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UConn women's hockey's 'storybook' run continues with trip to Columbus

Before taking over at UConn, Chris MacKenzie spent a year as an assistant at Ohio State.

Photo: Ian Bethune

Before Chris MacKenzie became the head coach at UConn in 2013, he spent one season as an assistant at Ohio State. It provided a brief stopover between his head coaching gigs — two years at his alma mater, Niagara, before the school cut the program, and 11 seasons in Storrs.

So it’s fitting that the Huskies’ first-ever NCAA Tournament game will be in Columbus, the place MacKenzie got his first look at big-time college athletics.

“There's some storybook stuff going on with that,” he said.

MacKenzie spent the 2012-13 campaign with the Buckeyes, where they went 19-15-0 and reached the WCHA final. That’s not what sticks with the coach from that season, though. Instead, MacKenzie got a peek behind the curtain of a big-time athletic department.

“I got to see what the pinnacle an athletic department can be like. Their athletic department building, the administration building is 10 floors and each floor is something different,” MacKenzie said. “It's a real commitment to athletics. Incredible budgets, a willingness — they just want to be excellent in everything they do.”

That experience played a key factor when he interviewed for the head coaching position at UConn.

“When I went to UConn, I saw a lot of the same mentality and it really attracted me to this,” he said.

That year in Columbus also has a lot of personal significance to MacKenzie. He had a young family with a 2-year old daughter — and it grew larger with the addition of a son.

“My son was born in the hospital that's on campus,” MacKenzie said. “You can literally see it from the rink.”

Considering the significance of the game — the first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history — and the place, MacKenzie is bringing his entire family out to Columbus. It’ll be his son’s first time returning to his birthplace.

“He's heard about Columbus, Ohio. He doesn't understand where he was born or anything. ‘You see that football stadium there? You were born in that hospital like half a mile away.’ So that'll be fun,” he said.

While the contest will be held at Ohio State Ice Rink, UConn needs to win its first game in order for MacKenzie to face his former employer. The Huskies are matched up with Minnesota-Duluth in the first round and the winner will move on to play the No. 1 Buckeyes in the regional final.

It’ll be quite the dichotomy of programs on the ice together. UConn is a newcomer to the national scene while Minnesota-Duluth is one of the most successful programs on the women’s side. The Bulldogs have five national titles — third-most all time — and have made the Frozen Four on four other occasions, including 2021 and 2022. They’ve made the last four NCAA Tournaments.

“They're battle-tested,” MacKenzie said about Minnesota-Duluth. “We definitely have our hands full.”

Good thing the Huskies have plenty of experience taking down a more successful and experienced foe. To win the Hockey East Tournament crown, UConn had to take down Northeastern, which had won the previous five titles and were in the midst of a 23-game win streak in the tournament.

Minnesota-Duluth might be a higher caliber of opponent, but the foundation of the Huskies’ game plan will remain the same. UConn also has the “storybook” magic going for it. The Huskies have been on quite a run to get to this point and now, they’ll hope they can keep it going for at least one more game.

“This time of year, if you're executing and you have a high amount of energy, anything can happen,” MacKenzie said.