Memory of a Coach Who Never Quit Keeps an Unlikely Program on Solid Ice

By Jeff Nelson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In a closet that serves as a makeshift locker room underneath the bleachers of Fort Dupont Ice Arena, Wilson High School goalie Tyler Hill stood above the massive bag holding his hockey gear and remembered the only season he played for Paul McKenzie.

Hill was 12 at the time, he said, and he had one major problem with his skating: He couldn't stop. Moving forward was easy, but without the help of a wall or a fall, Hill had some difficulty coming to a halt. His coach noticed.

"He took me aside, and not in an embarrassing way," Hill said, "because it's hard when everyone else can do things and you're coming off roller hockey. And he just said: 'Turn like this. Turn like this.'

"He spent at least half of practice with me and I got it. Everything he did was really, really amazing."

Moments earlier, Hill, a sophomore goalie playing his first season for the high school team McKenzie founded, made 37 saves. It was just his sixth game in goal for Wilson -- the District's first public high school ice hockey team, playing its first official home game on D.C. soil. The Tigers lost to undefeated Good Counsel, 6-4, but considering they had been beaten by those same Falcons the week before, 10-0, this result almost felt like victory.

In the locker room, the Tigers applauded Hill, and one teammate gave him the game puck. As everyone cleared out, the team's senior leaders agreed: Nobody would have enjoyed Hill's performance more than McKenzie.

"Paul would have sung the praises of Tyler for the rest of the season," senior captain Dylan Aluise said. "Paul was all about giving kids chances to play. . . . Tyler's exactly the kind of player Paul would have loved."

McKenzie coached, raised funds and fought for this team from its inception five years ago. But he never had the opportunity to coach Hill in high school or witness his team complete its historic transformation from private to public. Eleven months ago, at the age of 53, he died unexpectedly from pneumonia.

His death appeared to jeopardize the team's future. McKenzie had done so much to keep it alive, many wondered how it could survive without him.

'He Was Always Positive'

A man with seemingly infinite reserves of energy, McKenzie "sort of steamrolled through life," said Trish McKenzie, his wife of 20 years.

In addition to his day job as a deputy director at the Naval Surface Warfare Center of the Naval Sea Systems Command, he dedicated himself to political activism in the city.

"He was all energy, all the time," said D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who first met McKenzie in 1998. "He was always positive, but at the same time, he didn't let one conversation go without pushing you to do something more than what you were already doing."

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