It takes a special kind of player to be the only female playing full-check hockey on a boys’ team. It takes a pioneer spirit to enroll in a college program that exists only on paper, knowing that you will be among the first to don a hockey sweater in the school’s colors. And it takes a determined professional to leave a comfortable coaching position at an established college program and venture off to start a new program from scratch.
When the College of St. Scholastica brain trust went looking for an architect to build a women’s hockey program from the ice up, they found their ideal candidate in Jackie MacMillan.
Long before varsity women’s hockey was even a dream at the private college in Duluth, Minn., MacMillan was turning heads and stopping pucks as the only girl on the boys’ varsity high school team in Buffalo, Minn.
“I played boys high school hockey because the girls high school programs were just getting started. I was fortunate enough to be in a community that was accepting of girls playing hockey,” says MacMillan, admitting that was not always the case when her team played on the road.
“There was always heckling wherever we played, but it was just a non-issue. To my teammates I was just a hockey player.”
Part of that web of unwavering support came from the home front. Jackie’s father Mike was not only her high school coach, he was also heavily involved in the state coaches association in Minnesota, and currently serves as the National Coach-in-Chief for USA Hockey.
He recalls with pride his daughter making the town’s Bantam A team as a goalie in her first year there – a sure sign that down the road she’d be ready to tackle any challenge thrown her way.
“I think that playing goalie on boys’ teams growing up put Jackie in a position where she had to be physically strong, but more importantly she had to be mentally tough,” says Mike MacMillan, who has coached at Buffalo High School since 1993.
“I think that’s helped her not only as a player and a coach, but also as a person.”
As she prepared to head off to college, Jackie was all set to go to Cornell University, but had a last-minute change of heart when coach Julie Sasner, who had recruited MacMillan, took the inaugural head coaching job at Wisconsin. So MacMillan opted to become a Badger, with one little hitch: there would be no women’s team in Madison during her freshman year.
Enter one of the game’s legendary coaches, who made sure MacMillan had a place to get ice time.
Jeff Sauer, who coached the Badger men to a pair of national titles, invited MacMillan to practice with his team all season, so she spent a year facing shots from one of the nation’s powerhouse men’s teams, and learning from Sauer and 1980 U.S. Olympic hero Mark Johnson, who was then one of Sauer’s assistant coaches.
“What better mentors could you ask for?” MacMillan asks, rhetorically.
After college, she bounced around the coaching ranks, first at Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school in southern Minnesota, then as the head coach for two seasons at New England College in New Hampshire. She was building a strong program on the East Coast and was comfortable there, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to be a pioneer once more, when she heard of the new program starting at St. Scholastica.
“It was a really tough decision,” she admits. “I was in a good situation at New England College, and it was hard to leave that.”
But the memories of her first time on the ice in a Badger uniform, and the special challenge and opportunity of starting something new, from scratch, called MacMillan back to her Midwestern roots.
“I remembered being a part of the first program at Wisconsin, and the anticipation of that first game, the excitement of waiting for that first game to come,” MacMillan recalls. “I realized that part of my wanting to be a coach was wanting to give my players that same experience. And when it finally happened, it was all that and more.”
She spent a year finding the roughly two-dozen players who would wear the Saints sweater in the first season. She scoured the four corners of the hockey world, luring players from as nearby as Duluth and the Twin Cities and as far away as Alaska and Switzerland.
And on the evening of Nov. 5, 2010, MacMillan’s players first donned those blue and gold sweaters and took to the ice of their home rink in Duluth before a sold-out audience. It was only fitting that on a team coached by a former goalie, the Saints recorded a 3-0 shutout over Augsburg College of Minneapolis in that first game.
The Saints finished with a 7-16-2 record in the first season, but 10 of those 16 losses were by one goal, meaning that Saints hockey was competitive on a nightly basis.
MacMillan said the biggest challenge in season one was having, in effect, 21 freshmen, with no upperclassmen to show them the ropes. By the end of the inaugural season, that manifested itself in the coach watching her players develop pregame rituals and team traditions on their own.
“There have been a lot of sleepless nights in the last two years,” MacMillan says. “But now those things are starting to pay off.”
Spoken like a true hockey pioneer.