With the announcement of the retirement of team captain Jessica Koizumi, the Connecticut Whale was in the market for a new player to don the letter “C” on the new home jerseys. For the team, one player stood out as the perfect leader to captain the team on the ice: Molly Engstrom.
“Molly, she is such a pronounced and strong leader,” said teammate Anya Battaglino on the broadcast of the first Whale game of the season, “but first and foremost, she cares the most about making the game better.” When we spoke to Molly Engstrom ahead of the second season, she was doing just that, growing the game. MyWSports caught up with the two-time Olympian prior to the season, as she was wrapping up a girls hockey camp.
Although back with the NWHL, returning to hockey was not initially on Molly’s mind after she retired, “I had no intention to play,” stated Engstrom, after announcing her departure from the US National Team and professional play in the CWHL in 2013. After all, she was doing well post-hockey.
In 2014, Molly was named Assistant Athletic Director at Kimball Union Academy (KUA). She also served as the head coach of the Girls Varsity Hockey team. In a release announcing her to the staff, Engstrom stated, “I am ecstatic about joining the KUA community. I have had wonderful conversations with the faculty at KUA about the school and its mission and I am looking forward to the opportunity to work with the students, helping them grow as people and develop as athletes.”
Before joining KUA, Engstrom was in Sochi, Russia completing her Masters’ degree at The Russian International Olympic University. During the 2014 Winter Games, the two-time Olympian interviewed representatives from six countries about gaps in women’s professional ice hockey. The extensive interviews, which included participants from the United States, Canada and Sweden, were compiled for Engstrom’s final thesis.
A year after returning stateside and getting settled into her roles at KUA, Engstrom received a call from Harry Rosenholtz, the General Manager of the Connecticut Whale leading up to the close of free agency. He hoped to add Engstrom to his roster, “Honestly, it kind of floored me. I was like, ‘Whoa, what?’ I said no initially, almost immediately.”
Rosenhotlz then asked Molly to think about the return from retirement differently, “He said, ‘Maybe this can be an opportunity for you to leave on your own terms.’ That put a spin on [it] … a way to think about it differently. So, we continued to have conversations and long story short, I ended up signing with [the Whale] last summer.”
In hindsight, Engstrom indicated there were signs that she wasn’t done competing. Living in New Hampshire, she took up hiking, mountain biking and continued weightlifting to keep in “good to great” shape. Coming out of retirement was an adjustment, but ultimately an experience Molly thoroughly enjoyed. Now retired, Engstrom had to finds ways to prepare to take on the current generation of Team USA players, “Going against those guys was a rush,” said Engstrom about competing against the likes of Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker and other USA players in the NWHL. However, being able to keep up with national team players required making time to put in the work, “It took me awhile to get my feet back under me,” said Engstrom, “I made the trip down once or twice [from New Hampshire to Connecticut], four hours one way, just to practice [with the team].”
Molly’s dedication to ice time is not necessarily unique. In the new league, teams have limited ice time, and practice late to accommodate job schedules and travel needs of players. With the highest salaries set at $26,000 for the current season, many players must hold additional jobs to afford rent and other necessities. “It’s normal for us,” said Engstrom, referring to women juggling other professions while playing hockey. Molly herself played in the CWHL with the benefit of a Team USA stipend, but some of her teammates, since the league offered no salary, needed to find jobs.
Having to manage a full-time career while being a professional athlete is something that men are not asked, or even expected to do, “If you take a male professional athlete, and told them they have to work a job on the side, it’s insane,” said Engstrom, struggling to fathom the thought, “no, that’s not real life! ‘I have to focus on this’ [the men would say] and we’re the same way.”
Engstrom suggested that paying NWHL players more would increase the quality on the ice, “You can’t just show up on Sunday and expect to play against Kelli Stack, Kasey Bellamy and Hilary Knight after not doing anything all week.” Higher salaries would allow all players, not just national team players, to forego additional employment and spend time training.
Despite limitations to training throughout the week, the skill level of the NWHL is high, and has only gotten better since the inaugural year. “Look at the level of NCAA hockey,” said Engstrom, “I knew that there would be talent looking to play somewhere. It’s gonna be deeper talent, stronger players and a stronger league.” However, an increased talent pool presents a new set of challenges, “The question is, are there enough spots? I think the answer is no.”
With the level of play increasing due to young talent, older players and international talent found it difficult to break onto an NWHL roster. “You have four teams, and as a defenseman, 6 spots on each team. Look at the hundreds of women hockey players that are graduating from college, not to mention the international players … talent-wise, we can handle (growth).”
However, talent is not always enough to warrant more corporate investors. “It’s the same battle that all women’s sports are having going professional in terms of making [the league] a sustainable product and a sustainable business model, ” posits Engstrom. Women’s sports leagues are often told they must show proof of interest to gain more funding.
Yet, without more funding, it remains difficult to attract and sustain top talent with low salaries. The old chicken-egg debate for women’s sports continues. Too often, female athletes are expected to be successful in competition, and woo investors and fans, all while working multiple jobs to survive.
Despite growing pains and public legal disputes, the puck dropped on season two. In a letter penned during opening weekend, Commissioner Dani Rylan wrote,
“In a sports world where women and girls constantly take the leftovers, whether it’s an older brother’s equipment, the ice time nobody else wants, or the “girls locker room” that’s really just a storage closet… this weekend was different. This weekend at HARBORCENTER, nothing needed to be asked for, it was all theirs.”
The league has a long way to go and plenty to learn. For the feel good stories of girls meeting and skating with their role models, and women being trailblazers in sport and business to continue, the league needs fans. The NWHL is committed to engaging young hockey players and families, but a broader support base is needed to reach success. In an attempt to broaden the support base and grow the game, the NWHL announced partnerships with Right to Play and You Can Play for the 2016-17 season.
Engstrom will be one of the You Can Play Ambassadors. The partnership is timely, as the league will be working to develop a policy on transgender players, after Harrison Browne came out as a transgender man last week. Engstrom was very drawn to the opportunity to play a role in the partnership, “I think it’s really important for people to be themselves and to be comfortable in their own skin, and happy in their own lives. It’s really important for me personally, and I’m really happy to be apart of You Can Play.”
It is clear that the hockey community sees Molly Engstrom as a leader. Despite being selected as captain, Molly expects everyone to take a role in building trust and understanding, “I’m hoping for us to come together as a team this year. There were a lot of things we had to overcome [last season], being the first Connecticut Whale team.” The Whale persevered through four different general managers, and a late season head coaching change, to earn the second best record in the inaugural season. In season two, Connecticut has the chance to lay a steady foundation.
Last week, Engstrom scored her first goal of the the season in Connecticut’s 4-2 victory over New York. On Sunday, the Whale returned to action and defeated the Buffalo Beauts 7-5.