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From troubled to top tier: How Nadine Muzerall is transforming the Ohio State women’s hockey program

Now in her second year as the women’s hockey head coach, Nadine Muzerall is tearing down and redeveloping a forlorned program to its winningest season in history. Credit: Ohio State Athletics

Nadine Muzerall left her interview for the women’s hockey head coaching position with Ohio State bothered.

It wasn’t from anything that was said during the August 2016 meeting. She just couldn’t believe the sadness and dejection coated on the faces of two of the most integral players she would inherit — defender Jincy Dunne and forward Lauren Spring.

“They looked sad and broken when they were asking some questions,” Muzerall said. “And I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. If your college experience isn’t some of the greatest moments of your life, you’re missing out.’ I had the greatest experience in college and I didn’t want anybody to be robbed of that. I really wanted to get to know them.”

The five-time national champion — once as a player and four times as an assistant coach — at Minnesota was a top recruit in 1997 and chose to play for the Gophers’ women’s hockey program in its inaugural season. She became one of the most decorated athletes in Minnesota history and was the first women’s hockey player inducted into the university athletics hall of fame.

Muzerall chose not to join a nationally recognized program. She built the foundation for Minnesota women’s hockey as a player on the university’s inaugural team, then as a coach.

She wanted to do the same at Ohio State.

Now in her second year as head coach, Muzerall is tearing down and redeveloping a forlorn program on pace to have the winningest season in program history through implementing pillars that define the winning culture to which she is accustomed.

The Buckeyes are ranked eighth in the nation with a 13-5-4 record and were ranked as high as third after beginning the season 7-0-1. She took over a Western Collegiate Hockey Association conference bottom feeder that won 10 games the year before she was named the program’s third head coach in three years and turned it into a nationally recognized force.

“I wanted to build something instead of just being another number,” Muzerall said. “So now when I take my baby girl into Ridder Arena where the Gophers play, I can show her all the banners that mummy helped hang and I can take pride in that because I was there from the jump along with my recruiting class versus just being another number. So, now I look at OSU, and I don’t think of all the crap that happened before, it’s in the rearview mirror.”

It’s perhaps the most unforeseen program turnaround at Ohio State in a decade.

It’s exactly what had to happen.

The seniors on the Ohio State roster have witnessed tremendous instability and mismanagement since joining the program in 2014. Then-head coach Nate Handrahan resigned in March 2015 after an investigation revealed he made sexually explicit comments targeted at players. Ohio State then hired decorated Olympian Jenny Potter, who was fired in August 2016 after one season for repeated NCAA violations.

The turmoil and transition inside the women’s hockey program led Athletics Director Gene Smith to reassign then-women’s hockey administrator Shaun Richard to other sports, for he was in the role when the program hired Handrahan and Potter. Smith then gave the task of hiring the program’s new coach to Diana Sabau, senior associate athletics director, who recalled Smith telling her, “Get this right.”

Ohio State women’s hockey head coach, Nadine Muzerall speaks to the team during a November practice in Ohio State Ice Rink. Credit: Jacob Myers | Managing Editor

“This program not only needed a great coach, but needed someone who could help them heal and help them transition,” Sabau said. “I did not want history to repeat itself for these student-athletes.”

Sabau had no previous contacts in women’s college hockey to ask for recommendations and a limited timeline, with the first game being just one month away on Sept. 30, 2016. As she began cold-calling coaches and conference commissioners, Muzerall emerged as the top candidate.

What jumped off the page the most to Sabau was Muzerall’s longevity with Hockey Canada, and her success as a player and a coach.

“She brought this three-dimensional approach that we hadn’t had at Ohio State before,” Sabau said. “Nadine is definitely charismatic and she is driven like no other, but she cares like no other. And that came through very brightly during the interview process.”

The program had its coach. Muzerall then turned her attention to building relationships with the players.

The day of the season opener in New York, the team wasn’t certain its new coach would be there. Some complications with renewal of Muzerall’s work visa — she is a Canadian citizen — prevented her from being with her team during the short preseason. Muzerall arrived just hours before the game and surprised her team in the locker room.

Ohio State won the opener against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Nadine Muzerall-era officially began.

Before taking the job, Muzerall asked Sabau for additional resources to make the program successful. Sabau assured her it would be done, as long as Muzerall could meet challenges Sabau gave her. Terms were agreed to and Sabau gave Muzerall just about anything she needed to build the program to her vision, according to the head coach.

Sabau researched recovery techniques for athletes that have been implemented. She also restructured the budget to add more charter flights to give the players an extra night of rest at home, add money for recruiting, improve postgame nutrition and invest more in strength and conditioning. Sabau also pushed Muzerall toward working with the athletics department design team for graphics both to send recruits and to hang around the facilities.

