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."

McKenzie applied that same pressure to himself. When he decided there should be a hockey team for high school students in the District who didn't go to Gonzaga, St. Albans or St. John's -- all private schools -- he took the reins.

The idea came naturally to the son of Canadian parents. Next to politics, hockey was his great passion.

"To him, it was a very egalitarian sport," Trish McKenzie said. "If you played football or basketball or whatever, the bad kids are sitting on the sidelines most of the time. In hockey, you have lines. And when your line goes out, you go out, so everybody gets ice time."

That premise loomed large in his vision. He created a team in 2003 with the intent of exposing young people from all backgrounds and all levels of experience to the sport. Through a provisional agreement with the Maryland Scholastic Hockey League, the team could represent Washington International School, which his daughter attended at the time, but use students from five schools.

In the team's first four seasons -- including last year, when it represented Edmund Burke School, which by then had more students on the team any other school -- a lack of depth and a wealth of inexperience led to frequent losses by the league's 10-goal mercy rule.

But each year, a few new players tried hockey for the first time and learned with each practice, each game, each shift.

"I remember we got blown out a few games in a row," said Porter Ryan, a Wilson junior who joined the team last year. "And [McKenzie] managed to find something good to say about each player after each game."

Trish McKenzie remembers her husband writing letters of recommendation for players and advising them on college and their futures. "He saw himself as a real guidance person to them," she said. "It wasn't just, 'This is how you play hockey.' He was involved with them as individuals."

Toward the end of last season, McKenzie started to feel weak. After being pressed by Trish and convinced by a doctor, he checked into Georgetown University Hospital on a Monday. The next day, he received a "Get Well" card from his players. On Thursday of that week, doctors found fluid in his lungs. Relieved to have a diagnosis -- and something so treatable -- Trish e-mailed their 19-year-old daughter Margaret, in Belgium on a college field trip, and 15-year-old son Alexander, who was attending high school and playing hockey near relatives in Canada. "I told them it was only pneumonia," Trish recalled.

Paul McKenzie was in bed at the family's home in Mount Pleasant a week after he first went to the doctor when he began to have trouble breathing. Trish called 911 and administered CPR. Firefighters and paramedics arrived and rushed him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but he never regained consciousness. Eighteen hours later, on Feb. 20, 2007, he was dead.

"They said it was pneumonia of unknown otology," Trish McKenzie said. "One doctor says it wasn't so much the germ as how his body reacted to it.

"I don't really think [Paul] had a clue how sick he was. He loved everything he was doing. He loved his family. He would not have wanted to die."

On the Thursday after his death, McKenzie's hockey team took the ice for its final regular season game. The team that had lost 10 of its previous 13 games dedicated its final regular season contest to his memory and won, 6-0.

A few days later, the players were among more than 400 people to pack Cleveland Park Congregational Church for McKenzie's funeral. They wore their home jerseys and were mentioned in eulogies. On the family's way out of the church, the boys formed two lines by the doors and made a ceremonial arch with their hockey sticks.

Philip Castiel, the team captain, gave a speech during a service afterward: "During [the past four years], over 30 young high school hockey players, both boys and girls, were given a gift by Coach. That gift is the love of the game of hockey."

A Rededication to Purpose

For each void created by McKenzie's death, someone stepped forward, ready to make life a little busier so the team wouldn't fade away.

Adam Davis, a teammate of McKenzie's in a men's hockey league, took over as coach. Five parents took on roles, including team manager, and handled responsibilities such as procuring ice time, applying for grants and organizing community outreach efforts.

Even with those efforts, the team worried about its future without a more stable affiliation.

"We had a lot of meetings over the summer," said Tim Aluise, a team parent, "and there were many times when we thought we would not have a hockey team this year."

The team's roster had had a growing Wilson presence since 2003, and it became apparent that the majority of players would be from Wilson this season. Dylan Aluise went to Wilson Athletic Director Eddie Saah and pleaded for him to add hockey as a varsity sport.

Saah said Wilson had no money to offer. But the more he heard about the team, the more he liked the idea.

Last month, Paul Koring, another team parent, established the Woodrow Wilson High School Hockey Club as a nonprofit organization. With a projected budget close to $20,000, the team receives donations from McKenzie's Masonic lodge, parents and others. The team also received grants from the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

Fenty, who attended Wilson, said he plans to bring his sons to a game in the future. He hopes others in the city will do the same to help the team flourish.

"This team is great for young people, great for the sport and great for the city," Fenty said. "It's a lesson to all of us. If you believe in something, you go forward with it 100 percent."

The players who knew McKenzie echo that message. "In some ways, we're still representing Paul," Dylan Aluise said. "It might be a Wilson team, but it was his child that he brought up through the years. We would not be here today if not for Paul. I'm sure of that."

In case anyone forgets, a reminder remains on the sleeve of their home jerseys: a red "PM" patch.

Players such as Hill carry McKenzie's legacy beyond their sleeves. Were it not for this team, he would have had nowhere to play in high school, nowhere to try goaltending and nowhere to experience a 37-save night.

"Just being able to play [for Wilson] is amazing," he said. "Everyone kind of embraces you, never saying a bad thing as you learn. It's great."

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