Kelsey Koelzer has been a pioneer before.
An African-American woman in ice hockey, she cut her teeth and several other body parts in boys leagues, then became a first-team all-American at Princeton and the National Women’s Hockey League’s top overall draft choice.
Now Koelzer, 24, will break more ground as the first coach of Arcadia University’s new women’s ice-hockey program, which along with a men’s team will begin play in the 2021-22 season.
“To be able to provide more girls an opportunity to play at the college level should be amazing,” Koelzer said. “Hockey helped me get a degree from the best school in the country.”
She’ll start recruiting in October and Arcadia hopes her stature in a sport she discovered at age 4 will propel its new program, which, along with a men’s team, launches in the 2021-22 season. Vince Pietrangelo, the lead assistant at SUNY-Canton, will coach the men.
A Horsham native, Koelzer was a three-time all-Ivy performer as a Princeton defender and a member of the USA Select Under-22 team. After graduating in 2017, she was drafted into the NWHL and was named its all-star game’s MVP. She’s also a member of the NHL-NHLPA Female Hockey Advisory Committee, a group aiming to increase women’s participation in the sport.
“I’ve mentioned her to some people and they’re impressed. They all say, `Whoa, she’s your coach?’” said Brian Granata, Arcadia’s athletic director. “Her passion is impressive. She’s extremely humble, very mature.”
The NCAA Division III school in Glenside, which has 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students, announced in June that it would make men’s and women’s hockey it’s 25th and 26th sports.
In a Philadelphia-area saturated with similarly sized colleges, all of them fighting for a shrinking number of local high-schoolers, Arcadia’s decision was indicative of a relatively new small-college paradigm – sports attract applications.
And when those applicants become student-athletes, according to NCAA statistics, they earn higher GPAs, stay in school longer and graduate in larger numbers than their classmates.
Arcadia, which without hockey spent $2.6 million on athletics last year -- almost all from the school’s general fund -- has been particularly aggressive in using sports as bait.
“It makes sense,” said Granata. “Athletics diversify the offerings on campus, create school spirit. Hockey, in our minds, allows us to try to win the Philadelphia market, but also to reach out to New England, the Midwest, even Canada. We can really expand our geographical footprint. And that really helps when you’re a small fish in a very deep pond.”
In 2011, Arcadia had 12 sports, 250 athletes, several part-time coaches, and not a single team that qualified for its conference tournament. When hockey comes aboard, those figures will balloon to 26 teams, 500 athletes, a complete staff of full-time head coaches and several programs with recent conference championships.
In an area where Flyers pennants and rinks are plentiful, adding hockey to a roster that includes basketball, soccer, golf, tennis, volleyball, and even E Sports seemed a natural step.
“We realized hockey could be a unique market for us,” said Granata. “This is a hockey-rich region, but there’s not a ton of playing opportunities at the college level.”
The only other Philadelphia-area Division III hockey programs are at Neuman and Alvernia. Arcadia’s men and women will both play in the Middle Atlantic Conference.
But there are only six women’s and five men’s teams in that league and the NCAA requires at least seven for a champion to qualify for its postseason tournament.
“So we’ll have an affiliate membership in the United Collegiate Hockey Conference,” said Granata of a single-sport league comprised of New York and Pennsylvania schools.
Arcadia’s home will be Hatfield Ice, a three-rink facility that, according to a college-rink agreement, will add locker rooms, training and laundry facilities, a players’ lounge, coaches offices and additional seating.
“It’s the best facility in the area,” said Koelzer. “It was always the place where I enjoyed playing the most.”
Thanks to an uncle and two cousins, Koelzer was skating and asking to play hockey at 4. Soon, she was playing regularly in boys leagues, where she stayed until her teen years.
“I just loved the freedom you had on the ice,” she said.
She lived in a single-family household. Her mother was an office manager at an Ambler packaging-products company so equipment and ice-time costs made hockey an expensive pastime. But, Koelzer said, cost wasn’t an issue.
“It’s definitely not cheap,” she said. “And that’s a hurdle that has to be overcome for a lot of girls. But at the end of the day, I did it and I was raised by a single parent. It can be done. My mom was hesitant at first about me getting involved, but whenever I needed equipment, she got it. Sacrifices were made, but when you look at the pluses and minuses, a Princeton education was a pretty rich reward.”
At 15, Koelzer transitioned to the Lady Patriots, the area’s top all-girl travel team. By her junior year at Hatboro-Horsham High, she was commuting to Bridgewater, N.J., to play for the New Jersey Rockets, the New York area’s premier youth program.
She starred at Princeton, where she captained the team her junior year, and now plays -- for very little renumeration -- for the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Riveters in the five-team NWHL.
In addition, Koelzer, whose degree is in psychology, was until recently working in corporate recruiting and coaching at various camps and showcases. Then an aunt who works in Arcadia’s English department informed her of the new coaching position.
Her Arcadia Knights will be one of just 49 Division III teams. That’s 13 more than are playing at the highest collegiate level, Division I.
Koelzer wants to win games, of course. But she hopes to do so while simultaneously opening some of the doors she skated through as a woman and an African-American.
“You didn’t really see many minorities in hockey when I was coming up,” she said. “And as far as minority women, I probably saw three or four in 15 years. It was definitely uncommon. That’s why I’m so excited about this job. It’s all about exposure. Now these young girls will have an example to look up to.
“I’ve seen more minorities and women in the Philadelphia region. Adding another college program is going to be huge.”