Coaches Week: Chris MacKenzie is all about the team culture

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As head coach of the women’s hockey team, Chris Mackenzie has worked to reestablish a winning culture in Storrs (Photo courtesy of UConn athletics)

Some coaches only care about their team’s record. It’s all about the wins and losses, the X’s and O’s and the performances on the field, ice or court.

For other coaches, like UConn women’s hockey coach Chris MacKenzie, there are other things that matter more, such as culture, team chemistry and player development. MacKenzie said that this mindset has come with the years of experience he has in coaching.

“I would say early in my career, I was looking more at wins and losses,” MacKenzie said. “Just in the last few years, I’ve really focused more on the culture. The culture piece is way more important to me than the actual results. I just really think that once your culture is set in place, the results will take care of themselves.”

That probably explains why he stops to get the whole team ice cream if they sweep a series on the road. Or why he helped push a car out of a ditch on the side of the road in a snowstorm when the team was on its way up to Maine. He is creating an atmosphere for his players to be able to succeed on and off the ice.

His players really love playing for him too, and not just because of the ice cream. Junior forward Catherine Crawley said he was a big reason why she decided to come and play for UConn.

“When he was recruiting me, his passion and love for UConn really drew me into the school,” Crawley said. “You can tell someone loves their team and their job versus when someone simply does a job for money, and Coach Mac absolutely loves coming to the rink every day. He also made me feel inspired that I could make an impact here at school.”

Sophomore forward Savannah Bouzide said that his energy and love for hockey make for an awesome experience playing hockey at UConn.

“I love playing for Coach Mac, and I couldn’t imagine having any other coach other than him,” Bouzide said. “His love for the game is second to none, which makes playing for him so much more enjoyable. His positivity and excitement makes me love coming to the rink everyday.”

MacKenzie’s love for hockey stretches back through most of his life, all the way to when he was growing up in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He started playing hockey at the age of four, and some of his favorite childhood memories were when he would travel with his teammates for hockey tournaments.

MacKenzie grew up a huge New Jersey Devils fan because his favorite player was “Mr. Devil” himself, defenseman Ken Daneyko.

A good defenseman in his own right, MacKenzie played college hockey for Niagara University, where he was a four-year captain and set school records for most goals, assists and points by a defenseman.

After college, MacKenzie played professionally for one year in Finland before going into coaching. He said he knew he wanted to coach because in college, both he and assistant coach Casey Handrahan worked at a hockey camp for 10 weeks in the summer, and he really loved teaching the game. Also, he said that he was inspired by his own coaches.

“I had great experiences with the coaches I had coming up, and I always thought I could do it,” MacKenzie said. “Just seeing, in my college experience, how my coaches there operated, I really liked it.”

MacKenzie started as an assistant coach for the UMass Lowell men’s hockey team for eight years. Then, he went to his alma mater Niagara University to coach their women’s hockey team as a head coach for two years. Then, he spent one season at Ohio State as the women’s hockey head coach before coming to UConn, where he has been the head coach for the past six seasons.

MacKenzie said that UConn is a great place to coach and that he has found a home here.

“[UConn], hands down I think, respects female athletes on campus beyond those other schools that I’ve been at,” MacKenzie said. “It really values what we bring to the department, acknowledges our successes and supports us through all challenges.”

While MacKenzie tends to focus more on the team culture and less on the results, the results have not been bad at all. He has coached to a 81-108-32 record in six seasons in Storrs, including the first two winning seasons for the program in this decade. He has led the team to the Hockey East Tournament in all six seasons, including an improbable run to the championship game in 2018, which he said was his favorite on-the-ice memory of his time here so far.

MacKenzie said the most rewarding part of coaching is being a part of something bigger than himself and having the opportunity to positively impact somebody’s life. Crawley said that he has certainly done that for her.

“He has helped me improve my level of play tremendously since I came in as a freshman,” Crawley said. “As a person, I have learned more about myself and my strengths as a person than I have in my entire life since being at UConn. I’ve gained more confidence in myself and also learned how to use my own strengths to my advantage.”

MacKenzie said that the biggest challenge of coaching is being confident while being flexible.

“You have to have a certain level of confidence in what you’re doing but a certain level of doubt in that you need to find the best way,” MacKenzie said. “Not your way or anyone else’s way. Find the best way for your program.”

He practices what he preaches. Bouzide said that MacKenzie always listens to the players’ input regarding how to prepare for certain games. This further shows the tight-knit family culture that he instills in his team.

MacKenzie said that it is so important for him to have a balance between working hard and having fun, and to remain consistent on both fronts.

“We’re working hard to achieve our goals but we’re going to have fun doing it,” MacKenzie said. “I think we’re creating an environment of growth.”

This environment is well-received by his players, who seem to buy into his family-like culture.

“Coach Mac instills a culture of hard-work and family,” Crawley said. “He has high expectations for our team knowing we can achieve anything because what you put in is what you get out. He genuinely cares about every one of us and goes out of his way to ensure we know that.”

MacKenzie is able to get the most out of his players because he cares about them and because he puts such an emphasis on their individual growth. His mentality and approach to coaching gets his team good results on the ice but even better results off of it.

“If it’s an early morning practice or just a rough day for the team, we are always able to look to coach to give us that motivation to keep going,” Bouzide said. “His energy is truly contagious.”

When he’s not at the rink, MacKenzie is spending time with his family and getting involved with his own kids’ activities, such as T-ball for his son and horse riding for his daughter. Even when he is at work though, he said it doesn’t feel like work because he absolutely loves what he does.

“It beats a real job,” MacKenzie said with a big smile.


Danny Barletta is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.barletta@uconn.edu.

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