In a turnaround from last season, the boys are heading into February with a 15-1-1 record. It turns out that change they needed was Meg Hishmeh coaching from behind the bench.
“As much as they had to get used to me, I had to get used to them as well, and to see the desires, they were a group that you could tell wanted to have a winning season,” describes the head coach. “They were tired of losing games and tired of getting frustrated. They know they have the talent and the ability. It was exciting once we won our first three games to see that light flicker in their eyes and say we can have a good season, we can make the states, we can do our best … it’s pretty exciting to see this. They believe in themselves and that’s the most important thing, and they’re getting the job done.”
Hishmeh is the first female to take the position as head coach of a men’s team in the state, so when it was announced she would be replacing Chuck Fisher at the end of his sixth season there was some whispers. The naysayers however, were quickly silenced after an initial early practice in June.
“I know [there were] people who were skeptics just because of the female situation of the coach, but we had a skate in June before the kids got out of school. I want to say the skeptics showed up to see how I was going to run a practice,” said Hishmeh. “A couple of the fathers that showed up afterwards came up and said that was such a breath of fresh air, that was such a well-run practice, we’re very excited.”
The skeptics and the second guessing of her abilities isn’t something new to Hishmeh. As an on-ice official for almost two decades she is used to the initial odd looks she gets as she skates out, that silently ask the question, ‘what’s a woman doing out there,’ but it doesn’t take long to realize that her passion, knowledge and understanding of the game can be put to the test against any male.
Growing up in Michigan, Hishmeh has been around hockey for as long as she can remember, learning to skate as young as two years old. While she initially spent time learning to figure skate, ice hockey was still a major part of her life.
“My dad was a coach, so he always coached one of my brothers [and] I would kind of just sit in the stands. We would go to almost every game, and he was a very charismatic coach,” said Hishmeh. “Watching him and watching him coach my brothers from when they were little to when they were probably 11 and 12 … it was just really fun. I learned the game from just being at the rink and watching my brothers’ play and my dad coach.”
Despite learning the game at such a young age, girls were not allowed to play on men’s travel teams so the better part of her adolescence was spent skating around on outdoor rinks and playing pick-up games. That is, until her high school formed a women’s team her sophomore year. At the beginning the team was just trying to find its legs, but by the end of her senior year they had built up the talent and were actually able to play competitive hockey.
“The first year everybody that played field hockey tried out for the ice hockey team, so not everyone knew what the heck they were doing. It was just fun to be able to have an all-female team, and just most of the girls that played with me were on my soccer team or on my field hockey team, so it was just a bunch of friends trying to play another sport together,” Hishmeh recalled. “We were not stellar by any means, but it was a good time. By my senior year we were actually competitive because people had taken lessons and we definitely had a goalie … so the talent was much better. We were proud to have an all-girls team, [since] there were only two high schools in our area that had [that].”
She had gotten skilled enough at the center position by the end of her senior season to move on and play for the University of Vermont’s women’s team. While playing for UVM, as captain, she led the team in penalty minutes as well as goals.
Like any true hockey player, her playing days were not through just because she had graduated. After college, she left Vermont and wound up living in Colorado where she was given her first real taste of coaching. She began with the Foothills organization in Lakewood, CO., teaching mites the basic fundamentals of the game. Having grown up around a coach, it isn’t surprising that that is the path she decided to take. While Hishmeh wouldn’t say she emulates her dad’s style, she does admire the passion he had and his ability to change the lives of the players he had coached.
They know they have the talent and the ability. It was exciting once we won our first three games to see that light flicker in their eyes and say we can have a good season, we can make the states - Meg Hishmeh
“What drove me into coaching was all of the kids that he coached … they still call him coach and they remember him coaching them in their young ages and just always looked up to him. I thought that was always just a neat rapport to have, and when you love something, to be able to share your passion with others. I don’t know if our styles would be the same, but watching him love a game and teach it to younger kids and volunteer his time to help them get better was something I really liked about it.”
Once her family moved to New Jersey, Hishmeh continued to coach, getting a head position with the Princeton Day girls team. The move also introduced her to another aspect of the sport, officiating. Hishmeh was given the idea to become a referee from a good friend of hers who suggested it as a way to meet new people, but doing so has given her so much more than she could have ever expected.
“Once I started doing it I really enjoyed it and after three years of officiating I was asked to go to the development camp in Lake Placid. It’s called Regional Camp and from that point on I got into USA Hockey’s development system and wound up getting my international license and ended up working three national championships and the Vancouver Olympics,” said Hishmeh.
Again, Hishmeh stood out, amongst the group of recent college graduates; she was the only mother of three boys going through the camp. And once again, her skills spoke for themselves, as she was one of only three to be chosen for the Olympics.
“When I got into officiating my dream was not to go to the Olympics, but it was to go and get comfortable in New Jersey and then when these doors opened, it was absolutely unbelievable. Every step of the way, it just shocked me that I got selected to go and do something else, and then the ultimate was the Olympics, which was just the most amazing experience. I was 39 at the time and most of the officials were 24 maybe 27, so I was the old lady in the group but it was amazing.”
Hishmeh has had her hands in all aspects of the hockey lifestyle. She began as a spectator and has since moved on to player, coach, official and hockey mom, so it’s hard for her to choose a favorite. However, with the acceptance of the Montville position in June, Hishmeh, who also works as a registered nurse, made the conscious decision to start focusing more on coaching and less on officiating.
Given the division she coaches in as well as the division her oldest son plays in with Kinnelon, there are too many scheduling conflicts, so as of December she has decided to scale back, but she is not walking away completely.
“I still officiate the female high school level and that’s where I like officiating the most because the girls respect me. I like working their games because I really understand the female game, so I’m really lucky in that that I’m getting to still enjoy officiating at the minimal level and I really enjoy my time coaching,” Hishmeh said.
With the drastic turnaround taken by the Montville team, it is apparent that she made the right decision in focusing on her coaching career. The players are buying into her system and gaining confidence as they showcase their abilities and make a push towards states.
It goes to show gender doesn’t matter, the best person for the job found her way behind the bench.
For more, head to NJ Youth Hockey Central.