Chris MacKenzie back on Niagara Falls sports wall
University of Connecticut women’s hockey coach Chris MacKenzie will be inducted this Sunday into the Niagara Falls Sports Wall of Fame. Photos courtesy of University of Connecticut.
Chris MacKenzie will be going on the Niagara Falls Sports Wall of Fame for the second time in his career.
In 2011, the 43-year-old Niagara Falls native joined the hall as a member of the 1995-96 Sutherland Cup champion Niagara Falls Canucks. This Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Gale Centre, he will be inducted again in the builder’s category for his career as a hockey coach.
In 2001, the former member of the Chippawa Merchants junior Cs, the Canucks junior Bs, the NCAA Division 1 Niagara University Purple Eagles and JYP Jyvaskyla in the professional Finnish Elite Hockey League started as an assistant coach at NCAA Division 1 UMass Lowell. He then became the head coach of the Niagara University women’s program in 2009. He became an assistant coach at Ohio State in 2012 before moving on to become the head women’s coach at the University of Connecticut.
The former Eastern College Athletic Conference player of the year in 1998 and two-time ECAC First All-Star is delighted to be inducted into his hometown hall.
“I am proud to be from Niagara Falls and I am humbled and honoured to be recognized,” the father of two said. “When you look at some of the people who are on that wall of fame, to be a part of that is something I am excited about.”
He is ecstatic he is able to attend the ceremony in person. His hockey team is playing in Maine on Saturday and he plans to fly home Sunday morning to attend the induction.
When he gives his acceptance speech Sunday, MacKenzie will be thanking many local people who helped shape his playing and coaching career. Former Niagara Falls Canucks movers and shakers Terry and Tim Masterson will be at the top of that list.
“Terry and Tim just loved the game,” MacKenzie said. “They loved being around it, it is a part of their lives and Terry had a great energy about him. He’s such an entertaining coach and it was such a fun year, the year I was with him.”
Winning the Sutherland Cup made it fun, but that wasn’t the only thing.
“Before I went there, I remember players who had played for him telling me that I was going to want to win it for him,” he said. “That held true. He was a great motivator and it was such a pleasure to play for him and it got me thinking that maybe I wanted to coach.”
MacKenzie also gave a shout out to former Chippawa Merchants head coach Tom Fortushniok.
“He was the first junior coach that I played for and he was great,” he said. “For my speech, I have a bunch of names. I am just going to rip off the names because you look back and you realize how many people have given back to the game and coached someone like me and others.”
Another key coach for Mackenzie was Blaise MacDonald. He recruited MacKenzie to play for the Niagara Purple Eagles and then offered him a job as an assistant coach with UMass Lowell in 2001 when MacKenzie was playing pro hockey in Finland.
“I knew I wanted to coach and I jumped at that opportunity,” he said.
MacKenzie describes his coaching philosophy as an amalgam of many styles.
“I have taken a lot from different coaches and I am detail-oriented, organized, consistent and I do my best to hold our team accountable in more of a players’ coach capacity.”
He’s not a yeller or a screamer because he knows that doesn’t work with today’s athlete.
“It’s more of a collaborative leader and you are really trying to get everyone on the same page and keep them there.”
Consistency is one of his key assets.
“It’s the same message and demeanour too,” he said. “Whether you win or lose, there’s a process you need to have as a coach and we try and keep it pretty consistent.
“There’s a certain atmosphere they come to expect when they come to the rink every day.”
He feels the difference between coaching men and women has narrowed since he started his coaching career 18 years ago.
“Society in general and today’s youth are a little bit different than 15-20 years ago so the way you interact with them you have to know them on an individual basis and what motivates them.”
Every athlete is different.
“There might be 15 different ways to coach 15 different players and you have to tap into each one of them,” he said. “Anyone who manages people nowadays, you have to have many different communication styles and focus on the style that works best for that person.
“And you have to continue to be genuine and authentic in what you are doing.”
This season, MacKenzie’s team sits a couple of games over .500 and is in fifth place in the Hockey East conference. Last season, he took his seventh-place team to the league championship and lost 2-1 to Northeastern. The squad was one goal away from the NCAA championships.
“Our next goal is to win our league and get into the NCAA championship,” said the three-time finalist for the coach of the year award for NCAA Division 1 women’s hockey
Getting so close last season ranks as his career highlight.
“We knocked off a few top 10 teams, Providence and Boston College, and got to the final,” he said. “That was a real highlight.”
Also high on his list was in 2009 when the UMass Lowell men’s team made the Hockey East final as an underdog.
“There was 20,000 people at the game,” he said.
In his sixth year at the University of Connecticut, MacKenzie has found a home.
“This is where I want to be and I like where I am,” he said. “If I can be here for the next 20 years, I will be happy.”
Mackenzie, who lives in Storrs. Conn., with his wife, Allison, and two children, daughter Morgan, 8, and son Ren, 5, knows there is still room for him to grown as a coach.
“You are constantly learning different things and I know full well five years from now I will be coaching differently than I am now,” he said. “It’s staying up to date on how you approach your coaching style, how you approach coaching players and how you adjust to your age and who you are as a person.
“It’s also the players you are coaching and what’s happening with them and society.”
It’s important for coaches to understand that change is going to happen and they have to be OK with that.
MacKenzie is thrilled to be joining the hall at the same time as his sister Laura.
“It’s really cool and she has flown from Denmark for this,” he said.