STORRS — UConn women's hockey coach Chris MacKenzie finished teaching the final drills of practice Tuesday morning, fired a slap shot into an empty net at Freitas Ice Forum, hopped off the ice, walked straight to his office and started talking while untying his skates.
MacKenzie, it becomes clear, is a guy on the move, one who can get a lot done in a short amount of time. Over the next half-hour, he explained his vision for the program, had a player enter his office to do the same while he exited to change, resumed talking about his life in hockey and then laid out his plans for New Year's Eve.
"Staying in," he said. "Going to sleep."
MacKenzie was hired in May to wake up a program that had spiraled downward toward the end of previous coach Heather Linstad's 13-year tenure. Eighteen players had transferred — or simply left the program and remained in school — in the past three years. The Huskies became a Hockey East doormat, and there is said to have been a very negative culture around the rink.
When athletic director Warde Manuel and senior associate AD Doug Gnodtke sought to hire a new coach in the offseason, MacKenzie stood out for his diverse background, energy and optimism.
"He came in and kind of charmed us all," Gnodtke said. "I'm excited for the future. It's just his personality and the way he carries himself. We felt he was the best person to take over this program and make sure the student-athletes had a positive experience. He has sense of humor, but a seriousness with expectations, and he creates a culture of hard work. He's not doing it with a draconian style. He's made it so players know they're going to work hard and have fun while doing it."
MacKenzie is at the outset of quite a project. The Huskies were 3-29-2 last season, 4-23-5 in 2011-12. This season, UConn is 4-10-2 (1-4-1 Hockey East). The Huskies have lost four in a row, the last three by one goal, and resume play Thursday at Princeton after a monthlong winter break.
"It's been a great journey so far," MacKenzie said. "I can't remember a day where [players] didn't give their best. … We out-shot teams our last two games. We hung in with [Boston College], another one-goal loss, and I thought we played exceptional. We're excited about the second half. It feels like we could be on the cusp of something big."
MacKenzie, originally from Niagara Falls, Ontario, played at Niagara (Class of 2000), and was an assistant coach for the UMass Lowell men's team for eight seasons. He then became head coach of the women's team at Niagara for two seasons and spent last season as an assistant women's coach at Ohio State.
"We were a good fit, myself and my family, with UConn," said MacKenzie, who is married with two young children. "I think my experiences helped me going into this situation. And my philosophy of having excellence in everything we do — community service, academics, athletics — I had a track record of coaching where we were always good in [those areas]."
MacKenzie's wife, Allison, is originally from Newtown, but he had never set foot on campus before his interview.
"I was blown away," he said. "What impressed me was, this school really values and markets women's athletics. It's wonderful to see."
MacKenzie pledged to players that the program's turnaround would begin immediately.
"I wanted to thank them for their loyalty to UConn," he said. "I said, 'This is what I'm all about: I bring energy every day. I bring a fairly positive outlook. And I'm honest. I'll communicate with you.'"
MacKenzie's assistants are Casey Handrahan and Jaclyn Hawkins, UConn Class of 2008 and the leading scorer in program history (144 points).
"No [players] left when we found out Mac was coming," said junior forward Sarah MacDonnell. "It was exciting. It was probably different than what most teams went through this offseason, but we bonded over it. It's been a complete 180 and we're all working toward a common goal. The record isn't a reflection of how we think we've been playing. We're going into the second half of the season with an eyes-on-the-prize feeling."
Sophomore forward Michela Cava of Thunder Bay, Ont., leads the team with 15 points on five goals and 10 assists. MacDonnell has six goals and eight assists for 14 points. Junior forward Kayla Campero of Wallingford has six goals, six assists and 12 points. Goalies Sarah Moses, a senior from New Hamburg, Ont., and Elaine Chuli, a sophomore from Waterford, Ont., split time.
The Huskies have been strong on the power play and penalty kill but are allowing an average of 38.2 shots on goal a game.
"Any team we play, we feel we can compete with," MacKenzie said. "We're right there. It's just a confidence thing, growing. Can we score some key goals often enough to win?"