Kicking It Up a Notch

Former NFL Kicker Shaun Suisham Helping Grow Girls Hockey In Pittsburgh

Shaun Suisham may be famous because of his previous career as a kicker in the NFL. Nowadays, though, Suisham has Super Bowl-esque goals for girls hockey in Western Pennsylvania. 

Suisham can often be found at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex just north of downtown Pittsburgh. This is home field for Suisham these days after retiring from the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016. 

Earlier this year, Suisham’s 12U Pittsburgh Penguins Elite AAA girls team, which includes his daughter, Stella, gathered for a team meeting and to watch some film before a night of off-ice and on-ice training.

The room was buzzing as Suisham, nursing an evening coffee, used his high-energy personality to engage the room of 11- and 12-year-old girls in matching shirts and shorts.

The game on the screen features Suisham’s 14U Pens Elite AAA girls team, including his daughter, Sienna, during a recent Toronto-area girls tournament both teams attended. 

That tournament had Suisham and his wife, Erin, covering many miles using two vehicles, including what he proudly calls his “hockey van.” 

“I didn’t know I’d get this deep,” Suisham recalled, smiling as he recounted how he dipped a toe back into the hockey world in 2010 when he took his daughters, then about 4 and 2, to a rink to try hockey.

Suisham played hockey as a boy while growing up in Wallaceburg, Ontario, but he traded his skates for cleats after his family sent videotapes of him booting footballs for field goals and extra points to American colleges. He got a scholarship to Bowling Green State University in Ohio, graduated in 2005 as the Falcon’s all-time leading scorer with 351 points and went on to play for several NFL teams.

When he moved to Pittsburgh to play for the Steelers, he also was warmly embraced by the Pittsburgh Penguins, which gave him gear and opportunities to hit the ice. 

“I was away from it for so long that it was exciting to get back into it with my girls,” Suisham said.  

At the Penguins rinks, the Suishams joined a hockey family that already was growing girls hockey from a part-time pursuit to a full-time program that now has girls teams from 10U through 19U. 

Suisham has coached some of the girls on his teams for six seasons, always advocating for them to get the same experience, from skills training to playing opportunities, as the boys.

“I see and know what we can teach through hockey will carry through to help our young ladies have the confidence to become our future leaders,” said Suisham, who is hoping to lead his team back to the Chipotle-USA Hockey Girls and Youth National Championships. 

Suisham would like to see continued growth in high-level teams just for girls. He wants girls to have the opportunity to develop not just their game, but also themselves as people while having a lot of fun.

“He’s in it for all the right reasons,” says Danny MacKinnon, the Penguins’ director of elite hockey. 

MacKinnon praises how much work Suisham puts in, including behind the scenes with all the extra little things he does for players and their families, who can feel a lot of pressure. 

Suisham even dressed up as Santa Claus one year during an outdoor holiday skate. 

“He creates an environment where he tries to take away that pressure so the kids are out there enjoying it,” MacKinnon said. “To be honest, without him, our girls program wouldn’t be in the spot it’s in today.”  

Suisham is happy to have a new passion in his life following a decade of playing in the NFL. 

“I’m so grateful to have found something that’s purposeful,” he said.

He knows it is crucial girls see tangible possibilities of their hockey dream in Western Pennsylvania. 

It is one reason Suisham is grateful for the Pittsburgh Penguins organization and its support for females in hockey, which this season included hiring Amanda Kessel in the front office and hosting Kori Cheverie, one of six inaugural head coaches in the Professional Women’s Hockey League, as a guest coach. 

Suisham was also one of the people who helped push for the restoration of nearby Robert Morris University’s NCAA Division 1 women’s hockey team.

Suisham and his wife also invested in Premier Ice Prospects (PIP), which is dedicated to providing premier experiences and exposure for girls hockey. Suisham has helped organize three PIP tournaments at Bowling Green, and there’s the Burgh Girls Fest in Pittsburgh over Thanksgiving. His 14U team will play three other teams as part of sharing the spotlight with RMU’s Battle at the Burgh tournament at the end of December. 

“I don’t think there’s an area of need that Shaun wouldn’t jump in,” said Kathy Pippy, PIP’s director of girls hockey. “He’s not the type of person who’s going to sit on the sidelines.

“He really is passionate about it, but it’s more than just hockey. It’s about what you get out of competitive team sports—teamwork, commitment, overcoming adversity. Shaun really brings those values.”  

Suisham is starting a tradition of his own this holiday season as well by organizing a girls hockey day at a local county park. 

Suisham gets emotional talking about how sports helped him grow from “an ultra-shy kid hanging on mom’s leg” and opened a world of experiences to him, from going to college to hanging out with professional stars to now being “blessed to pursue what I’m passionate about.”  

Now he is trying to help his players have a similar trajectory inside the walls of UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

Suisham can’t help but smile when he glances out toward the ice before his 10U team gets ready for practice.

“This,” he says, beaming, “is the experience I’ve always imagined for our girls!” 

 

Bob Batz Jr. is a journalist and youth hockey coach in Pittsburgh. 
Issue: 
2023-11

Poll

Who is your favorite American player?
Auston Matthews
21%
Jason Robertson
6%
Tage Thompson
13%
Matthew Tkachuk
7%
Patrick Kane
22%
Other
31%
Total votes: 264