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High Definition Hire

Love of hockey and film propels Emily Engel-Natzke to role as first female coach in Caps' franchise history

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

When Emily Engel-Natzke was playing club hockey and getting a degree in film at the University of Colorado, she didn't envision a career that combined two of her favorite pursuits. Last week, her already well-established career path took a leap from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic when the Hershey Bears - the Caps' longstanding AHL affiliate - named her as the Bears' new video coach. She becomes the first female coach in Washington's franchise history.

Beginning just a few months after attaining her film degree in 2013, Engle-Natzke has been a video coach for USA Hockey with the U-18 and Senior Women's National Teams. And for the last five years now, she has been assistant director of operations/video coordinator for the University of Wisconsin's men and women's hockey teams. She worked for both teams from 2015-17 and has worked exclusively for Tony Granato's men's team in Madison since 2017.

Now Engel-Natzke will move east to take over as the video coach in Chocolatetown.

"I was more interested in doing documentary filmmaking," she recalls of her college days. "And I really loved 'Road to the Winter Classic' and the E60s on ESPN, so when I first went to film school that's what I imagined. I didn't really even know that this position existed then, to be honest with you. And it was something I kind of fell into once I graduated from college."

A native of Fort Collins, Colo., Engel-Natzke became an Avs fan at an early age and kept the faith once her family moved east to Wisconsin.

"I fell in love with the Avalanche," says Engel-Natzke. "They were pretty good team back in the late '90s and early 2000s, so that kind of got the itch going and then when we moved to Wisconsin, I became obsessed with hockey, both playing it and watching it. That was the main focus in my life."

The Hershey video coach post opened up last month after Caps video coach Tim Ohashi accepted a role with the expansion Seattle Kraken. The Caps promoted from within to fill the vacancy of the popular and talented Ohashi, elevating Jared Elenberger from Hershey after he spent a year on the job with the Bears.

"This is a process we've gotten pretty good at, because it feels like every offseason we're looking for a new video coach in Hershey for some reason," says Chris Patrick, the Capitals' director of player development. "So we've kind of followed a strategy that works, and it typically starts with [assistant coach, video] Brett Leonhardt, because he knows the industry, he meets people through conferences and just talking with the companies that we use for our software and for our video software.

"He typically identifies the first wave of candidates, and then he'll kind of cull through them with [Bears head coach] Spencer [Carbery], which he did this time around. He came up with two or three candidates that he really liked, and Emily was one of them."

"I had met Brett and Tim at a conference in Las Vegas in the summer of 2019," says Engel-Natzke. "I met them before I knew about them, and vice versa. And I was actually with the women's national team for their October training camp up in Blaine, Minnesota, and I got a text from Brett. He just asked if I would ever be interested in making the jump from college to the AHL. And I was surprised. I didn't even know there was an opening, to be honest with you, with Tim making the move to Seattle, but I told him I'd be interested.

"We jumped on a zoom call the next morning with him and Jared. I had a phone call with Spencer a couple of days later, and then I had a phone call about a week later with management - Chris Patrick, [Hershey vice president of hockey operations] Bryan Helmer and [pro scout/minor league operations] Jason Fitzsimmons. And the day after that, I got the call from Spencer and Brett, saying that they're offering me the position, so it was pretty quick, for me at least. It was a really great learning process as well, seeing how that interview process works and going through the contracts and things like that."

One of the reasons the process was so quick is that Engel-Natzke is so obviously qualified for the job. For several years now, she's been performing the actual duties she will be expected to perform in Hershey, which should make for a relatively smooth transition to the pro hockey level.

"I think probably just the schedule," she replies, when asked about the challenges of the change. "And that's something I talked a lot with Spencer about, and Chris and Brian as well. In college, you have your two games in a weekend and then you have five days off or whatever it is in between games.

"For me, it's just knowing that ahead of time you can obviously prepare for it. I think maybe just the schedule is obviously going to be different, especially in a condensed season where you might have four games in a week, so it's something I know going in. And I'm ready for that challenge for sure."

"Once you see her résumé and you talk to her, she's obviously a very impressive candidate for this job especially," says Patrick. "You get a broad range of applicants usually; some people that don't have a ton of experience who are just kind of getting their feet wet, and then some who maybe aren't even sure if they want to be a video coach or if this is a path to something else in the game. Then you get other people like her that this is what she wants to do, she's clear about this: 'I want to be a video coach in the NHL someday.' You can see it in her and in her résumé: she's got a very finite focus which is great to see for us. The process was pretty straightforward, pretty similar to how we've done it the last couple times through this."

Use of video and the need for video coaches has grown rapidly in the NHL in recent decades. Initially, the chief use of video was for advance scouting of upcoming opponents. That's still a prominent use, but video coaching staffs now require multiple brains and sets of eyes, as teams typically log every component of every game as it happens. Once the game is over, coaches and players alike depend on that video and data to analyze their play. Coaches pore over elements such as systems and structure while many players want to watch video of all their shifts from a game, often doing so on the bus or the plane immediately afterwards.

