Molly Engstrom, Assistant Women’s Hockey Coach at Saint Cloud StateUniversity (photo courtesy of the Burnett County Sentinel)

A CONVERSATION WITH MOLLY ENGSTROM

 

The title of this interview is accurate enough, but an alternate title would be as well:“A Conversation With A Legend” For as much as any American-born hockey player, our original #9 Molly Engstrom, has had a legendary career in hockey all over the world. Although her main focus now is coaching at Saint Cloud State in Minnesota,  her twenty years as a player earned her recognition as the top defender in the NCAA, CWHL, the Olympics, and the World Championships. And although she was a rock solid defender, she scored when she had to. In different years she led both the Olympic Games and the World Championships in goals by a defender, and in fact scored 85 points during her career at Wisconsin. Cetacean Nation had the opportunity recently to catch up with Molly, and have a conversation. About hockey. But we started by asking where she was, and how she was dealing with the pandemic. She explained

 “I’m at home, home home right now, in Siren, Wisconsin.,So it’s really nice and has been a blessing really, obviously to get home. But I’m really close to Saint Cloud right now. Home is just under two hours from Saint Cloud, and that’s an anomaly for me to be working so close to home. I mean I have been on the road, it’s been twenty years you know, for the most part. When it comes down to it, it’s been that long. I’ve been able to make my way home during the summers and stuff like that. But since college, it’s been go, go, go. Anyway, that’s where I am now. I was able to spend a little bit of time here last year over the course of the year before I took the job in Saint Cloud. Now with the pandemic, it’s not as hard to stay away from people in this little rural place, which is kind of nice as well. So that’s where I’m hunkered down right now."

And since Molly was at home in Siren, we asked if the billboard we had posted about recently was still there? "Yep, the billboard’s there! That’s so cute. I mean it’s actually something the town did, they raised money for it and put that up a few years ago. It’s been years now, probably after 2010."

Molly played her college career at Wisconsin, a member of the WCHA, and also coached there for a year. The college where Molly now coaches, Saint Cloud State, is also a member of the WCHA. So we asked Molly to talk a liitle about the experience of coaching a team she had previously played and coached against. She replied

"Definitely, it’s weird! But that’s just life, I think life is so weird. But it’s true, I never imagined coaching at Saint Cloud. Really, I didn’t know if I’d coach college hockey ever, you know? So to be back in the WCHA first of all, is really special. Traveling to all of the away games, having them travel to us, it’s crazy, it’s wild, I loved it though, I really enjoyed my year there. One of the things that was really neat about it, was just going back to all of the rinks, for the first time in twenty years! So to go back into those rinks, to go back to Ohio State, the memories, the smells. You even run into some people that are still around those rinks. One of the things that was really neat was going down to Wisconsin, obviously, but we didn’t have history in that arena, we didn’t play in LeBahn. But what was really neat about it was chatting with Jackie Friesen who’s an assistant there, and we played together at Wisconsin. So to be standing at the glass, during warm-ups or whatever, and the teams are on the ice, I’m coaching at Saint Cloud, she’s coaching at Wisconsin. Just to have tha kind of history was priceless, just really special."

Cetacean Nation also asked how Molly actually came to be coaching at Saint Cloud this year. She revealed

“I started to reach out, I was here in Siren, and thinking: OK, what am I going to do next? Because I had just come back from Sweden, from playing. I ended up retiring as you know, and then I went back to play. So then it was like the second retirement, and I had spent a year here in Siren, and started thinking, what now? So I reached out, I put my resume out there, filled out a few applications. And then I heard that Saint Cloud had an opening, so it kind of surprised me, because it wasn’t on the market at the time. It was kind of word of mouth, and I was really happy about it. And here again, my first phone call was to Jinelle Siergiej, who played at Wisconsin as well. So she’s been coaching at Saint Cloud now, I think this is her fifth year, either fifth or sixth, she’s been there awhile. We played one year together, I was a senior when she was a freshman at Wisconsin. So I picked up the phone, so we just chatted, and I confirmed there was an opening, and it just kind of went from there”

