Carla MacLeod wasn’t looking for another coaching job. She had just joined the University of Calgary the previous year as head coach of the women’s hockey team.
But when an opportunity arose to lead Czechia’s national women’s team, MacLeod couldn’t turn down a chance to further her passion.
“I'm a natural coach,” she told TSN. “I love having a front-row seat to helping somebody achieve their goal. I love playing a small part in helping a group understand the power and the dynamic of a group to achieving a collective goal.”
Last week, the former blueliner for Canada’s national team was named as the new head coach of the Czechia women’s team and will lead the squad in this summer’s 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Denmark.
MacLeod, who retired in 2010, returns to the international game after being part of the coaching staff for the Japanese women’s team from 2012 to 2014. As a player for Canada, the Calgary native won Olympic gold in 2006 and 2010 and competed at four world championships, taking home gold in 2007 and MVP honours in 2009.
“There's always a draw to the international game,” she said. “I think just because so much of my life as an athlete was connected to that, and I know what it can be, and I know what the experience can be… This one, the timing just felt right. And maybe, more importantly, the fit felt right.”
MacLeod, 39, takes over behind the Czech bench for Tomas Pacina, who stepped down unexpectedly after the Beijing Olympics due to health reasons. Tereza Sadilová, manager of the Czech women’s team, had to quickly begin the search for a new head coach with the world championship months away.
“I told the staff this week – if it feels like family, we’re doing it right. And Carla can really make it like a family,” Sadilová told TSN. “She also adds that swag a little bit. It's a bit different, but it's really fun to be around.”
Sadilová got to know MacLeod at last year’s world championship in Calgary and watched her work as an analyst for TSN, where she was struck by MacLeod’s depth of hockey knowledge. Sadilová said she went with her gut and decided to give MacLeod a call.
“By the end of it, I had to give her an offer because it was exceptional,” she said.
MacLeod had to take time to process the offer, and to also have conversations with the University of Calgary to see if she could commit to both programs. The Dinos finished with a 7-13-0 record in their first season under MacLeod.
“I didn't want to not be able to give 100 per cent to both teams because both deserve that,” she said.
After discussions with the two sides, MacLeod said there didn’t end up being much overlap between commitments to the Dinos and to the Czech team. She is prepared for a busy schedule for the next year, but the extra workload doesn’t faze her.
“When you're passionate about what you do, you find ways to make it work,” she said. “Any chance to get to work with a national team is an absolute privilege. That's how I viewed it and continue to view it.”
MacLeod, who also previously coached at Mount Royal University in Calgary, will lead the Czechs for at least the next season. She also becomes the first female head coach in the program’s history.
“I think this is a game changer for not only Czech hockey but also Czech culture too,” Sadilová said. “I want to show Czech people that women do belong in hockey and can take on big positions like that.”
“It's not lost on me. I recognize how important that is and how important it is that I do a good job,” MacLeod said. “It's not every day you get a chance to work with a national team, never mind be a head coach of one, and never mind be the first.”
Macleod also points to the changing landscape of women’s hockey in Czechia, especially after the team played in its first-ever Olympic games this past February in Beijing. Earlier this week, during her first virtual meeting with the team, she asked the players to talk about their biggest accomplishments.
“They said they're proud of the impact they've been able to have on the game in Czechia,” she said. “They know that young girls will now play the game because they got to the Olympics. How does that not make you smile?”
MacLeod, who played for the University of Wisconsin and Calgary Oval X-Treme in the Western Women’s Hockey League, has taken on different roles with Hockey Canada and Hockey Alberta over the years, but her time as an assistant with the Japanese women’s team may be the most pertinent experience for her new role. She helped Japan qualify for the 2014 Sochi Games, the team’s first Olympics since 1998.
But MacLeod points to the intangibles as among her biggest takeaways during her time with Japan.
“When I played, I was a little bit arrogant to the rest of the world and how they were trying to close the gap,” she said. “When I got to Japan, I realized they work just as hard – if not harder – than we were working. So, I think my level of respect is higher because of my time in Japan.”
MacLeod said that respect extends to the Czechs, who put in an impressive performance at their inaugural Olympics. The seventh-ranked team in the world was tied 1-1 in its quarter-final game against the U.S. going into the third period (the Americans would go on to win 4-1).
“I think their foundation is incredibly strong, and now it's finding those nuances within it to help them make that next step,” she said. “I'm not going in and going to bulldoze what they've got.”
Czechia also proved to be a challenge for Finland in their quarter-final at last year’s world championship, with the Finns narrowly escaping with a 1-0 win en route to claiming bronze.
“She knows we’re super close. It would only take one extra step for us to get to that next level,” Sadilová said.
While MacLeod highlights these successes, she also says the team can fall victim to playing down to an opponent’s level, such as when the Czechs lost 3-2 to Denmark in the group stage of the Olympics.
“They’ve had great games… But the other side of it is they've dropped games that maybe, deep down, they shouldn't be losing,” MacLeod said. “So, finding that consistency in our game is probably going to be one of the biggest pieces in helping us go to that next level.”
The road to finding that consistency is a short path for MacLeod, who won’t have her first camp with the team until July, just a month before this year’s world championship in Denmark.
“I think we're a little bit of the underdog. But that's not a bad spot to be, as long as we recognize that’s who we are and we're going to work together to get to that next level,” she said.
“Being brand new with the group, I can't overemphasize just how important it's going to be to forge a rapport with each of those players and make sure that there's a trust that's established. That's going to be the number one objective – trust and respect going both ways.”
Despite a shortened preparation period, MacLeod is excited for the opportunity that lies ahead.
“At the end of the day, why I coach is because I might, with any good fortune, have the luck to positively impact somebody and their experience within our game and their experience in their lives,” she said. “I'm not coming in thinking I know all the answers. But fortunately, I've been in in the coaching world for a while now and have an inkling as to what can help a group have success.”