The structure was set, but stability did not exist in the first year. Muzerall described it as a time when her “hair was on fire,” as she was adjusting to her new program. After the final game of her first season, she set a tone for the returning players for an offseason that changed the trajectory of the program.

“At the end of the season, I just said, ‘Don’t get too comfortable. Nobody’s job or role is guaranteed,’” she said. “‘Every Monday is a tryout. So when you come back, you have choices to make in April, May, June, July and August because when we step foot on the ice, everybody better be ready.

“‘I don’t have time to get you conditioned and ready for our first game, you already got to be ready.'”

It didn’t get any easier immediately.

In the offseason, Muzerall said she was doing four jobs at once. Without an associate head coach and an assistant coach, Muzerall was working with Sabau on the budget, travel and recruiting at the same time she was assembling perhaps the most integral piece for establishing Ohio State women’s hockey on the national radar — its “culture playbook.”

Muzerall spent the entire summer combining her values from playing and coaching at Minnesota with insight from Tim Kight and Scott Daly at Focus 3, a company that helps other entities establish leadership and culture.

By the end of the summer, she had constructed the four pillars of her program on one 8-inch by 11 1/2-inch piece of paper: Grateful, Sacrifice, Relentless, Honor.

Each pillar, or belief, is divided into three behaviors associated with that belief, which corresponds to an outcome.

It’s fair to call each phrase or term in the “culture playbook” coach-speak, for Muzerall continuously repeats them throughout every practice and game. But it extends beyond the ice. Muzerall was brought in to heal a program, build trust and create a culture of winning.

This is how she was going to do it.

Ohio State women’s hockey head coach, Nadine Muzerall spectates a November practice in Ohio State Ice Rink. Credit: Jacob Myers | Managing Editor

“This isn’t a half-ass job,” Muzerall said. “It’s either you’re in or your out.”

Muzerall also constructed a coaches’ rulebook and a players’ rulebook for the program. One of the changes included a mandatory dry season, meaning no alcohol.

However, she wasn’t on her own in changing the culture. Muzerall was restricted by NCAA rules from being on the ice at the same time as her players. She couldn’t require her players to stay in Columbus, but she strongly encouraged it as a part of the tone she set at the end of last season. It was a way for her players to stay on a regimen to prepare for the season while continuing to build chemistry with every team member and Muzerall, as well.

Senior captains Spring and Julianna Iafallo led the practices, conditioning and team meetings. Muzerall said Iafallo was “coming and going,” but Spring remained in Columbus all summer, so the program had at least one captain at all times — a  change from previous years.

“I think through the years we’ve learned to face a lot of adversity, good or bad, and I think any time your team is in those situations, even when they’re tough, as a whole you’re getting stronger,” Spring said. “There were points where we were on our own. We didn’t have a coach, all we had was our team. As a team, we really cherish those moments and grew as a family and as a team.”

Sure, Muzerall had input on what to work on, but it was the leadership from the two that enabled the team to be game-ready when it started full practice in August.

“I leaned on them a hell of a lot this summer,” Muzerall said. “We’re not perfect, but we’re going to have a relentless pursuit for perfection. That’s our motto: ‘Relentless pursuit for perfection,’ because it’s ongoing.”

To further establish a line of trust and communication, Muzerall blocks off four hours of her day each Wednesday to have 20-minute meetings with players. She meets with each player biweekly to talk about hockey, of course, but everything outside of hockey, as well, including roommates, school, family, anything that could affect a player’s mental state.

“I think she’s done an awesome job of recognizing the situation that we’ve been in within the past three years here,” Spring said. “She’s said to us countless times that’s not how anybody’s college career should be, so I think that’s a huge reason on why she wanted to step into this obviously difficult position at the time for her and us, and give us that opportunity to give us those college years.”

A national championship is the goal of any team. But starting at the microlevel, after Spring and Iafallo arrived at Ohio State, they have not advanced past the first round of the WCHA tournament. That was a realistic goal. But once the Buckeyes swept Muzerall’s former team in the beginning of the season, their goals became much larger — even Muzerall admitted they’re ahead of schedule.

“The past is the past,” Iafallo said. “Our program did a 180 and it’s amazing to see how everybody has reacted and everybody is understanding we actually have a women’s ice hockey team and it’s so great to just get women’s hockey on the map.”

But the past is an important part of the identity of Ohio State’s program. It was nothing. It was an afterthought buried in shadows north of Ohio Stadium. Muzerall has unearthed what might have been a sleeping giant all along, nestled in a recruiting hotbed around Michigan and close to Canada. She gave it life, built the structure and found players who bought into the values she learned at Minnesota.

When Muzerall watches her daughter try on her championship rings at home, she said she envisions that moment for her players.

“I want my [players] to come back with their kids and their husbands,” she said, “and show, ‘Hey, look how badass mom is? She believed in the program, she believed in the school and the culture and the coaches that this would happen.’”

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