Molly added "I love coaching. I think there is a lot of work to be done obviously at Saint Cloud on the record board. So we’re working, doing our best to do everything we can behind the scenes. Jinelle and Steve (Head Coach Steve MacDonald) and I, we really got along well this year and I had a lot of fun coaching with them. I think we worked well together. So we asked about how the recruiting works, and Molly told us We share those responsibilities, we all do it, we all go on the road. We all work together to talk about players, to see players. And we have a big class coming in this year, so that’s exciting. We had to replace a lot of players, since we lost eight seniors from last year. So that’s going to change the face of the team already. If you lose eight players you’ve got to fill those spots, so we’re looking forward to this year for sure, and what’s to come"

Talking about recruiting reminded us to ask Molly about the award that is given annually to the top female defender in her home state of Wisconsin. The Molly Engstrom Award! She replied

"That is awesome, and it’s a huge honor to have that. The state has been really supportive of my journey. I just went down to to the WAHA (Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association) end of year meetings recently, Brianna Decker was down there and all the old faces. A lot of those people that are involved on those boards and election, selection committees, are people that were there when I was there. In youth hockey. So again, it’s fun to see them old faces,"  We told Molly that Cetaceabn Nation  couldn’t decide which was cooler, having the award named after her or the billboard in Siren. She laughed and said "Yeah, they’re pretty awesome! I just feel honored and blessed, and it makes you feel special, you know? "

Welcome to Siren, Wisconsin! (Photo courtesy of Diane Dryden)

Molly was also a multi sport athlete during her youth and high school sports careers, which included track and field, and cross country. We asked about her early sports careers and she told us

“So I grew up here in Siren, it’s a small town, it’s kindergarten through twelfth grade in the same building, under the same roof. I started playing hockey outside up in Webster, it’s five miles north of here. And I then played every sport really, that I could, even the variety of stuff we did in gym class. We didn’t have the opportunity to play tennis. I played a lot of tennis with a friend of mine growing uo, but we didn’t have that as an organized sport, same with soccer. So when I was in middle school, sixth,seventh grade, I joined the cross country team. And I ran it in middle school, and then my freshman year in high school. Until I started to get a bigger frame and I was stronger. All the long distance stuff started to dwindle really quickly. And it’s interesting now, very, very, few hockey players, you know that love hockey, get involved in long distance running. And any (hockey) parent that thinks there’s maybe a future, it’s not really a compatible sport to get in to. It was fine, I’m not passionate about it. I don’t run over ten minutes now, I’d rather get on my mountain bike or road bike. It seems like a different life.:) "

But Molly also revealed "I did run track as well. But the same thing, I started out running the mile, and it quickly started to change as I got older. So I ran the mile, and I think it went from the 300 yard shuttles to the mile and the 800 meter relay (4x200) Then it went to the 300 meter shuttles, to the 100m shuttles. And I threw all four years, I threw discus all four years. I tried shot put but I wasn’t a shot putter. And then by my senior year, there was no running and only throwing:) ! We didn’t have javelin at the school, so I didn’t get to try that. I tried shot put, it’s just one of those things that the track coaches knew I could throw a baseball, and they knew I could throw a softball, that I was athletic. So I get on the track team and the throwing coach says: Hey, why don’t you try to throw this thing? That’s pretty much what it boiled down to, and I really enjoyed.it.It was fun, I liked the throwing coach, and I did try throwing the shot put, but I wasn’t that big either." In the preceding statements, Molly was being very modest, as is her nature. She was in fact a talented thrower. She was ninth in discus for Siren High in the Wisconsin State Track and Field Championships. Then transferring to prep school in Indiana she threw the discus and shot put for two years for Culver Academies,in Indiana’s State T&F Meet. In fact, Molly set Culver’s discus record, and held it for 13 yrs!

So Cetacean Nation asked,  how does a hockey coach who was a multi sport athlete, view the trend towards specialization so early among young athletes? Molly replied

“To be honest, I think it’s a bit of a detriment to the athlete, the kid, and that’s the problem. It’s that is happens way, way too early. Definitely if you are going to be a professional athlete, if you are going to be a college athlete, you start to do things that are more sport specific. You start to concentrate on one sport, but even some athletes, some great athletes, play two sports in college too. But before then,in high school, and especially younger than that, when the kid is 8 or 10, it’s a detriment to their development as an athlete. I think playing other sports will help that one specific sport that you want to be really good at. Just in terms of hand-eye coordination, and developing different coordination and balance and strategies, you know, whatever it is. From the neurological standpoint to the physical standpoint, in getting your whole body to work together. That would be my comment on that. I think that isolating kids in specific sports too early is not good. And with kids it’s like learning a language, the earlier they do it, the more natural it’s going to come when they’re older. So if you get a kid, and they’re playing golf, they’re playing tennis when they’re younger, they’ll be able to do that for the rest of their life, when all the other stuff is over. If you take that away from a kid, and now all of a sudden they’re twenty, and they try to pick up a golf club, it’s going to be a lot harder. Or a tennis racket. So I think that seems another benefit of having kids do multiple activities.” 

