Q&A with Kelsey Koelzer: The First, But Not The Last

Professional ice hockey player Kelsey Koelzer has been the first of a lot of things: first Black 1st round draft pick to the NWHL, first coach of Arcadia University’s newly established Women’s Ice Hockey program, first Black head coach in NCAA ice hockey history. But, she’s working to ensure that she’s not the last. Koelzer sat down with our editors to chat about her career –from youth sports, to Princeton University, to the National Women’s Hockey League, to becoming a coach.

Tell us a bit about your childhood. How did you get involved in hockey?

I grew up in Horsham, Pennsylvania and was raised by a single mom. I have a very tight knit family and both of my older cousins played ice hockey, so I was constantly around the rink watching their games. Once I was old enough to try skating on my own, I convinced my mom to sign me up for some learn-to-play clinics and joined my first organized team when I was four years old.

What was your high school experience like? Recruiting experience?

During my first two years of high school, I played on a local travel hockey team, but I wasn’t getting much exposure to college coaches. My junior year, I decided to play for a team out of Bridgewater, NJ. It was a 1.5 hour drive each way, but ultimately got me playing at the right tournaments to get recruited. I was recruited to a few schools, but Princeton was always my top choice and I committed in December of my junior year. I then found out at the end of that season that I had a torn ACL and meniscus in my right knee, so I had to sit out my entire senior season, but I was rehabbed and ready to go once freshman year of college rolled around.

What was it like growing up playing a predominantly white sport?

Playing a predominantly white sport was definitely hard at moments. I didn’t realize the demographic of those playing ice hockey until high school when players would occasionally target me for my race. Ultimately, I loved the sport so much that negative comments never phased me and I always had such supportive teammates and family members that pushed me to keep moving forward.

Tell us more about your experience at Princeton. What was your favorite part of your experience?

My four years at Princeton were definitely challenging, but so rewarding at the same time. I learned a lot about myself as a student, an athlete, and a person, and still use that drive I developed during college to challenge myself daily. My favorite part about Princeton and my ice hockey career there was probably my entire junior season. I really found my game that year and had a lot of personal success, but our team as a whole also won the Ivy League Championship, made it to the NCAA tournament, and I was selected as team captain for the following season.

Walk us through the moment you were drafted first overall by the Riveters in 2016.

I was in the car on the way to the beach when I got the social media notifications that I had been selected first overall. It was such an awesome moment that I got to share with my mom in the car.

What has been the most memorable part of your professional sports career?

Winning the Isobel Cup in 2018 with the Metropolitan Riveters was definitely one of the highlights of my professional career. Despite all the hardship we all had to face as a team and all the long hours I put in commuting, we always held each other to a high standard and surpassed everyone’s expectations for our team that year.

How are you approaching this new coaching role at Arcadia? 

I’m definitely a competitive person, so I of course want our program to find success on the ice. However, I also want to empower the women that will be a part of Arcadia’s women’s hockey program. I take a lot of motivation from some past coaches of my own that always made me feel like I could do and be anything and I hope to do the same for my players moving forward.

What is it like to be the first of so many things, to break so many glass ceilings?

It’s not something that I necessarily think about everyday. I try not to let myself get caught up in that and just try to be myself. But I also recognize the magnitude in being the first and try to let that motivate me to keep pushing forward and do the right things to make sure I’m not the last in these positions.

How do you feel that your experiences as a Black woman have shaped you both as an athlete and a coach?

I think that being a Black woman, I have accomplished a lot of things in my life so far that people would have told me I can’t: being a first generation college student, graduating from Princeton, excelling in the sport of ice hockey, being drafted first overall and playing professional hockey. I think constantly surpassing what people expect of me has given me the drive to not let anything stand in my way, which definitely helps me as both an athlete and a coach.

How do you see hockey (and other sports) growing to become more inclusive?

I think putting people of diverse backgrounds in power positions within athletics is an important step to making sports more inclusive. Whether that’s executive positions in professional sports, coaching professionally, or even just making sure women and minorities are coaching at the youth level, it all helps to grow our sports and make them more inclusive.

What would you say to minority athletes in predominantly white sports?

Surround yourself with the right people and develop a good support system. Your support system combined with your love for the sport will always outweigh any negative comments you get from opponents.

What advice would you give to athletes looking to be positive allies to their minority teammates?

Listen and learn. It’s important to listen to your minority teammates and what their needs are and learn where the team is missing the mark, if they are. Recognizing those situations and standing up against opponents or even your own teammates who are making them uncomfortable goes a long way in making your minority teammates feel supported.

How do you take care of your mental health?

A lot of my mental health is dictated by my physical health. I need my fitness and exercise to keep my mental health in check, so I try to workout most days of the week. Another thing I do to unwind and stay mentally healthy is just spending time with my mom and my family.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It’s important as an athlete to speak your mind and let the people around you know when something isn’t right. We don’t always have to be as “strong” as we think –something I’ve learned over the past year being stuck inside with less personal personal interaction! 🙂

Thank you, Kelsey, for taking the time to share your story. We appreciate the work you’re doing and can’t wait to see where your journey takes you next!

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