When the Canadian Women’s Hockey League became a reality in autumn 2007, the league had an embarrassment of riches in terms of star power. From Jayna Hefford to Becky Kellar to Jennifer Botterill, the league was a venerable who’s who of women’s hockey.
Among this group of stars, one of its brightest was an American-born player from Siren, Wisconsin: Molly Engstrom. The first-ever American to earn CWHL All-Star honors, she has decided to hang up her skates after a distinguished career on both sides of the 49th parallel.
Competing in the league’s inaugural season, Engstrom was not the only American-born player. There were several other American-born players, including Karen Thatcher with the Vaughan Flames and league co-founder Kathleen Kauth. Of note, Kauth and Engstrom would help the United States to a bronze medal at the 2006 Torino Winter Games.
Despite the unfamiliar role of having international rivals such as Gillian Apps, Jayna Hefford and Vicky Sunohara as teammates, Engstrom proved to be a team player with the Brampton Thunder. With Allyson Fox as a defense partner, she made an impression. With great insight and remarkable poise, she was a steady presence on the Thunder blueline.
Quiet and dignified, Engstrom would capture the imagination of fans and peers alike with her on-ice intelligence. Her greatest legacy would come in the 2008 postseason, as she logged the game-winning tally against the Mississauga Chiefs in the inaugural CWHL championship.
Although Engstrom would depart for the Western Women's Hockey League in the 2008-09 campaign, history remained a strong theme in the early years of her pro career. She would participate with the Minnesota Whitecaps in the first-ever Clarkson Cup championship game.
While the gold medal would elude her at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, Engstrom would return to the CWHL for the stretch run. Playing for Brampton again, with the heartbreak of silver still heavy, Engstrom put on a brave face and handled it with grace and class.
Returning to her familiar role on the blueline, she helped the franchise to its first-ever appearance in the Clarkson Cup championship. Although Engstrom would become the first player to appear with a losing team in two consecutive Clarkson Cups, she was also the first to compete in the Clarkson with two different franchises.
A second Clarkson Cup appearance with the Thunder would come for Engstrom in 2012. Although the result would see the Montreal Stars become the first team to win consecutive Cups, Engstrom would not walk away empty-handed. For the second time in her career, she would earn the award for Best Defender in the postseason.
The decision to leave Brampton in autumn 2012 was one that hit the franchise hard. Without Engstrom, the team’s 2012-13 season was defined by a defense allowing three more goals, while the penalty-minute totals increased by 26 minutes. In Engstrom’s final season, the team had a goal differential of plus-22. During this season, the number dipped to a shocking minus-12.
Joining the Boston Blades for the 2012-13 campaign, no one could have anticipated it would be Engstrom’s final season. Playing for legendary coach Digit Murphy, she should have flourished under her guidance. Riddled by injuries, it was not meant to be. Her final CWHL goal came in a 3-1 victory over Team Alberta on December 8, while her final game would be the day after.
While the CWHL today features a bevy of American-born stars, including Julie Chu, Lexie Hoffmeyer and Hilary Knight, Engstrom helped lay the foundation which resulted in a culture of mutual respect. Her tireless efforts and humble demeanor made her a fan favorite. In the hearts and minds of Brampton fans, she is truly an honorary Canadian and a player who will be missed.