We also asked Molly, as we have with other players, at what point did she then, have that epiphany, when she realized she was something special on the ice. Molly reflected and told us

“I had a really kind of a slow progressional career, I would say in sports. I was at a try-out for a boy’s team when I was eleven, I think. It was an AAA boy’s team in Superior, Wisconsin. And I made that team, I was the only girl that made that team. And then from there, I think there was a parent in the stands who ended up telling us about the Minnesota Thoroughbreds at that time. So that was an AAA girl’s team in the cities. Even that early, when that happened, I started to play out of Siren. I started playing on the weekends with that team, with the Thoroughbreds AAA squad. I was meeting different people, and I got introduced to Minnesota hockey basically. From there I was able to try out for the US development teams, even the the U16 type of stuff where you just go to the camps and things. So I think pretty early on it was like, Ok, I can make the team, and I can play with these players. So like I said, it was progressional, slowly. I went away to prep school tp play hockey, then I went to college to play hockey. So I think it was when I started to make those teams, that were out of the Siren area. “


Molly was twice an Olympic medalist for Team USA, and a four time World Champion, She played with the pre-NWHL Minnesota Whitecaps, and had a splendid career and won a Clarkson Cup in the CWHL, and was an original member of the Whale, all as a player. She also also played and and had a mentoring role in Sweden in the SDHL,  where she also won a championship. Molly explained her unique tole in Sweden. 

"So I went to Sweden after the NWHL, and I played just the end of one season, from January to the playoffs. We won that year, which was really cool. And then I went back the next year for the full season. And that year the coaching part of it was, I was a player, but kind of a mentor/coach at the same time. Just in terms of kind of helping the staff with different things. I mean I was 35 at the time I think, and we had some players that were 16, 17 years old on the team. Honestly, I don’t know if you want to call it a pinnacle, but a true culmination of a career, I would say. To be able to play, I could have just as easily gone over there and coached and given back that way, and help the players develop. But to actually be able to play, and be standing on the blue line, with my D partner who was 18 years old ! Be able to tell them hey, you know, think about it this way or check this out or something like that. It was really neat. So that’s where that came in."

Molly has just finished her first year of coaching at Saint Cloud State. Cetacean Nation thought it must be pretty cool for her Saint Cloud players to learn from someone who has played at such an elite level for so long. Molly responded

"I think there’s truth to that. and it’s something I really enjoy about coaching. To be able to get in there, when we split out forwards and our D, ot just going through drills. And I can grab the D and show them something, it makes a difference I think. Because a lot of the stuff is about feel you know? So to be able to go in and show them how it feels doing it a different way, or something like that, I think it’s helpful. Making something instinctual, that’s repetition, so just kind of jumping in and showing them a different way. You know how it is in sports, with angles, you’ve got a puck and a stick and the littlest tweaks can make a huge difference and make life a lot easier. So to be able to be on the ice and show them, give little pointers here and there. But it’s hard for me to say what the kids think when they know their coach has played at a high level. When Mark Johnson (former NHL player & Olympic Gold Medalist) came in to coach us at Wisconsin, it was like: Holyeee, this guy knows what he’s doing! So yeah, I would think it would help. And the other part of that is just building the relationships with the kids, and that’s the other part of it that I love to do. It’s not at all about: this is what I did in my career, and that’s that. That’s a fact, but it’s not the whole piece of it, in fact it’s a much smaller piece, when it comes down to be able to teach and coach, and like I said, build that relationship with the kids".

