The gold medal-winning head coach shares how he got involved in women’s soccer, what makes Canada’s National Women’s Team so special and the best advice he’s received
My first introduction to the women’s game was many years ago when I played hockey at the University of New Brunswick in the mid-1990s. They didn’t have a women’s varsity team, but they did have a club team, and from time to time the team needed extra training support. So for a brief moment while I was playing, I jumped on the ice to help.
After that, I started to build my own career as a men’s coach. I was actually in Calgary working at Hockey Canada’s under-17 camp and got a call from Darren Sutherland of Hockey Nova Scotia. He told me they had to make a last minute coaching change for their Canada Winter Games women’s hockey team and called me first to see if I had anyone to recommend. . I think I gave them three names, but two weren’t available and one wasn’t interested, so they called me back and just asked if I’d be interested. I jumped at the chance and coached at the Canada Winter Games in 2015.
The following year, this group of women I coached at the Canada Winter Games got together and wrote a letter to Hockey Nova Scotia recommending or nominating me for a coaching award, and I ended up winning this award. It’s a little corny in the story, but they were playing on my nerves a bit and I was hooked on women’s hockey right away.
One of the biggest reasons I love coaching women’s hockey is the passion they have for the game. The other part is just the high performance side – when you coach these women, they are real professionals. They invest almost all of their time in their craft. But it really depends on their passion. The passion they have for the game, the passion they have to play for their country and the passion they have for each other really separates them from everyone else I’ve ever coached. They are just a special group of athletes.
Honestly, I feel spoiled all the time working with Canada’s National Women’s Team. Every day is fun working with these players and the staff. I think the biggest thing that motivates me as a coach is that I still think this group has room to grow. I think we’ve made huge strides in the right direction. We are a better team now than we have been in the past. They genuinely care about each other’s success and share those successes. I always think there is room for improvement, and if I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be doing my job.
Some of the best parts of training this team are things no one would ever see. Like when you have a video shoot with an athlete and you bridge a gap with them and you can see them excel at that on the ice. It’s just that little look you get when they come off the ice after accomplishing something you’ve discussed with them. These moments for me are the real special ones. The wins and all that are obviously fun, but most of the time it’s more of a relief than a highlight. These are the little moments along the way.
I remember a special moment at the Beijing Olympics. Because of COVID-19, the athletes had to put the medals around their necks. It was so unique and special. You watch each one as they do it, and you just have a story in your head for each of these people. It may be an obstacle they had to overcome to find themselves in this situation. Several of them had been released from the team before the world championships, and they did what they could to get back into the mix. So I remember almost mentally checking during that five-minute period of the medal ceremony and thinking about some of the cool stories that each person had to go through to get to this moment. Seeing them receive an Olympic gold medal around the neck of one of their teammates was a pretty cool experience.
Mike Johnston coached me at the University of New Brunswick. He’s actually Rebecca Johnston’s uncle, which is funny. When I started coaching, he told me that no matter what I do in hockey, always have your province’s back. Many people, when they have this opportunity for the first time in U18 or junior hockey, they forget their provincial program. I looked up to him so much when I was younger, so I always made sure that no matter what job I had in the game, if Hockey Nova Scotia ever contacted me, I would be there to volunteer and help out. If I had followed my coaching journey in junior hockey or university hockey, I would never have had the experiences that have benefited me the most in this job. The best experiences I’ve had with my provincial member have been participating in short-term events, working with top players and coaches, and gaining more high performance experience.
Another good piece of advice I received a long time ago was simple: meet people where they are, even at national team level. There are athletes who are four-time Olympians, and then there are those who are just hoping to centralize or make a world championship team. As a coach, it’s so important to understand the different dynamics, and the dynamics of women’s football tend to be very different from men’s football.
When I started coaching, one of the typical questions people asked me was the difference between coaching men and coaching women. I think a lot of people make a mistake trying to put an umbrella on their band. I have always believed that good coaches train their athletes as individuals. Take the time to get to know your athletes and find out what their goals are and what they want to achieve. Right now we’re trying to build our program to win a gold medal at the 2026 Olympics. To get there, I think we really have to deal with a lot of the individual stories that are involved in our team. That will be more of my focus in these early years of the quad as we prepare for 2026.