By Mick Hatten
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Molly Engstrom was asked to go back and give a speech at Culver Academies three years ago.
Engstrom attended the prep school in Indiana and had been on two of the first girls hockey teams there. She went on to be named the two-time WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and to play on two Olympic hockey teams for Team USA.
Engstrom said she would, but with a key stipulation.
“I told my story, but I was honest,” said Engstrom, who played her last two seasons of high school sports at Culver. “Essentially, it was hard. It was a huge adjustment being from a small town.
“The boys side (of the academy) is military, but that’s the culture there. The end of the story is positive. It was the best decision of my career to stay there, but it was definitely trying. I was speaking at the hockey reunion and there were probably 200 guys in the room and only like 10-12 girls. So many of the guys came up and said, ‘Thanks for being honest about what it’s like to be here.’
“When you go on to a nice college experience, people can float over that part of it. It wasn’t easy, but I appreciated it.”
Engstrom, 36, has taken on many sizable challenges throughout her career in and out of hockey. Her next challenge is becoming an assistant coach for the St. Cloud State women’s hockey team, a position she was officially named to on July 17.
She had been serving as a USA Hockey Developmental Scout since January. Engstrom played her last competitive hockey in 2018, spending her last season as a player/assistant coach for Djurgardens IF in Stockholm, Sweden, in the Swedish Women’s Hockey League.
“I loved Stockholm. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in Europe,” said Engstrom, who grew up in Siren, Wis. (population 776 in 2017). “I have Swedish roots, so that got more to my heart, playing there at the end of my career.
“At 35, I was definitely a veteran player, getting a chance to play with 17, 18, 19, 20-year olds. It was just the pinnacle of my career. I couldn’t have asked for a better way out.”
Engstrom’s career has taken her to a lot of places she probably did not imagine growing up. Her family does not have a hockey background, but that changed during a work shopping trip for her dad.
“My father is a carpenter and he went to the lumber yard one day and a buddy of his asked him if he had a son because he was coaching mini mites,” she said. “My brother (Chris) is three years older. So my dad brings Chris, who is 6 years old, to his first practice in a snow suit.
“I tagged along and I told them that I wanted to play. They didn’t think I was serious. They said if I still wanted to play in a year, they’d let me. So like every night, I would tell them I wanted to play. My brother would bring his equipment around and I’d put it on and run around the house.”
She played outdoor hockey with boys until she was 12. She moved on to play girls hockey for the Thoroughbreads, a team based in St. Paul, Minn., about 90 miles away from Siren.
The Thoroughbreads were playing a tournament in Chicago when she was recruited by Culver, which is a two-hour drive south.
Playing for Culver, the 5-foot-9 defenseman was recruited by several colleges, including Wisconsin.
“My father and I took a road trip out to the east coast because I had gotten a decent amount of (recruiting) letters in the mail and we got in the car and went out to visit a handful of schools,” she said. “Once I stepped foot on campus at Wisconsin, I said, ‘I’m definitely coming here.'”
Her freshman season, Engstrom played for head coach Trina Bourget, who went on medical leave in January 2002. Tracey Cornell and Dan Koch served as co-coaches for the rest of the season and then Bourget resigned after the season.
Miracle on Ice coach
Bourget was replaced by Mark Johnson, who famously played on the 1980 Miracle on Ice US Olympic Hockey team and then went on to play in the NHL until 1990. Johnson led the Badgers to their first NCAA tournament appearance in Engstrom’s senior season and has gone on to lead Wisconsin to four national titles, seven WCHA playoff titles and seven WCHA regular season titles.
“He came my sophomore year and really did change my life with how professional and how organized he was and how he carried himself,” Engstrom said. “It infiltrated through us.
“He’s a man of few words, but he just has a powerful presence. I learned so much from him.”
Despite a lack of long-winded talks, the environment that Johnson created with the team was special.
“He created an environment to express yourself and that is when you see potential being gained and that’s when people are the most creative,” Engstrom said. “He’s not close with his players, but you know he’s always going to be there. He builds trust without even trying.
“There’s such a level of respect that players have for him in terms of on ice stuff and preparation … He understands the player. ‘If you’re tired, tell me. We’ve got to figure out why.’ He creates a healthy environment to perform.”
2 Olympic medals
Besides being a standout for the Badgers, Engstrom played for the Under-22 national team twice before joining the women’s senior national team in 2003. She helped Team USA win a bronze medal in the 2006 and a silver medal in 2010.
Engstrom’s senior season at Wisconsin, she was a teammate of forward Jinelle (Zaugg) Siergiej. Siergiej, who has been an assistant coach for St. Cloud State the last five seasons, is No. 10 on Wisconsin’s career points list and played on the 2010 Olympic team with Engstrom.
So what’s it like to play in two Olympic Games?
“It’s one of the best feelings in the world,” Engstrom said. “When you get to that point, not only have you trained for it, but when you are on tour that year, you’re just playing so much hockey. By the time you get (to the Olympics), you’re feeling really good, too.
“I didn’t play for the gold medal in ’06, but we played for the gold medal in 2010 in Vancouver and there were 26,000 people in there and your ears are ringing and you feel so small. You’re so well-trained that I typically don’t know how many people are in the crowd. That was one time when I first got on the ice, I allowed myself to look around for 15 seconds and it was one of the coolest things ever.”
After the 2010 Olympics, she played three seasons in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Engstrom then went back to Soochi, Russia, to attend Russian International Olympic University and earned a masters degree in sports administration.
After earning her masters, she came back to the United States and played two seasons in the National Women’s Hockey League and became the head girls hockey coach and assistant athletic director for Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., from 2014-16. Then it was off to Sweden where she finished her playing career.
Hockey has taken her many places and now she’s back in the college game.
“I went to a couple Badger games last year and watching the level of play and how it’s grown is exciting,” she said. “I’m looking forward to just connecting with the players and trying to give back to the league.
“It’s going to be cool to be back in all the rinks I’ve played in. I’m really looking forward to working with Jinelle and Steve. I’ve really enjoyed the conversations I’ve had with Steve so far.”
Does Engstrom want to be a head coach one day?
“I just stay open minded and whatever it is I’m doing, my approach is to do the best you can and it’s, obviously, brought me decent results,” she said. “It’s brought me to some pretty cool places.
“I’ve actually taken the last 8-9 months to think about what I want to do and I’ve decided to go down the coaching road. When this opportunity came through at the end of the process, it was just such a great fit.”