By Ben Raby
Soon after Tony Granato was named coach of NCAA Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team, the NHL alum met the Badgers’ video coordinator. Emily Engel-Natzke, then 25, didn’t hold back.
“I want to work in the NHL,” she recalls telling him. “He kind of smiled and just said, ‘Alright, I’m going to give you a NHL workload.’ ”
Engel-Natzke embraced it. During her time in Madison, she worked long hours with Granato and his staff preparing pre-scouts, breaking down practice footage and helping identify in-game adjustments. It’s a similar workload she’ll now replicate in the pros. In November, the Capitals hired Engel-Natzke as a video coach with their AHL affiliate in Hershey.
“I’m ready,” she said at the time. “Tony wouldn’t put me in a position to leave if he didn’t think I was ready. I also know Washington and Hershey aren’t going to hold anyone’s hand; that’s not something they have time for. They want to win and develop players.”
In accepting the job in Hershey, Engel-Natzke took on a title she admits she never sought. Just shy of her 30th birthday, Engel-Natzke was the Capitals’ first female coaching hire in franchise history.
“I’m honored to be the first,” she said, “but I hope this just opens the door for other women who want to get into coaching or want to get into literally anything in hockey. There are so many women who are more than qualified to be in my role.”
Engel-Natzke believes with growing support from the NHL Coaches Association, more of those women should soon be recognized. The NHLCA recently formed its Female Coaches Development Program, which includes 50 women from all coaching ranks looking to break barriers.
“I think we’d all love for things to move a little faster,” Engel-Natzke said. “But there are a lot of NHL coaches who want to have those conversations and want to open doors. I think we’re starting to see that wave.”
An avid sports fan from a young age, Engel-Natzke began playing hockey in middle school. She ultimately played club hockey at the University of Colorado, where she pursued a film degree. But as her classmates moved to New York and L.A. to land jobs in the industry, Engel-Natzke took a video gig with USA Hockey at the 2013 World University Games.
“Before that, I didn’t even know that being a video coach was a job,” she said. “But that’s really where the dream started. That started the itch for me.”
By 2015, Engel-Natzke was working with both the men’s and women’s teams at Wisconsin. And as more teams, across all leagues, put a premium on video, Engel-Natzke made it a goal to climb the ranks and someday reach the pros. An encounter with Capitals assistant coach Brett Leonhardt at a conference in Las Vegas in 2019 laid the groundwork for a call she’d receive in October 2020. The club’s top affiliate was in need of a video coach, she was told. Three zoom interviews later, the job was hers.
“Being comfortable is not a good thing for me,” she said. “I constantly want to push a little bit and get out of my comfort zone. I’m excited to get into more of a professional setting where this is people’s livelihoods.”
For Engel-Natzke, though, moving a step closer to a dream job in the NHL came with mixed emotions. Throughout her interview and hiring process last fall, she wanted so badly to share updates with her father. Engel-Natzke describes her dad as her “biggest supporter and biggest fan,” and says he’d always immerse himself in the teams she worked for.
Tom Engel was diagnosed with the coronavirus last March. He died in early April.
“It’s been hard,” Engel-Natzke said. “This is something I was dreaming of, but it’s also something my parents were dreaming of for me as well. So, it’s definitely a little bittersweet that this is happening now. Unfortunately, my dad isn’t here to see it in person, but I know he’s looking over me. I know he’s smiling, and I know he’s going to be Hershey’s biggest fan, for sure.”