Cetacean Nation was also curious as to what Molly’s coaching style was, and how that developed. She replied "I would say I have a certain style, yeah. It's the first couple of years of coaching at higher levels, so it’s been a long work I progress. In terms of you’ve played so long and you’ve had influences on you, some coaches that you’ve had, you kind of know what works for you. And what you’ve seen work and not work with other players. I think it comes down to personality too, whether you’re a big talker. Just kind of like being in the locker room, you know, how do you lead in the locker room when you’re on the team? Do you lead more by example, or are you more the motivator, the talker. So I would say my coaching sryle is in line with my overall personality. The way that I played and the way that I was in the locker room with the team."

"Mark Johnson had a huge influence on me, as a player and a person. And now as I am stepping into coaching, he was a big role model for me. And I think about him often, whether it was the way he ran practices, or the way he gave feedback. And I think that it also comes down to feel again, how did he make me feel so I could be as good as I was, or we were. I think a big part of it was being able to create an environment for kids to be able to succeed. And what does that look like? You’ve got to be in a good place mentally and physically while training and have that environment where you’re able to express yourself and be creative. I think that’s where the steps of success come in, when individuals are able to express themselves, and who they are as individuals, obviously within a system. But I think he was kind of a master at that, as far as I was concerned.” 

Molly Engstrom Team USA (photo courtesy Getty Images)

We asked Molly about the discrepancies between, hockey programs worldwide, and come to find out, we asked the right person. She explained to us

"I definitely have an answer, but it’s that I don’t know exactly! It’s interesting because I wrote my master’s thesis on this, I wrote it on the gap in international ice hockey between North America and the rest of the world. So that was really fascinating for me obviously, that was at the end of my career, my first retirement. And I got a chance to interview the GM’s of six of the countries. So I was able to talk to Mel Davidson (Canada), to see what she thought, she’s been in the women’s game forever. And then Reagan Carey was with the US team at the time, and then Finland, Sweden and Norway, and Japan. And the coach for the Japanese team at the time was actually my D partner at Wisconsin. She’s a Canadian girl and she went over there to help out."

Molly continued "So, there’s a lot of different reasons why there’s such as large gap, whether it’s just the number of players that are playing hockey in the US and Canada versus these other smaller countries. And then it comes down to resources, whether it’s money or Human Resources, and they’re connected. And then cultural attitudes towards women playing sports, that really comes into play in some of these countries, like Russia for example. But then that’s kind of the bigger conversation, but I think that just in terms of sheer development, it’s tough. If you just look at Sweden for example, and Europe. Europeans in my opinion, are very good at teaching skills. So when you get a Team Sweden and Team USA on the ice together, especially lately, it’s not a game, it ends up not being a competitive game at the end. . And you ask why? And I think one of the reasons, honestly is the ice size. Because typically, if you just talk about the size of the ice say, in the Olympics, it’s smaller. And so you get these players who are used to playing on bigger sheets of ice and they have more time and space. The North American game is more of a pinball game, it can be a little more dump and chase and players physically are able to get you in smaller spaces. But it’s tough when you look at the development of women’s hockey vs men’s hockey, because look at the Swedish Men’s World Junior Team. They have some phenomenal hockey players in that country, a country that is comparatively small. So you look at their development, and the ice size over there isn’t doing anything bad for there players, you know? "

Molly paused to take a squeaky ball away from her dog, who was apparently not amused by the conversation, then added

"So it’s really hard, they’re from the same country, men and women from Sweden. So how do you match up the right programming? Maybe the quantity of training isn’t as successful a model for the women as it is for the men. Maybe a lot of it is psychological at this point, maybe they are just as skilled, maybe they’re not quite as fit because they don’t have the resources. They’re not together, say in an Olympic year, for the whole nine months. But maybe it’s been like this for so long that it’s something that has to be overcome by gaining confidence. Look at the Finnish team, they’ve been able to chip away and chip away. In my opinion, that last World Championship, was Finland’s. It came down to a reffing decision, but the point is, they’re right there. So that’s as much information as Imhave, and experience as I have. It’s still,one of those questions. How can we help the situation, how can we make it better, how can we create more parity in the game. I do think another huge piece of the puzzle is coaching. When there’s not a lot of money, you’re not going to get the highest quality staff. It’s just a fact. A lot of the best coaches are going to go where the salaries are, and a lot of those are in the men’s game. You just can’t draw the kind of coaching and the kind of mentorship that you would if you were able to offer a six figure salary.” Which of course speaks to some larger societal issues as well, but is a factor in women’s hockey certainly.

