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KUA Has Olympian Hopes From New Coach

Former U.S. Olympian Molly Engstrom is the new coach of the KUA girls hockey team. Photograph courtesy USA Hockey

Former U.S. Olympian Molly Engstrom is the new coach of the KUA girls hockey team. Photograph courtesy USA Hockey

Each step of Molly Engstrom’s hockey career has flowed into the other without precise planning or detailed anticipation. From playing on the outdoor rink in her tiny hometown to enjoying a lengthy run on U.S. national teams, the 31-year old has never let anxiety over the future gnaw at her enjoyment of the present.

So it is with Engstrom’s landing at Kimball Union Academy as the prep school’s fourth girls hockey coach in as many years. The Wildcats are making a concerted effort to upgrade their program but have been held back by the frequent turnover. KUA athletic director Mike Doherty hopes Engstrom is the answer to that problem.

“We see her as someone who’s going to be here for number of years and give the program some stability,” Doherty said. “There’s going to be a learning curve, but her background and her references are simply outstanding. We heard all the right things for someone who’s a little bit of an unknown when it comes to coaching experience.”

Engstrom has learned from the best in that regard, playing for 1980 U.S. Olympic star Mark Johnson at the University of Wisconsin before appearing in the 2006 and 2010 Winter Games. She’s coached at camps and clinics for years, but has never guided a team at the high school or college level. Still, with her playing experience and a recently-awarded graduate degree in sports management, she’s confident in her abilities.

“I have a one-year contract, but KUA wants to build a strong women’s program and I’m on board with that,” she said by phone from her native Siren, Wis., a town of roughly 900 people about 90 miles northeast of Minneapolis. “I have no idea where I’ll be in five or 10 years, but I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity. One step at a time is my approach, and this doesn’t make me nervous at all.”

Engstrom took her first real stride toward elite hockey when she made a traveling club team in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region at age 12. From there, she played two years at Culver (Ind.) Academy and four at Wisconsin, the last during the 2004-05 season. She earned a bronze medal with the U.S. at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy and a silver at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

Engstrom retired early in 2013 after playing in Canadian-based women’s leagues and being twice cut from U.S. teams managed by newly-arrived coach and longtime Harvard bench boss Katey Stone. She worked for her brother’s Hawaiian construction company for five months, remodeling condominiums, as a way to clear her head and connect with her father, a lifelong builder.

After shelving her hammer and level and with the help of a U.S. Olympic alumni group, Engstrom landed a scholarship at the Russian International Olympic University in Sochi, home of the 2014 Winter Games. She earned a master’s degree in sports management under the tutelage of a rotating group of international professors and with the Games’ infrastructure and organization available for practical experience.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, hands down,” said Engstrom, whose 26 classmates came from more than a dozen countries, including Germany, Russia, India and Guatemala. “The program was tough and I was writing for 10 months, but it opened up a whole new world to me and exposed a lot of my weaknesses.”

One of those was public speaking and being an active and effective communicator.

“I was an introverted person and a quiet leader,” Engstrom said. “I was never the player who got up in the middle of the locker room and did the whole song and dance. I could hide behind my mask and my equipment, but all of a sudden, in Russia, I had to stand in front of a group and produce something. It changed who I am.”

In April, first-year KUA women’s coach Cail MacLean, a former professional player and coach, stepped down after a 9-9-1 season, a move Doherty attributed to the desire of MacLean’s wife to live in a warmer climate. The couple bought a house in Florida and their departure followed a one-year stint by former Norwich University player Sophie Leclerc, who returned to her alma mater as an assistant coach.

Leclerc was preceded for three years by former Colgate University player Ashley Johnston, who’s now a history teacher and an assistant girls hockey coach at the Brooks School in Andover, Mass. Johnston works under head coach and athletic director Lori Charpentier, a former Dartmouth standout and 1992 graduate who guided KUA’s girls team to a pair of New England championships during the 1990s.

It’s all added up to uncertainty and adjustment for Wildcats players and recruits and their parents, who peppered Doherty with questions and concerns after word of MacLean’s resignation got out.

Coaching turnover “has a huge impact on recruiting,” Doherty said. “If you look at our other programs, you’ll see a lot of longevity and that’s what we’ve been trying to do with girls hockey. We’ve had some pretty good coaches here, but you need consistency and you need a culture built with a blueprint of how you’re going to get things done.”

Engstrom’s path to KUA began with a social media message from former Culver teammate Brooklyn Raney, a Wildcats’ assistant and the school’s dean of students. The two hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade, but Raney asked if Engstrom had suggestions for MacLean’s replacement and was startled when Engstrom said she herself was interested. Engstrom was hired without meeting Doherty or visiting the Meriden campus.

“She asked if I was serious, and then it all happened in two weeks,” Engstrom said. “I have a lot of experience and passion to share and I can affect a lot of people in this job.

“I work with kids all the time in the summers, but I only get them for a week or two. To be able to have a group of kids I can coach and make better for an entire season is really exciting.”

Doherty said a half-dozen incoming freshmen and sophomores recruited by MacLean all elected to stay with KUA after Engstrom’s hiring was announced.

“It’s unfortunate she was in Russia until July 3, because I think if she’d been here in the spring, we could have (recruited) a couple other players,” he said. “But hiring her was a no-brainer and she’s going to be a tremendous role model for our players, on and off the ice.”

Engstrom is scheduled to start work Aug. 1 and will serve as assistant athletic director in addition to girls hockey coach. A former golf and track star in high school, there’s also talk she could assist other KUA sports teams.

“I remember how much of an impact my high school coaches had on me, and this is a chance for me to give back to sports and hockey,” Engstrom said. “I’m excited to take what I’ve learned and apply it.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.