Nicole Kirnan, first woman to coach men’s pro hockey team, faced ‘demoralizing’ criticism

The Federal Hockey League's 1000 Islands Privateers saw their season come to an end last weekend, as the club was swept in the first round of the Commissioner's Cup playoffs by the Danbury Whalers.

But the Privateers' postseason wasn't the only thing over almost as soon it began: The elimination also likely spelled the end for Nicole Kirnan's brief run as the club's head coach.

Kirnan, the owner and president of the Privateers, quietly made history when she went behind the bench for the final five games of the year. In doing so, she became the first woman to coach a professional men's hockey team.

Granted, the Federal Hockey League isn't the NHL. It's about three steps below it, with two of the league's four teams acting as affiliates for ECHL clubs.

Still, the small operation has yielded a big step for women in hockey.

For most of the 2012-13 season, the Privateers were coached by Paul Kelly, a former player in his first full year in charge. But as the season wore on, Kelly began to feel the urge to get back out onto the ice; and as the playoffs approached, he felt strongly that he could contribute.

With two games to go in the regular season, just in time to meet the minimum game requirement for playoff eligibility, he un-retired.

Kelly acted as a player coach for part of 2011-12, but it was difficult for him to do everything while also taking regular shifts.

"With him being a forward, he could possibly run the forwards," Kirnan said, "But there was no way we could match up the defenceman with him playing."

1000 Islands used to have an assistant coach who might have been able to cover Kelly's absence, but he quit abruptly in January to head to Alberta and join the oilers.

No, not the Oilers -- the actual oilers.

"He took a job in Alberta in the oil fields," Kirnan said.

That left only Kirnan (right) familiar enough with the club to take over as head coach on such short notice. "Just trying to get the team through," she said. "We needed somebody to contribute."

On Saturday, March 2, she made her debut, and it was a successful one. The Privateers defeated the Danbury Whalers, 3-1. Kelly scored twice, the first goal coming on his first shift back in the uniform.

“This is really the best way to maximize what everybody can contribute here,” Kirnan told the Watertown Daily Times after the game. “It’s great that we’re able to get Paul Kelly out there, he’s a huge asset on the ice and we’re able to utilize his offensive talents.”

The final regular-season game was also versus Danbury, who made some adjustments and skated away with a 4-2 win.

"I found that in the first couple of games, I just kind of took it all in," Kirnan said. "We were already locked in to our playoff spot. They weren't going to be instrumental as far as changing the playoff structure. I just basically got a feel for what was needed, what role Paul was going to continue to have, I started running the D, and then by the time we got to the playoffs two weeks later, I was rolling every line, rolling every power play. It was probably a relief to Paul so that he could just play."

Unfortunately, while Kirnan may have used the two games in advance of the playoffs to get comfortable coaching the Privateers, the Whalers used the final game to get a handle on defeating them.

Three playoff games later, the Whalers had completed the sweep.

It wasn't Kirnan's first exposure to coaching. Prior to her ownership of the Privateers, she coached women’s hockey for Manhattanville College of NCAA Division III for four years, leading the team to NCAA tournament appearances in every season.

But her hockey experience goes well beyond that. Kirnan's been involved with the game of hockey her whole life. She played four years at St. Lawrence University, and was a member of the U.S. Junior National women's team in 1996. Plus, her father, Don Kirnan, owned the Syracuse Stars for much of her life, inspiring her to take ownership of the Privateers.

"He's owned the team for over 30 years now. I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to own a team as well."

Still, even with all that experience, Kirnan is still a woman working in a sport that can be unwelcoming to women. She's been met with breathless criticism and distrust from some corners.

"I acknowledge that I'm an easy target," she sighed. "There's a select number of fans that are a little eccentric and take things to the extreme while they're blogging. I know that that's driven because I'm a female and younger than most of the other owners."

A quick search of Kirnan's name turns up FHL Truth, a Blogspot blog whose only post is a breathless smear of Nicole:

In this blog you will find all of the information directly from Thousand Islands Privateers players (Current and Fired). You will also find proof all of the biased information being given by a league who's owner is one of the team owners father. You will see 100% proof of how this league is corrupt and how Nicole is running her team and lying about it. Current Players asked to remain annoymous to not receive retaliation based on the information given.

... [Nicole] has repeatedly blamed her players, opposing teams, the league, and THE FANS for all of the problems within the Thousand Islands Organization. Nicole has been permitted to do what ever she likes within this league as her Father is the owner/Commissioner.

"It can be pretty demoralizing," Kirnan says of some of the heat she takes.

But it won't stop Kirnan from continuing to work in the game, although she doesn't appear quite as determined to return to the bench.

"The plan for next year is we're probably not going to have me coach. It's one of those things I stepped in and did because it was needed. We'd either have Paul back as coach or something along that line. It's not something I've given a terrible amount of thought to, but I wouldn't think it would be a long-term situation."

That's OK. The history has already been made.

Harrison Mooney is an associate editor for Puck Daddy. Follow him @HarrisonMooney.