With the NHL's recent embrace of video replay, the video coaching staff now can impact the outcome of games with its quick decision-making in the midst of games, opting whether to advise a coach's challenge or not.

The game itself is constantly changing and evolving, and so is video coaching and the roles and responsibilities of that department.

"I think the interesting thing about video coaching is that it is obviously closely tied to technology," says Engel-Natzke, "and technology is always pushing forward at such a rapid pace, so there's a lot of really interesting technology on the horizon. You have the VR, which is the virtual reality stuff. I could see that definitely coming into play in terms of even just visualization for the players, and stuff like that. Puck tracking for games, which would free up some time for a coach who needed to run a camera as well. Stuff like that.

"For me, the exciting part is always the technology and what's on the horizon, and how can you implement it into your team to help your staff and your players."

A decade ago, Engel-Natze was an undergrad in college, unaware of the existence of the position she now holds. As she mentioned earlier, she "fell into it" from there.

"I played club hockey at the University of Colorado and my club coach Kristen Wright played Division III hockey out [at Connecticut College]," explains Engel-Natzke. "She was actually in law school when she was coaching us, and she now works for USA hockey.

"In 2013, she was asked to be an assistant coach for the U.S. Women's National University Team, and she asked me to do a video for them and that's kind of how I fell into it. I had no idea that that was even a thing. And she was like, 'You know, we need someone to do video. Why don't you come with us?'

"She's been a mentor for me. She was a referee. Then I became a referee, so she's someone I've always looked to for advice, with friendship too, so she has showed me that women have a place in the game and it doesn't matter. Whether that's coaching, officiating or whatever it is that you know, if you love the game and you love what you do there's always a place for you."

Not only is there a place for her, it's not difficult to envision a path to the NHL from here. Each of the last two people to occupy her position in Hershey are now in the NHL.

"Even from outside our organization, before Jared, it was Mike King in that role before he was hired away to be Ottawa's video coach," says Patrick. "So the last two people in that chair are now working in the NHL, which is kind of what you want to see when you're coming into a spot.

"Over the last two or three years, we've had various organizations come and ask for permission [to interview] and [eventually] hire away some really good people, which is great. That's what you want to see because it means you're hiring good people and you have good people in your organization.

"I think it speaks well to her opportunity, and we do view those hires in Hershey for the coaching staff as really important hires because these are potentially people that you're going to be bringing into your NHL club at some point, either as an assistant coach or a head coach or something else. Just like the AHL is a development league for players, we view it as a development league for coaches as well. We always have that in the back of our minds when we're talking to candidates. It means they are someone that we see potentially coaching at some level in the NHL, so that's for the Caps."

"It's kind of crazy," says Engel-Natzke. "If you would have asked me five years ago or when I was graduating college if I saw myself here, I'm not sure I could have told you yes. Like I said, I kind of fell into it and I've been extremely fortunate to be able to stay in sports. For me, this is what I love doing and it's something I'm really passionate about. If this is what I did for the rest of my life, I would feel extremely fortunate and grateful and happy.

"I think the great thing about sports especially is that there are so many things that you can do and branch out of, just from one thing. I'm a video coach now. And a couple of years from now, if I find an interest in something more on the administrative side, I could make that move. For now, if I was a video coach for the rest of my life I think I'd be pretty happy. But like I said, the cool thing about sports is that you never really know where it can take you if you're open to it. For me, that's the exciting part and that's the mindset I've had for a long time, to just take things as they come, and opportunities will come when the time is right."

Engel-Natzke is still on the job with the Badgers; she spoke to us for the piece on a game day morning in South Bend, Ind. last week. But soon, she'll make her way east to start her new job and eventually she'll even meet the people who hired her.

"Like I said to Emily when we were done going through the [hiring] process with her," begins Patrick, "I said, 'This is great. I've spent the last week and a half talking to you every day, but I probably won't get to meet you face-to-face for another two years.' Once we can get to playing again, usually I would go down to the locker room after the game [in Hershey], but I'm sure I won't be able to do that for at least another season or season and a half. At some point, I'll actually get to meet her face-to-face, but I don't know when that'll be. It's kind of wild."

November has been a big month for trail-blazing women. Kamala Harris will become the first woman to occupy one of the highest two seats of government in the United States when she is inaugurated as vice president in January. The Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as Major League Baseball's first general manager last week, shortly after Engel-Natzke was named to her post in Hershey.

Like Harris and Ng, Engel-Natzke is now in a position where she can serve as an inspiration to young women seeking a similar career path in their lives.

"It's crazy that you make that comparison [with Harris] because she is someone I obviously look up to," says Engel-Natzke. "Given the state of the world over especially the last year, the time is now. And I think it's something that people have been ready for for a long time, in and out of hockey. We've seen women get into coaching roles and other major sports leagues like the NBA and the NFL. So I think it's just a matter of time, and I feel very fortunate and grateful and honestly humbled to be in this position where I can maybe be that source of inspiration for other women or younger girls so it's definitely not something I take lightly but something that I'm definitely looking forward to and something that I know is really important."

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