Pia Sterner is not much of a drinker. She never has been. She has a glass of wine now and then. That’s it.
So, when former Soviet national team coach Anatoli Tarasov said to her in 1974, “If you want to be a really good coach, you have to drink vodka,” Sterner’s first thought was, “Shit.”
Sterner was out with Tarasov and a full room of Russian hockey players celebrating the end of a coaching symposium, the punctuation on her eight months under Tarasov’s tutelage in Moscow. She looked down at the glass of vodka in front of her and then turned to her translator and switched it for his water. Nobody else took notice. The day after, confident in Sterner’s ability to put back a drink, Tarasov told her she would “become one of the best coaches in the world.”
In the years that followed the prediction, hockey would take Sterner across Europe and North America. She would coach elite men’s and women’s teams, bringing them to new heights, and catch the eye of some of the brightest minds in the game. And just two years after her tall glass of water with the Russians, she would get the chance to prove Tarasov right when the Philadelphia Flyers offered her the chance to become the first female coach in National Hockey League history.
Sterner was born Pia Grengman in 1954. She grew up mostly within a male-dominated sports community, passing as “Peter” whenever hiding in plain sight on a boys’ team was necessary. Her family — she lived with her mother and brother — was health conscious, but she was the only one who took to sports. She played hockey, bandy, handball and soccer. She became a European champion in karate and a world-champion power lifter. By her teens, she was already one of Sweden’s most accomplished athletes.
For a four-month period in 1980, Sterner lived at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s property in Santa Monica, Calif. They’d met at a gym while training for a weightlifting event and he’d asked where she was staying. Sterner named a cheap motel and Schwarzenegger said, “No, you can’t live there. Take your stuff and come home with me.”
But before her success as a power lifter and before she met the Austrian Oak, Sterner’s dream was to play in the NHL. In 1971, at 17 years of age, she wrote a letter to Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings. He responded:
“I can understand why you want to become a hockey player, but after spending a few weeks looking around and asking numerous questions, I have not been able to find a hockey league for girls. I recall a few games being played by young ladies but these games were played for their own amusement…
Best of luck and I do hope you find someplace to further your hockey career.”
She was crushed.
“Everybody has a goal — to be the best,” Sterner says. “I looked in the mirror and said to myself, ‘Pia, you’re never going to make [the NHL].’ I was really sad but in the next minute I said, ‘But I can be the best coach.’”
Howe’s letter, though among the best-intentioned, was far from the only discouraging feedback Sterner endured. As a kid she was often barred from playing with boys. Girls teams largely did not exist — hence the nom de guerre, Peter. “They said, ‘You should dance — ballet. Be a nice girl,'” Sterner remembers. “‘Don’t put any jeans on your body.'” Passing on the opportunity to be “nice,” Sterner played Division II and III professional hockey on the men’s side. She stuck there for seven seasons before she quit.
In 1976, Sterner was again in attendance for a coaching symposium alongside Tarasov, this time in Sweden. Fred Shero, a fellow admirer of the Russian coach, was also there. Shero’s Philadelphia Flyers had blown the doors off the rest of the NHL en route to Cup wins in ’74 and ’75 before losing to the more talented Montreal Canadiens that spring. Even before that success, Shero had built himself a reputation as an innovative coach. He was the first to have an assistant alongside him on the bench and he borrowed from Soviet hockey when sharing anything with the USSR was a deeply unpopular move in America. “A big reason [Shero] studied the Soviets was they did things so much differently,” says Fred’s son, Ray Shero, the current general manager of the New Jersey Devils. “From their coaching methods [to their] on-ice training and off-ice training.”
Shero was progressive in many ways, often to the point of courting controversy. He believed Canadians couldn’t claim exclusive rights over the game, and said so publicly in his 1979 book Hockey: For the Coach, the Player, and the Fan. “If the Soviets, Czechs and Swedes have taught North Americans anything about hockey, it is that we all have much to learn from each other,” he wrote. “Those who spend a lot of time lamenting about the ‘good old days’ … will be left behind.”
Shero met Sterner at the ’76 symposium and, as a European with extensive experience and an interest in how hockey is taught around the world, she seemed to make an immediate impact on him. She often had that effect.
“My first impression of Pia was ‘Wow!’” says Andreas Wall, a defenceman who spent four years playing for Sterner on a Swedish youth team in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “Pia put a lot of focus on practice. I remember a lot of skating and [off-ice training]. She talked about eating and drinking the right things. Coca-Cola was not accepted. A lot of discussion about sleeping well and performing well in school.”
