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Laura Halldorson retires having pioneered important changes in Minnesota girls, women's hockey

As the first women's hockey head coach at the University of Minnesota, Laura Halldorson brought near-instant credibility to the Gophers on the national scene, and a trio of title banners to Ridder Arena.

HK Halldorson 05.jpg
Hired to start the University of Minnesota women's hockey program in 1996, Laura Halldorson led the Gophers to three national titles and seven conference regular season or playoff titles in a decade behind the bench.
Contributed / University of Minnesota Athletics

MINNEAPOLIS — The recent decision by Laura Halldorson to quietly retire after more than 25 years at the University of Minnesota marked the end of an era for girls’ and women’s hockey in the state. Which was fitting, as Halldorson first learned this game at the start of an era that has changed the region’s hockey landscape forever.

Since 2007, Halldorson has worked in the development department for U of M athletics, helping raise the funds that are so vital to the success of Gopher sports. But it was her first decade in Dinkytown where Halldorson made her name known statewide, as the person who established women’s hockey at the school, and who coached the Gophers to a trio of national championships.

Puck pioneers

Halldorson, now 59, still recalls the announcement that came over the loudspeaker at school when she was barely a teenager, saying that the Wayzata school district was going to start a hockey team just for girls, and offering information about tryouts.

“My mother took my sister Rachel and I to sign up and I almost chickened out in the parking lot. My mother said just to at least try it, and I’m sure glad I did. Getting that opportunity was the key,” said Halldorson, who loved to skate as a kid, but had rarely done it with a stick and a puck. She was one of the first players for a team known as the Wayzata Checkers, and played with them all through her teenage years.

Womens Hockey
Laura Halldorson's Minnesota Gophers teams were regular participants in the NCAA Frozen Four, winning national titles in 2000, 2004 and 2005.
Jerry Lee / University of Minnesota Athletics

“I was with a version of the Checkers until I graduated from high school,” she recalled. “Most people my age or older played with boys, but I never did, and that was unusual.”

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Graduating from high school in the early 1980s, there was not women’s college hockey in Minnesota, but recruiters from the Ivy League got word of her work in the classroom and on the ice. Halldorson ended up at Princeton, where she skated for four years for head coach and former NHLer Bill Quackenbush.

“He had never seen me play, but he knew about my team, he knew I was from Minnesota and I had played for seven years,” Halldorson said. “At that time, that was a lot of experience.”

A few years later, back in Minnesota with her Princeton degree, Halldorson was working at a mail order company and volunteering as an eighth grade high school softball and volleyball coach. She got a call from Bob Ewell, who had taken over as Princeton’s women’s hockey coach and was looking for an assistant.

I had four assistants that became Division I head coaches and she was a star in that group. She was amazing.
Bob Ewell, Princeton head coach

Halldorson was intrigued at the challenge, and about the opportunity to return to Princeton, but the job paid all of $2,500 a year. Thankfully, they worked out an arrangement where she could work at a clothing store in town that would accommodate her schedule, and there were some unused offices with a bathroom, a sink and a stove on the top floor of one of the school’s athletic buildings where she could live, showering in the women’s locker room each morning.

“She was a great help because she had been there for some Princeton women’s hockey glory years,” Ewell said. “She was just a great assistant. I had four assistants that became Division I head coaches and she was a star in that group. She was amazing. We worked very hard and had a lot of fun doing it.”

Holding the whistle

Ewell had coached previously at Colby College, a Division III school in Maine. When the White Mules went looking for a coach, Halldorson came highly recommended. At a small school, she learned not just how to be a head coach, but all sides of a college athletic department.

“I was the head hockey coach, I coached the club volleyball team and worked with the softball team. So I was coaching three teams, I was the scheduler, and eventually I was the senior women’s administrator,” said Halldorson of her seven years at Colby. “There was no pressure there, so it was a great place for me to cut my teeth and gain some experience being a head coach.”

It was around that time, in the early 1990s, that some plugged-in folks in Minnesota noted the growth of women’s college hockey in the east, and felt it was time that the State of Hockey got in on the fun. Paul Erickson, who was head of the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission at the time, worked with several others, such as Jim Erickson and Mitzi Witchger, who were passionate about hockey opportunities for girls and women to start a tournament for college and high school girls teams, held in the fall at 3M Arena at Mariucci. Halldorson brought her Colby team to one of those tournaments, and at a reception prior to the games, met people like Bob and Kathleen Ridder – influential hockey backers in the state – and Chris Voelz, then the women’s athletic director at the U of M.

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Retiring from coaching in 2007, Laura Halldorson worked in the U of M athletic department's development office, raising vital funds to support Gopher sports.
Courtney Anderson / University of Minnesota Athletics

A hockey homecoming

With the blessing of original Minnesota North Stars owner Walter Bush, Herb Brooks and the Ridders, the Gophers got serious about adding women’s hockey as a varsity sport, and Halldorson was one of the names on the list of candidates to be their first head coach.

“We had a great group of applicants and we were starting a new program, so I wanted to make a statement,” said Voelz, now retired and living on the West Coast. “She had already been a head coach, she was well thought-of with everyone I spoke to. And I found her to be exactly what everyone said she was – she was dedicated, she was meticulous, she was really loyal and bought-in and was a proud Minnesotan who was proud to be taking the reins of a brand new program that we thought would have national implications.”

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She went to Minneapolis and recalled being “grilled” by a 20-person panel tasked with finding the first Gophers coach. While waiting to hear from the U of M, Halldorson was also offered the head coaching position at her alma mater. It was a tough decision with much to consider.

