“That just gives me chills thinking about it because I think she wants that [more women in top positions in sports] as much as all the little girls around,” Engel-Natzke’s mother, Maggie, said. “It’s just, 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 American Hockey League affiliate of the Capitals, announced her hire without any “first” caveats, but Emily knew the weight it carried. She had worked for years under 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, like I wish it was just like cool, another hire, but I know it is more than that,” said Engel-Natzke, 29. “I think 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, whom she got her love of sports from and was her “biggest fan,” Engel-Natzke’s mother said, died in April from covid-19. Engel-Natzke was the main point of contact while her dad was in the hospital, with her mother, Maggie, also contracting the virus at the same time. Engel-Natzke took all 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, the news of the hire 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. He took her to Colorado Avalanche games and Colorado Rockies games when she was young, and when she was old enough to play ice hockey, Tom and Maggie went to every game.
When Emily went on to work at Wisconsin, Tom loved going to Badger games. Even if they only got to see each other for a few minutes on game nights, their time was special.
“She misses talking to him about sports and he understood it, too … those two had a connection with sports and he was the best dad there was,” Maggie Engel said.
With her mom by her side throughout, so was Emily’s wife, Spencer. The couple married in September 2019. Spencer laughs as she reminisces, even 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 you know 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.”
Emily Engel-Natzke started to play hockey in middle school and kept playing in Wisconsin, after her family moved to the state from Colorado. She then played club hockey at the University of Colorado, where she majored in film studies.
“I didn’t even know this [a video coach] was a job you could have,” Emily Engel-Natzke said. “When I was in college, I planned on doing ‘E:60’ more like sports documentaries and then you know through a number of different events … I pretty much went all in after that.”
Engel-Natzke’s first full-time job in the field was in the fall of 2014, when she was hired to be the video coach for Wisconsin women’s basketball. 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 if she would be interested in women’s basketball instead. That job was her foot in the door and her career blossomed from there.
She worked with both the men’s and women’s hockey teams at Wisconsin from 2015 to 2017 before moving solely to the men’s side. Granato, who was hired by Wisconsin in 2016, knew her goal was to reach the professional hockey ranks and 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 watch her continue to grow.”
Up next for Engel-Natzke: A move from Wisconsin to Hershey, Pa., after the holidays. With the couple will come two cats and a three-legged black lab mix named Hat Trick, which they adopted in 2019.
And as Engel-Natzke and her family move onto their new chapter, Engel-Natzke 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.”