When a six-year-old Erica McKenzie stepped out onto her neighborhood pond in Hastings for a game of pick-up hockey, she didn’t have aspirations of earning the coveted Ms. Hockey Award 12 years down the road. When she stayed out there with her friends from morning to night, she didn’t do it with the expectation she’d one day be wearing a Team USA jersey. She didn’t know hockey would be a part of her life 20 years down the road.
“I just loved it,” she said. “It’s the feeling you get when you play.”
The challenge, the competition, the whistle of icy air past her face, and then of course there was her brother.
Tagging along with big brother, Corey, helped play a role in her love for the game as well.
“I wanted to do everything he did,” she explained.
McKenzie remembers begging her parents to sign her up for Mite hockey.
“My day would say, ‘Hockey is for boys. You’re not going to play,” McKenzie recalled. But dad didn’t get his way on this one. Mom won out.
When McKenzie was in first grade, her mom signed her up for Mites without her dad knowing. Pretending they were going to church, mother and daughter would head to the rink on Sunday mornings.
It wasn’t long until McKenzie’s dad became wise to the covert operation, but he wasn’t disappointed.
“Once I started playing, he became my biggest supporter,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie would spend the next few seasons playing boys’ hockey. At the beginning, she was like everyone else, struggling to get used to a challenging sport. Then a growth spurt before Squirts helped her stand out, even among her team of boys.
“This is so easy now,” she remembered thinking. “I’m pretty good at this.”
With years of hard work and dedication, McKenzie moved from good to great. In eighth grade, she switched to girls’ hockey, making the Hastings High School varsity team in her first season. After her senior year, she was named Ms. Hockey, the award given to the best female hockey player in Minnesota.
Soon after, her childhood dream of becoming a Golden Gopher was realized as she joined the University of Minnesota’s women’s hockey team. In her freshman year, she helped her team to the National Championship title.
She continued to play past the collegiate level, earning a spot on the U.S. National Team and eventually winning the gold medal over Canada at the Four Nations Cup in 2008.
While she had hoped to compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, she tore her MCL shortly before the competition. She remembers catching a flight home, knowing that her competitive hockey career was probably over.
While injuries can hinder a playing career, they can’t prevent a love of hockey. With all the experiences the sport had brought her, with everything it had given to her, McKenzie knew hockey still had to be part of her life.
A few months after her injury, she accepted an internship with the Minnesota Wild. Soon after, she became an account executive in Fan Relations for the club.
McKenzie said she likes that her work keeps her close to the sport she loves, and it’s opened up opportunities, including on-ice demonstrations for Fox Sports North following Wild games.
“Here, you’re constantly involved [in Minnesota hockey],” she explained.
In addition to working for a hockey team, McKenzie has also found her way back to the ice. She joined a team in the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota (WHAM) and now plays with friends and former teammates every Sunday.
While McKenzie said she doesn’t like to predict the future, she said hockey would always be in her life somehow.
“How can it not be?” she asked. “It’s been such a huge part of my life.”
McKenzie said she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of coaching or taking another shot at playing competitively, but she likes what she’s doing now.
Though her future isn’t laid out, one thing is certain. Whether it’s on the ice, on the bench or in the front office of a National Hockey League club, the name Erica McKenzie will never be far from the world of hockey.