Looking back now, Michelle Cox was worried her application wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Not because she was unqualified. She had coached a boys junior program, helmed the New Zealand women’s team at the Challenge Cup of Asia and did some national team coaching with the New Zealand under-18s. And her on-ice career spoke for itself: though she was 12 before she first took the ice in full gear, she quickly established herself as one of the New Zealand’s premier women’s players, became a founding member of the women’s national team and helped guide it into international play. That preceded a two-season stay in the Australian women’s league before she retired in 2015.
But this was different. The New Zealand League, the highest-level men’s circuit in the country, was an entirely different level of play. So when she saw the’s Botany Swarm’s request for coaching help on social media and threw her hat in the ring, her expectations were low. So low she didn’t even expect a call back. “I thought they would kind of laugh at my application, just for the whole male-female kind of thing,” said Cox, 42. “But then (team captain) Andy Hay, he sent me a message, he said, ‘We got your application, we want to sit down and have a chat with you.’ That was, whoa, you know? At least if nothing comes of the coaching position, at least they’ve taken my application seriously, which is a huge boost for women’s hockey.”
More than take her seriously, longtime Swarm players Hay and K.C. Ball, who were helping to lead the coaching search, made clear during their chat with Cox they wanted her aboard. Initially, the thought was she would join as an assistant. In the days that followed, however, they approached Cox with the idea of taking the lead role. Despite her excitement, she didn’t accept outright. Instead, Cox spoke with confidants, asked their opinions and gauged whether those who knew her best believed she could fill and succeed in the post. “Then I went back to Andy and K.C., and said, ‘Yep, I’m quite keen for this, I just want to make sure that support systems are in place and I can come to you guys and you guys will back me,’ ” Cox explained. “We’ve got a great GM, Travis Crickard, and he reached out to me and said, ‘If you need any help or any assistance, lean on me as much as you want.’ There was a great support system there. That made a huge difference in my decision.”
The challenges for Cox weren’t those one would likely presume. With player-coach Corey McEwen by her side, Cox was able to command the room and the respect of her players. The bigger hurdle was communication, finding a way to drill home the way she wanted the team to play, the structure she wanted to see.
After a season-opening loss, the Swarm, who hadn’t won more than seven games in a season since 2010-11, rattled off eight wins in their next nine games, including a six-game winning streak. They finished with a 10-5-1 record, good for a second-place finish. Not only had Cox become the first New Zealand woman to coach one of the league’s five squads, she put an end to the franchise’s eight-year playoff drought. “I wasn’t expecting this season to happen at all,” Cox said. “I knew I wanted to go in, and I knew I wanted to make a bit of a difference and a couple things I wanted to change and work on, but I wasn’t expecting the outcome that we had.”
There was no storybook ending for Cox and the Swarm, however. In the semifinal of the single-elimination post-season, Botany was booted by the West Auckland Admirals. And with the season over, so, too, was Cox’s one-year term. “From here forward, I’m thinking, ‘OK, where do I want to go? Do I stay with the Swarm next season, or do I move and go somewhere else?” Cox said. “I definitely I want to keep going, and I didn’t know if I would want to after this, but I definitely do.”
By mid-September, Cox, who’s also a full-time student studying emergency management, had made her decision: she’s going back to the Swarm. And with the playoff drought history, the goal now is to lead Botany to its first championship since 2011.