The position — an assistant coach for a professional hockey team — was a dream job for Engel-Natzke. It broke a glass ceiling with the Capitals, one that continues to shatter throughout major American professional sports. When news of the hire hit social media, it sparked delight from those who knew Engel-Natzke and praise from those who advocate for more women in hockey’s ranks.
“That just gives me chills thinking about it because I think she wants [more women in top positions in sports] as much as all the little girls around,” said Engel-Natzke’s mother, Maggie. “Women belong in sports, major sports, and I hope this opens the door for other females. … You don’t need to be a man to understand the game, and, boy, I tell you, she understands the game.”
The Bears, the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, announced her hire without any “first” caveats, but Engel-Natzke knew the weight it carried. She had worked for years under Coach Tony Granato as an assistant for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team. Now she will finally get her shot.
“I wish it wasn’t such a big deal; I wish it was just like, ‘Cool, another hire.’ But I know it is more than that,” said Engel-Natzke, 29. “Now is the time, and I am certainly not the only woman out there qualified for something like this. So hopefully it is just the beginning, and hopefully other teams in the American league and the NHL will follow suit, and hopefully a year or two from now it is not such a huge deal.”
But in all the joy and tears, there was someone missing from the celebration.
Engel-Natzke’s father, Tom, from whom she got her love of sports and who was her “biggest fan,” her mother said, died in April from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Tom Engel was 64.
Engel-Natzke was the main point of contact while her dad was in the hospital; her mother had contracted the virus at the same time. Engel-Natzke took all of the telephone calls, came up with the questions to ask doctors and recorded every phone call for the family.
“She was just so strong,” Maggie Engel said, her voice trailing off.
In what has been a long, difficult year for nearly everyone, for Engel-Natzke and her family, her hiring meant a little bit more.
“I hope wherever my husband is, he is with her,” Maggie Engel said. “She has said throughout the interviews and all this she has been very calm and she thinks that was him, telling her it will be okay and it will work out, and I think she was right.”
Tom and Emily had a strong father-daughter bond that stemmed from their love of sports. When she was young, he took her to Colorado Avalanche and Colorado Rockies games, and when she was old enough to play hockey, Tom and Maggie went to every game.
When Emily went to work at Wisconsin, Tom loved going to Badgers games. Even if they only got to see each other for a few minutes on game nights, that time was special.
“She misses talking to him about sports. … Those two had a connection with sports, and he was the best dad there was,” Maggie Engel said.
Her mom was by her side throughout, along with Emily’s wife, Spencer. They married in September 2019. Spencer laughed as she reminisced, six years later, that she knew even in their first year of dating that Emily was destined to do something big.
“Pretty much from the day we met I’ve known that this has been a goal of hers, to work in professional hockey,” Spencer Engel-Natzke said. “I’ve seen the late nights and early mornings and the work she puts in outside the office, and it is so nice to see it finally pay off for her and for other people to finally see what I’ve been able to see for so many years.”
Engel-Natzke started playing hockey in middle school and continued in Wisconsin, after her family moved there from Colorado. She played club hockey at the University of Colorado, where she majored in film studies.
“I didn’t even know [video coach] was a job you could have,” she said. “When I was in college, I planned on doing ‘E:60,’ more like sports documentaries, and then through a number of different events … I pretty much went all-in after that.”
Engel-Natzke landed her first full-time job in the field in the fall of 2014, when she was hired to be the video coach for the Wisconsin women’s basketball team. She had applied for, but did not get, the hockey video coach job. Instead, out of the blue, she got a call months later asking whether she would be interested in women’s basketball instead. That job was her foot in the door, and her career has blossomed from there.
She worked with both the men’s and women’s hockey teams at Wisconsin from 2015 to 2017 before she shifted solely to the men. Granato, who was hired in 2016, knew her goal was to reach the professional ranks, so he started to give her a workload he knew was the NHL norm.
“I praise the Capitals for finding her and reaching out to her,” Granato said. “She’s worked for it. She’s earned it. I’m excited for her. I’m excited for the Capitals. I look forward to watching her continue to grow.”
Up next for Engel-Natzke: a move from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania after the holidays. With the couple will come two cats and a three-legged black lab mix named Hat Trick, whom they adopted last year.
And as Engel-Natzke and her family move to their next chapter, the coach knows her dad is with her and “smiling with the news.”
“I don’t think he would be surprised, actually,” Maggie Engel said. “He would give her a big hug and tell her how proud he was and that he knew it would happen all along. He just had faith in her, as did I, but it is just, to see the passion and how she understands the game, it is really something special, and we always felt and hoped that she would break this barrier and follow her dreams.”
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