“That was a crossroads for me. I had to decide whether to take a chance on Minnesota knowing that the Princeton job was an option,” she said.

Halldorson talked to a friend at Colby who advised her, “You might need to go to a school like Princeton and work there to eventually get to a place like Minnesota.”

“I decided I’ll take my chances and see what happens,” Halldorson said. She was offered and accepted the Gophers job in October 1996, with the U of M’s first-ever game less than a year away. All she needed to do in that time was order equipment, find a schedule and put together 20-plus players who could compete versus the already-established programs on the East Coast.

1999 Champ team 034.JPG
Minnesota Gophers coach Laura Halldorson offered a friendly fist bump to goalie Brendan Reinen following a 2005 win.
Contributed / University of Minnesota Athletics<br/>

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Matters of mentality

Halldorson came to the U of M at a time when the two most prominent Gophers men’s coaches – football’s Jim Waker and basketball’s Clem Haskins, had been shown the door.

“Jim Wacker was a great guy, and he got fired because he didn’t win enough,” Halldorson said. “Clem Haskins won a lot, but got fired because they cheated to do it.”

I put my focus on academics, and on the individuals. I had no idea if it would work.
Laura Halldorson

Thinking of both of those examples, Halldorson plotted a strategy to bring a Division III mentality to the highest-profile Division I women’s hockey job west of the Great Lakes at the time.

“I put my focus on academics, and on the individuals,” she said. “I had no idea if it would work.”

At that time, Nadine Muzerall was a Toronto kid who had had some prep hockey success and was faced with several college hockey options. As one of Halldorson’s first recruits, she saw firsthand what would spell almost immediate success for the Gophers.

“I chose Minnesota, straight up, because of Laura Halldorson,” said Muzerall, who coached Ohio State to its first NCAA title in women’s hockey in March 2022. “She was a really good recruiter because she found a way to connect with you, she made parents believe that she was going to take care of their kid and grow them into tomorrow’s leader and it was more than hockey. It was a hybrid of academics, athletics and the human person.”

Muzerall said with Halldorson – who is unmarried with no children – you got the sense that her teams were her family.

“Her love and her primary focus was our team. And you felt that,” Muzerall said. “She got some of the best players to go to the furthest-away school with the coldest climate with no team. How do you do that? You need to be a really good salesperson, which she was. We trusted that she’d take care of us.”

HOF Induction
After compiling a 278-67-22 record as the first head coach of the University of Minnesota's women's hockey team, Laura Halldorson was inducted into the school's M Club Hall of Fame in 2014.<br/>
Jerry E. Lee / University of Minnesota Athletics

Gopher greatness

With a mix of Minnesotans from the growing prep programs around the state and Canadians like Muzerall, those who expected the “expansion” Gophers to take their lumps on the ice were disappointed. In year one, Halldorson’s team won 21 of 31 games. In year two they went 29-4-3. In year three they won 32 games and the program’s first national championship.

Between 1997 when she started and 2007 when Halldorson stepped away from coaching, the Gophers won three national titles, four WCHA regular season titles and three WCHA playoff titles. She is quick to credit Voelz for her constant work to promote women’s sports at the U of M, and for getting Ridder Arena built, which gave women’s hockey a right-sized home and sent a message about the importance the school placed on hockey, not just men’s hockey. Note the fact that Halldorson won nearly 80% of her games with the Gophers and she says she always measured her worth as a coach in other ways.

“There were on-ice successes, and as a college coach, that’s a big factor in how you’re viewed and evaluated,” she admitted. “But my reason for wanting to coach was to try to make a positive impact on the lives of others.”

As cool as the first three national championship banners hanging from the Ridder rafters are, Halldorson notes that with many of her early players in their 40s now, the wedding and high school graduation parties she is invited to mean just as much.

Frozen foundation

Halldorson handed the whistle off to Brad Frost 15 years ago. The Gophers have won four more NCAA titles under Frost, and are now firmly established as one of a half-dozen every year contenders for the Frozen Four. Halldorson said that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before. She did so with Ewell’s success at Colby, and now Frost stands on her shoulders with the Gophers.

When she walked away from coaching it was a decision that puzzled many. Halldorson said she felt it was time, as she was focusing too much on “two Ws” – work and winning – and not enough on the “three Fs” – faith, family and friends. This spring she made a similar decision.

“I prayed about it, and thought about how I should spend the rest of my life. There was some big-picture thinking,” she said, saying the process had some parallels to 2007. “They were different decisions, but a similar process in that I felt a kind of restlessness and a stirring that it was getting to be that time to move along. God confirmed that in both situations.”

She joked that the more mundane parts of life outside the U of M have been challenges. She had never before had to buy a cell phone, buy a computer or purchase health insurance, for example. Still, with the rest of her life starting, Halldorson is comfortable with the path ahead.

“I haven’t had any sense of anxiety,” she said. “I’ve felt very at peace with the decision.”

And all these years later, the decision the U of M made to bring her home to the Twin Cities and start a women’s hockey program has been an unquestioned success.

“I truly think Laura was the perfect pick to start the program. She had the Minnesota roots. She was a woman who understood what women’s opportunities meant. She was never afraid of work, and it took a lot of work to start that program,” Voelz said. “So she started it the right way and we’ve had two coaches in 25 years. That’s pretty good. And we’ve had a tremendous amount of success, which reflects upon the foundation she built.”

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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