When you have a career the length and breadth of the one Molly has to look back on, there are so many incredible memories and moments. Cetacean Nation asked if she could identify her favorite part, using Molly’s own term of “feel” She reminisced and said

"From the perspective of just being the athlete, and being able to experience those things, I would say the best part of my career was, whatever year it was, whatever championship it was, I was allowed, it kind of ties in with conversations about the NWHL and the CWHL, and trying to make women’s sports professional. I was allowed the ability to just be an athlete. I was paid enough money in order to just train and do what I love to do, you know, express myself and learn about myself through my training and just trying to get better every day. And overcoming the challenges, whether they were mental,or emotional or physical.as the years went on. From championship to championship, whether it was with USA Hockey year to year, and the four year cycle between Olympics. I just really feel blessed that I was able to do that as a professional for so long, and not have to worry about another job or.trying to make ends meet. Talking about feel, I lived in Toronto for a number of years, I played for the Minnesota Whitecaps (pre-NWHL), I was out in Boston for a little bit, and then different places with the national team. Obviously traveled all over with the national team. So when you look at that part of the resume, the numbers become irrelevant. But if I look at the number of places that I lived, and was able to,play, and then of course the memories that you make in those moments with your teammates, and who you’re surrounded by. So yeah, I had a really long career, especially for a women’s hockey player. Then Molly laughed and said “and I was able to kind of milk that for a decent amount of time.I just honestly feel that I’ve had the best life ever, so…”. So, we loved that answer, but disagreed with the "milking" reference, and told Molly we thought there were dozens of reams that would sign her up tomorrow, which drew a chuckle. 

 In the third period of game two in season one, Molly scored her first NWHL goal. Including playoffs, Molly appeared in twenty-eight games for the Pod,  but we wanted to start that portion of her story with her thoughts of game one. When it all began for the NWHL. Molly responded

"It’s historic for sure, it was a really,really special moment, and feeling. I will never forget skating out on the ice and seeing all the little faces, that’s what I remember about it.That’s just as special for us as it is for the kids, to connect with the future is what it is, and remember what it was to be that age. It was so special, and that was one thing, as things got a little tough there the second season with Dani (Rylan) and the league whatever, you always have to remember that without a lot of people I wouldn’t have experienced that moment. Keeping that in sight and in mind is really important, because sports get tough you know. And I know this isn’t part of the question but we went through the first season and it was like My Gosh, this is awesome! You have four teams, a lot of national team players, and Olympians, it’s just like Holyee! And then again, you go into the second season and money starts to get tight and stuff like that. but I am forever grateful to Harry Rosenholtz and Dani for creating that moment. All good, it was great! I was coming in for games that first year, because I was living up in New Hampshire coaching at Kimball Union Academy. So I was commuting, and I made a few practices here and there, but as you can imagine, it was like four and a half or five hours to get to practice. So I did make a few practices, and I was there for the games. And yeah, all good memories, I remember Shannon Doyle was just a positive person, just a joy to be around. And the same with Brickner, she’s just a sweetheart, a great hockey player. So to have both of them on the blue line it was fun, it was a lot of fun. Everybody honestly, it was a great group, a fun group. That’s why I quit my job, to do it again, I had moved down to Connecticut for the second year. “ 

Molly mentioned her memories of the Little Future Draft picks at the inaugural NWHL game, so we wondered if they have a similar interaction at SCSU. She revealed

"At Saint Cloud we set things yo where we have teams come through. They’ll get signatures after the game, they’ll get to come into the locker room and see the locker room and the facility and walk through, and even stand on the bench during warm-ups, meet the players.”  Fins Up to that and stick-taps to our amazing #9 Molly Engstrom, who gave us such wide ranging and fascinating content. And in closing, she offered these kind words as well "Thanks for calling and thanks for reaching out, and everything that you do, it means a lot to me and it means a lot to us. Not only the Whale, but the whole big picture of women’s hockey.It’s definitely interesting to see what the other players are doing, and like you said, just an opportunity to stay connected. Otherwise, you play and you move on pretty much, unless you’re just talking with your friends. It’s nice to see what you’re doing and keeping everyone connected.It’s so important for so many different reasons and I just want to say thank you.” Always a pleasure, Fins Up Forever Molly!

Molly Engstrom in action with the Whale vs Buffalo. Photo courtesy of Al Saniuk