Pros Behind NCAA D1 Benches

A growing number of coaches in NCAA D1 women's hockey have pro experience.

Pros Behind NCAA D1 Benches
Molly Engstrom from her days playing in the NWHL. Credit: Michelle Jay

Editor's Note: This story is brought to you by TIG guest contributor Emma Sullivan. You can follow Emma on social media here.

It’s been said that the NCAA is one of the biggest pipelines for women’s hockey stars who want to develop their game before transitioning to the professional sphere. Players such as retired star Jennifer Botterill, rising phenom Taylor Heise, and, one of the best current players in the world, Marie-Philip Poulin all played NCAA college hockey before becoming professional players.

However, there is also the pipeline that returns those same professional athletes back to college teams – this time behind the bench, as the coaches who help shape the newest names in the game. 

Across the 40+ programs in NCAA Division 1 women’s hockey, there are 37 head, associate, and assistant coaches who have returned to the collegiate level after playing in professional leagues all over the globe. Here’s a brief look at each conference and an interesting note or two on some of the coaches who have brought their professional experience behind the bench with them. 

*Please Note: This list does not include players who made appearances for their respective national teams, or professional players coaching at other collegiate levels, as those are other lists entirely.*

College Hockey America (CHA): 

While the CHA may be the smallest conference with only six teams, their storylines behind the benches this season are not. From rookie head coaches to a staff including players who spent time in the same professional market, the CHA has no shortage of interesting pieces playing out the year. 

Boston College graduate Taylor Wasylk is in her first year as the head coach for the Lindenwood Lions after playing five professional seasons in the CWHL and PHF (formerly NWHL). Wasylk amassed 12 points in 29 regular season games, and had one appearance in the playoffs in her last professional season with the Buffalo Beauts. 

Wasylk served as the first head coach of Suffolk University’s DIII women’s program, while still playing for both the Beauts and for the Boston Pride. Through the first weeks of the 2023-24 season, the Lions have already made history with Wasylk in charge. For the first time since the program moved up to the D1 level in 2011, they started 2-0 on the season thanks to a sweep of Bemidji State. With success starting so early on, Wasylk is definitely someone to keep an eye on when it comes to elevating Lindenwood to the next level. 

New England Women’s Hockey Alliance (NEWHA): 

The youngest conference, NEWHA has arguably one of the more engaging personal stories in regards to pros who turned to coaching after retirement. The story being the coaching staff of the Long Island University (LIU) Sharks. 

Head coach Kelly Nash, and assistants Michelle “Shelly” Picard, Nora MacLaine, and Sonjia Shelly all played for the Metropolitan Riveters during their time in the pros. Picard and Nash played two seasons for the Riveters together between 2017 and 2019, scoring a combined 11 points. Additionally, both bring playing experience from international leagues to the team. Nash played in the European Women’s Hockey League where she scored 52 total points in just 15 games, while MacLaine spent a season down under with the Perth Inferno in the Australian Women’s Ice Hockey League (AWIHL).

Before becoming head coach of the Sharks, Nash served as an associate head coach of the Riveters in 2021-22 – as MacLaine and Shelly, in their most recent pro seasons, were part of her roster. 

All three moved to LIU in a coaching capacity during the 2022 off-season, leading the program to their first ever NCAA tournament appearance the next year after capturing the NEWHA title and ending the season with a 20-14-3 record (17-4-3 in conference). 

Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC): 

Of all the coaches in the NCAA, Erica Kromm comes in second for most games played at the professional level. The Yale assistant coach played 179 professional games, including 14 in the playoffs, during her stint with the Calgary Inferno.

In her time with the CWHL franchise, Kromm put up 13 goals and 23 assists, helping the team finish first in the league three separate times. During her season as captain, the Inferno finished with a 17-7-4 record, good for third overall in the standings. At the time of the Inferno’s disbandment, Kromm was their longest-tenured player, after playing on the team for their entire existence. 

Kromm joined the Bulldogs coaching staff in January of 2022, just seven months after her last professional game (she made four appearances for Team Scotiabank in the PWHPA between 2020 and 2021). Since she became a coach, Yale has had two of their best seasons in history – running a total record of 43-10-1 through the end of 2022-23. They were ranked in the top five nationally to end both seasons, and the team made their first ever Frozen Four appearance just two months after Kromm joined the program. 

Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA): 

WCHA coaches stand out from their counterparts in other conferences on a professional scale in one way – the majority of the appearances came in leagues outside of North America. 

Nadine Muzerall, head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, played three seasons in Switzerland for Hockey Club Lugano. During her time there, Muzerall scoring over two points/game, with a total of 99 career points in the Swiss Women’s Hockey League (SWHL A) in 44 games played. Her 11 points in five playoff games helped Lugano secure their second straight league championship in 2010. 

Now, Muzerall runs what has been one of the best programs in the NCAA over the last half-decade. Since she took over as head coach in 2016, the Buckeyes have made five NCAA tournament appearances, including four trips to the Frozen Four. Most importantly, they claimed the national title in 2022 for the first time in program history. 

The longest-tenured coach on this list, Wisconsin assistant Jackie Crum (née Friesen), also journeyed abroad to play professionally. In 2006, Crum signed with DSC Oberthurgau in the LKA in Switzerland. After one season she moved on to play in the Czech Republic for HC Slavia Praha in the European Women’s Hockey League. In 29 games Crum scored 56 total points, and the team won back-to-back championship golds in the EWHL during her time there. 

Crum graduated from Wisconsin in 2005 after playing 136 games in the red and white. She returned to her alma mater in 2009 to join the coaching staff full-time, and has stayed on in the role for the last 14 years. The Badgers have won the National Championship with Crum as either an undergrad assistant (2005-06) or a full-time assistant coach five times, most recently in 2023. 

Bemidji assistant Sarah Bobrowski rounds out the professional players who made appearances in the European leagues. The forward played 22 games for Eisbären Berlin in the German Women’s Ice Hockey League (or the DFEL). While the team did not succeed in the playoffs, Bobrowski finished her season tied for the highest scorer on the team with 28 points in 22 games played. 

Hockey East Association (HEA): 

Hockey East leads all five conferences in career games played, points, and overall players who have played professionally on their coaching staffs. Twelve coaches have professional experience, with a combined 745 career games played in professional women’s hockey leagues across the globe. 

The highest contribution to the number of games played by an NCAA coach comes from Maine head coach Molly Engstrom. As a defender, Engstrom played both playoff and regular season games in the CWHL (98), NWHL (28), and in the SDHL (59). She put up a total of 102 points in those games, including 76 total assists. 

Now in her second season behind the bench at Maine, Engstrom coached her players to a sixth-place regular season finish in Hockey East thanks to a conference record of 12-13-2 (overall 15-18-2). While the team was eliminated in the first round of the conference playoffs, Engstrom’s squad looks primed to bounce back in 2023-24, where they’re hoping to return to the top five of the league.

Those 745 games played however do not count Erin Hamlen (née Whitten), Merrimack’s head coach in her ninth season. Hamlen played in 17 professional games – in three different men’s hockey leagues. Hamlen is one of a few women’s players who have ever made appearances in leagues such as the ECHL and CHL. In those games, the netminder played over 500 minutes, and accrued five wins - with two coming in the ECHL. 

While Merrimack has struggled in Hockey East over the last few seasons, they have finished as high as fifth in the conference once before, back in 2018-19. Hamlen appears to have the team on the right track, and after retaining the majority of her senior players for 2023-24, the Warriors have already shown the potential to take advantage of conference opponents who have faced far more turnover than the Warriors have on their respective rosters (most recently with a 1-0 victory over Northeastern on Oct. 14). 

At the end of the day, the NCAA is filled with incredible talent on and off the ice. While it’s easy to focus on the games at hand and the players partaking in them, for many their coaches have the knowledge and experience of what it takes to play at the professional level after playing at the collegiate one. These coaches have already helped shape the women’s hockey world, and are continuing to do so even after their playing days have come to a close. 

By the Numbers

Coaching Positions:

  • Head Coaches: 11
  • Associate Head Coaches: 1
  • Assistant Coaches: 25

Player Positions:

  • Forwards: 22
  • Defenders: 12
  • Goaltenders: 3

Leagues Played In:

  • CWHL
  • SDHL
  • DFEL
  • EWHL
  • ECHL (Men’s) 
  • CHL (Men’s)
  • CoHL (Men’s) 

All stats provided by Elite Prospects and the coaches respective university bios.