those early years. In fact, they were shunned by other Canadians if they chose to play in the States until the NCAA made women’s hockey a big-time Division I sport.
As for being a part of Team USA, it was incredible to finally play with the best of the best. After years of battling against them, I was finally able to be teammates with women like Cammi Granato and Sandra White. It was fun to come together that way; then you’re back at college and they’re your rivals again.
Did you know at the time what an impact you would have on the game of hockey? How does that feel?
I think now we feel like we should give back or that we want to give back in our own unique ways. I believe we realized we were part of something cool or part of a lot of firsts and embraced it and soaked it up, but I don’t think we grew with it until later on — you know, the cliche of ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.’
I love being involved now at the youth level in Duluth. The sport has been so good to me, and to be able to give back to these girls. I was that Duluth girl, and I can relay that to them and help them see their opportunities. I feel responsible that I need to share this amazing sport and my own experiences with these young women to continue to grow the game.
Can you talk about your coaching career and the differences in coaching able-bodied players and Paralympic athletes?
The years I spent with the (U.S.) Sled Hockey team were amazing. Being an able-bodied, elite-level player back in the day, it’s very humbling to work with paralympic athletes —and they are true athletes, they are hockey players. They don’t want to be coddled or pitied. They want to be coached, they want to be driven, they want to be successful, but you can’t help but be amazed at what they do and what they accomplish with the challenges or disabilities they are dealing with.
The able-bodied player, whether it be college, high school, or youth players, they are there for a reason too. They are driven as well. Sometimes they need to be guided because some will make it to the most elite level, but for some, maybe the route is club hockey, maybe the route is refereeing or coaching. But, to get to work with such a wide spectrum of athletes, I find that I am more well-rounded and have more to share now because I was so spoiled working the players at Duluth and with Team USA.
What are the next steps to grow women’s hockey?
My biggest thing is diversity with women at all levels of the game—not just female coaches but administrative leadership. We’ve had some great female leadership out of the front office—Michele Amidon early on, Reagan Carey, Marissa Halligan, Kristin Wright, and getting some female coaches involved with our U18 program and even with the senior Women’s National Team.
I’m excited that we’re doing a decent job grooming some of our young female coaches but I still feel they could get more opportunities and get more head roles, even at the collegiate level. It’s a head-scratcher for me sometimes that colleges and universities, now that there is more money invested in hockey programs, hire male head coaches because of the notion that men can handle that pressure and women cannot. Well, this goes back to years ago when women were pushed into head positions when they weren’t ready. We do have some amazing male coaches who value and respect the women’s game, but we still have work to do to provide more opportunities to highly qualified female coaches.
What can you say to the young girls out there who want to play hockey but don’t have the resources?
That’s exactly it. How do we draw them to hockey instead of swimming or dance or soccer, because it’s the ease of ‘I’m going to go run around a track’ as opposed to hockey, where you have major equipment and facility expenses—it’s not like everyone is playing where it’s cold enough to play on outdoor ice–and then travel to where and who you’re playing, it’s costly.
That is another big challenge for USA Hockey. I think it’s important that young girls try hockey and try different sports and activities to help build self-worth, respect, and confidence. They may need to do some searching and talking with family friends or other connections to find those resources or to see what is offered with USA Hockey. It will require a little footwork for some individuals in those areas, but I believe there are grants, and there are opportunities, and associations do want to embrace new players.
We need to diminish the appearance of becoming an elitist sport financially, and I think that’s where we are sometimes, especially when mom and dad are looking at a soccer ball and a pair of cleats compared to full-ice hockey equipment and facility expenses. But I think what people realize and what parents see is that once kids get the taste of the hockey experience, they’re hooked. So how do we get them hooked? I don’t know that I have the right answer and I do shake my head still at the price of skates and sticks.
Our sport is expensing people out of it and especially when we are looking for more diversity, we’re not helping ourselves there.
If you or someone you know wants to get involved with ice hockey, visit usahockey.com or head over to the closest rink to check out programs in your area.
Photos courtesty of Shawna Davidson