The CWHL released the three finalists for the 2019 Coach of the Year award: Ryan Hilderman (Calgary Inferno), Jim Jackson (Markham Thunder), and Courtney Kessel (Toronto Furies).
The Calgary Inferno won the free-agent battle in the offseason very much in part due to the fact that they announced UMD legend Shannon Miller would be coaching their team this year. Elite players from around the world flocked to the Inferno, including those she had coached at the NCAA level, like Zoe Hickel, and those who had only heard of her reputation, such as Alex Rigsby and Brianna Decker. After an unexpected first-round exit from the playoffs and the departure of yet another coach (Thomas Pacina), Miller looked like she would not only stabilize the team, but also bring another cup to Calgary.
This was the feeling until December, when she unexpectedly stepped down in what was the first of a wave of unexpected CWHL coach departures. The expectation fell to Hilderman. Although he had a wealth of experience with youth men’s teams, particularly boys’ AAA, he had never coached any women’s hockey before.
Hilderman took his team likely disappointed with the coaching change and lead them to the top seed in the league, through the (tougher-than-expected) Toronto Furies, and now to the final.
Jim Jackson had set the bar high after his first season coaching in the CWHL with the brand-new MARKHAM Thunder. It was time to combat the team’s sophomore slump and prove that last year’s overtime Clarkson Cup wasn’t a fluke. This year, he was confronted with a new threat: Canada’s Olympic players, including his team’s own, had returned from centralization. His team had an elite defense— probably the best in the league— but struggled with scoring depth. Jackson used his experience coaching at the CIS/USport level and was able to spread out the scoring among multiple players, including the unproven Victoria Bach and known threats Laura Stacey and Jamie Lee Rattray.
Ultimately, the Thunder weren’t able to repeat this year as champions, but Jackson was able to put together an elite, competitive squad that could match up toe-to-toe with elite teams like Calgary and Montréal.
The Toronto Furies fell hard after their 2014 championship. If the Great Blades Situation of 2015 hadn’t happened, they’d likely have been at the bottom for the last few years. They had a revolving door of coaches and GMs, they struggled for ice time, their veterans retired or left for other leagues, and their 2017 first-round pick never reported for camp.
Kessel understood the situation well— she had played for the Furies’ crosstown rival, the Brampton (now Markham) Thunder sub nom Courtney Birchard from 2011 to 2017. Together, with the help of new GM Sami Jo Small (herself a former CWHL player), they reassembled the Toronto Furies as a force to be reckoned with. Kessel relied heavily on her top line this year, which included captain Natalie Spooner and Rookie of the Year nominee Sarah Nurse— and when they weren’t on the ice, she was able to lean on a solid core of veterans and elite rookies like goaltender Shea Tiley, defender Julia Fedeski, and forward Brittany Howard.
They were able to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, and gave the first-place Calgary Inferno a real run for their money. The rebuild isn’t done yet, and hopefully, neither is Kessel.
The winner will be announced on March 22 during the Awards Show.
Past winners include Patrick Rankine (2010, 2011, Montréal Stars), Lauren McAuliffe (2012, Boston Blades), Digit Murphy (2013, Boston Blades), Sommer West (2014, Toronto Furies), Dany Brunet (2015, Montréal Stars), Tyler Fines (Brampton Thunder, 2016), Scott Reid (Calgary Inferno, 2017), and Tomas Pacina (2018, Calgary Inferno).