When Natalie Rossi was 7 years old, she was watching her brother’s ice hockey practices and wondered aloud to her father, “Why can’t I do that?”
Now, she is saying the same about coaching a college team and helping girls say the same about playing collegiate ice hockey.
As the first head coach of GCU women’s ice hockey, Rossi is using her experiences as a Division III college player and a coach at various youth levels to make Lopes history.
“As soon as I stepped on campus, I knew it was something that I wanted to be a part of,” Rossi said. “Just the feeling that I got being on the campus and I love coaching that older age range. I felt like I was prepared for it because I’d coached all the different age levels. Coaching college always has been a dream of mine. Once I stepped on campus, I was like, ‘Yes, this is 150 percent what I want to do.’ ”
Rossi grew up in New Jersey, played for State University of New York at Oswego and moved to Arizona to pursue a master’s degree. She started coaching after college in New Jersey and has continued in the Valley with the Arizona Lady Coyotes, including stints as head coach of the under-14 and under-19 teams.
“She’s got a lot of knowledge about college hockey,” GCU director of hockey operations Danny Roy said. “She understands the commitment it takes for that. She also takes that knowledge and uses it on the recruiting side to talk to girls about what they want for their careers after school. You get to play against other good college teams and compete for a national championship, all while focusing your attention on academics.”
GCU will join the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s Division I for its inaugural season this fall and compete in the Western Women’s Collegiate Hockey League against Arizona State, Colorado, Colorado State, Denver, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Midland and Lindenwood-Belleville.
The Lopes secured commitments thus far from Avori Schenck (Chula Vista, Calif.), Meranda Morgan (Flagstaff), Sierra Quinn (St. Charles, Ill.), Vandalyn Hudson (Anchorage, Alaska), Jenna Kimbrel (Minnetonka, Minn.), Emily Exner (Stevens Point, Wis.), Emily Martinho (Visalia, Calif.) and Tuesday Chavez (Albquerque, N.M.).
Rossi also looks to add transfers to help GCU compete immediately.
“We’re going to have to be a hard-working team that doesn’t take no for an answer,” Rossi said. “We’re going to have to work hard and be a positive team, even if it’s difficult sometimes. From what we’ve recruited, I think we’ll be very competitive.”
Rossi nearly left the ice competitively for good as a young girl when she fell on her head as a figure skater in Edison, N.J., but her brother’s ice hockey games stoked a different interest.
Her father, Mike, became involved in coaching her teams as she got older and she shared the interest, choosing a minor in athletic coaching at SUNY-Oswego.
“My dad jokes that mediocre defenseman make the best coaches and that’s why he’s a good coach and I’m a good coach,” said Rossi, who also is a speech pathologist.
The growing number of young females playing ice hockey in Arizona and her contacts in that community position Rossi well for a job that feels like history in the making. The first up-close peek at the program comes April 14-16, when GCU holds a 15-and-older prospect camp at AZ Ice Peoria, the Lopes’ home rink.
“To be a part of starting this at GCU is absolutely incredible,” Rossi said. “It’s important to be an athlete because you get so many experiences that you don’t get as a student. Getting the girls to have those experiences and having young girls in the community see that is possible is something so special.”