Behind the bench
Behind the bench
Former Olympian Laura Schuler guides Team Canada
With three Women’s World Championship titles and an Olympic silver medal to her credit, the native of Scarborough, Ontario is now tasked to lead the squad for which she once starred, aspiring to achieve the same – or higher – levels of success that she enjoyed.
Schuler, 45, was appointed as Team Canada’s coach on 19 June 2015. Just less than five months later, in her first major test behind the bench of the senior team, the Canadians had to settle for silver at the 4 Nations Cup in Sundsvall, Sweden after the United States rallied for a come-from-behind win in the final game, capped by Hilary Knight’s overtime goal.
“We created a lot of scoring chances and unfortunately we just didn’t capitalize enough,” Schuler said after Canada came up short in its bid to defend its title at the tournament.
Schuler of course is no stranger to the heated rivalry between the two North American super powers in women’s hockey. Each of the gold medals she enjoyed at the Women’s World Championships – in 1990, 1992, and 1997 – came at the expense of Canada’s neighbours to the south. Her only Olympic appearance, however, ended in heartbreak in 1998, in Nagano, Japan when the Americans claimed gold as the sport made its debut at the Winter Games.
“It’s always been a battle with the U.S. since my playing days,” Schuler said. “Back in 1998 leading up to the Olympics, we played them 20 times, we won ten, and they won ten. So it’s always been a battle with them, and it continues to be.”
1989/90 marked not only the season of the first Women’s World Championship, but also the debut of Schuler’s college career after the player’s enrolment at Northeastern University in Boston. In four seasons with the Huskies, Schuler amassed 64 goals and 121 points in 99 games. Her achievements led to her eventual induction into the school’s hall of fame.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in cardiovascular health and exercise, Schuler spent two seasons at the University of Toronto, skating for the Varsity Blues while also studying exercise science.
Then, in 1997/98, Team Canada extended an invitation to Schuler play in the Olympics. In preparation, she was immediately introduced to an accelerated training regimen, the likes of which she had never experienced.
“When I was in college, we didn’t train to the extent of what athletes are doing now,” she said. ”It wasn’t until our Olympic cycle and my first centralization year where we actually started to train really hard.”
At the end of the gold medal game in Nagano, under the shadow of the American flag being raised to the peak position to the rafters at Big Hat arena, Schuler along with former Varsity Blues teammates Jayna Hefford and Lori Dupuis sobbed at the blue line, their Olympic dream shattered.
Schuler remained with the national team until 2001, when she swapped her skates for a whistle. Retiring as a player, she founded the women’s program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, taking the reins as coach for three years. The role satiated Schuler’s lifelong urge to become a mentor.
“Initially a teacher was what I aspired to be when I was growing up,” she said. “But coaching was never a really viable option back then. But I always remember, as a player, loving to take the coaching board and just talking about the logic behind the tactics and the strategies that we were doing. I always wanted to coach, but I was really fortunate, because it really became a viable occupation just as I was retiring from the national program. As soon as it became available, I jumped right on the bandwagon.”
In her last season at UMass, 2003/04, Schuler was named the winner of the Eastern College Athletic Conference Coach of the Year Award. She coached for three seasons at her alma mater, Northeastern, before moving on to the University of Minnesota, Duluth where she served as an assistant under Shannon Miller, the coach of Canada’s 1998 Olympic squad.
With twelve seasons of coaching experience at the U.S. college level under her belt, Schuler had her first foray guiding Team Canada in 2013/14, serving as bench boss of the Under-18 team. At the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship staged in Budapest, Hungary, the Canadian youths claimed their third consecutive gold medal.
“That was such an unbelievable moment for me, and I was surrounded by such great players,” Schuler reflected. “I was just so fortunate to be able to coach so many amazing kids that have gone on to continue to be a part of our national program. It was such an incredible moment to win it as a coach, as I had before as a player. The biggest thing for me is knowing that I was able to be a part of influencing those kids.”
The next challenge for Schuler is to reclaim the Women’s World Championship for her country. Canada has lost to the United States in each of the past two tournaments, 2013 and 2015, while winning the 2014 Olympics and the pressure to return to glory is magnified by having this year’s edition held on home soil, in Kamloops, British Columbia.
Speedy forward Jennifer Wakefield will make her fifth career appearance at the tournament. An Olympic gold medallist two years ago at the Winter Games in Sochi, Wakefield looks forward to the challenge of avenging the previous World Championship defeats at the hands of the Americans. She has all the confidence that the right coach is in place to end Canada’s mini-slump.
“I think Schuler has brought a new philosophy to the program that will allow us to generate more scoring opportunities and will be a key to our success,” Wakefield said. “It's great to have a coach that has been an impact player at the national level, and she has proven her strength in coaching at the U18, U22 and NCAA levels.”
Barring a major upset, it will be the maple leaf versus the stars and stripes vying for the championship, yet again. “Whenever you have that level of competition, when it’s that competitive, that’s a great thing for women’s hockey all around,” Schuler said.
Throughout all of her accomplishments, as a player and as a coach, Schuler never stops learning. The pupil has now become the mentor, but as the game evolves, so does the continuous thirst for knowledge. That’s a message Schuler hopes to impart on her players, from the fresh-faced rookies to the grizzled veterans.
“Obviously over the years you continue to learn the game, day in and day out,” she said. “I wish I had the same knowledge that I have now, when I was a player. Maybe I would have been able to extend my career! But I wish I had been even more of a student of the game, back then.”
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