Under Sterner, Wall says, the team jumped three spots to rank No. 1 in their geographic area — Hammorö, just outside of Karlstad. “Her skill was so high in the area of hockey [that her gender] was not a discussion,” he says, “The players respected her very much.”
What was a discussion, at least in ’76, was whether Sterner had any interest in moving Stateside. After a consultation with Tarasov, Shero had approached Sterner and asked if she was interested in joining Philadelphia as an assistant coach. “He told me that I could bring Swedish tactics and concepts to [help] win a Stanley Cup for the Flyers,” Sterner says.
Ray Shero, 14 at the time, also met Sterner on that trip to Sweden and notes that women’s hockey had his father’s attention as far back as he can remember. “He was a big believer in women’s hockey. When he had his Fred Shero Hockey Camps in Philly and New Jersey from about 1973-78, I went as both a counselor and player. There were always girls who attended the camp even back then. I remember one year there were three girls in my group. They were better than all the boys, including me.”
Pia was given two weeks to think about the offer. If she accepted, she would become the NHL’s first female coach. But the chance to break onto hockey’s highest level came at a tricky time. Pia Grengman had fallen in love with her country’s first export to the NHL, Ulf Sterner, and she saw Shero’s offer as a choice between her career and the love of her life.
Pia met Ulf Sterner for the first time in 1970 on an assignment for her high school newspaper. Fellow students suggested she interview someone in sports. She asked for a name and they gave her Sterner’s. Ulf had seen action in four games for the New York Rangers in the 1964-65 season, and hit the ice alongside skaters like Rod Gilbert, Vic Hadfield and Harry Howell, while splitting time between the NHL, AHL, and CPHL. He showed flashes of real potential, but was too unfamiliar with North American hockey to work out. “I was born too early,” he says simply, appraising his time in the six-team NHL.
Still, he was the first European to play in hockey’s best league. “Wow, it was big. It was huge,” says Pia of the chance to meet an idol. “Ulf was king in Sweden.”
This time, both Sterners seem to have made an immediate impact. “We always say, at that time, [that] Heaven was coming to us,” she says. “We met again the year after that and we felt like we would be together for the rest of the life.”
Unwilling to put an ocean between herself and Ulf, Sterner’s choice was clear to her. “My answer [to Shero] was ‘no,’” she says. “If I didn’t have Ulf, I probably would have been taking it. [But] I have to make my choice: Stay in Sweden or see my big love just fly away. So I stayed.”
Sterner remained a coach in demand through the ’70s and ’80s. She led men’s and women’s teams in three different countries, including Sweden, Denmark and Germany — helping to get the latter two national programs off the ground and leading the German women to their first and only European championship. “I wanted to coach hockey but I had to fight for it,” Sterner says, reflecting on the skepticism and roadblocks she’s overcome. “I had to fight.”
Ulf supported Sterner’s decision to remain in Sweden. “She told me she met a nice guy,” he jokes.
“We always used to say, ‘It’s your decision,'” Sterner says. “You make some bad choices, you make some good choices, but I never think that. I make my choice and I go for it. Always.”
Today, female coaches are finding inroads in professional sports in North America, but more than 40 years after Sterner passed on the Flyers job, the gender barrier behind NHL benches remains unbroken.
Pia and Ulf married in 1987 and the couple is still together. They live on a 250-year-old farm they purchased a quarter-century ago, and have named several of their horses after hockey players — one sports the handle “Jaromir Jagr.” On the phone together speaking to me for this story, they laugh and swear and break off into side conversations with each other. “We have fun every day,” Pia says of her life with Ulf.
Fifteen years ago, Pia started a school for young boys at a criminal detention facility in Karlstad. The couple has fostered 38 young people who’ve struggled with crime over the years. Only one, they say, turned back to his old lifestyle after his time on the farm.
The Sterners have two grown children. Their daughter Katta is a European skateboarding champion, while Christopher, named after Christopher Columbus, played against Henrik Lundqvist in the Swedish Elite League and is now in advertising. “I would never live with anyone who doesn’t love sports,” Sterner says. “Especially hockey. Hockey is my life.”
That may be true, but even a job offer to coach in the NHL couldn’t separate Pia from her biggest love.
“I hope I live long after 100 years, like 170,” she says. “And be laughing all the time.”