University a Family for ‘International’ Hockey Player and Principal

Ken Essay and a few students at Harriet Bishop Elementary, where he is principal.
Ken Essay and a few students at Harriet Bishop Elementary, where he is principal.

Canada native Ken Essay says he owes Minnesota State Mankato plenty for his life of hockey highlights and his career as a leader in Minnesota education.

It all started with one pretty good college game on Canadian ice.

“An assistant coach [from Minnesota State Mankato] was in the middle of Manitoba,” Essay says. “He was recruiting someone from the other team. It was one of those days where you get lucky and you have a real good game. That was my one game. All the planets aligned and I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to come and finish my college career and play two years at Minnesota State Mankato.”

His hockey career with the University allowed him one year playing Division I hockey, after the school made the switch from Division II in the 96-97 school year.

“That was really my dream, to play Division I hockey,” Essay says. “It was a huge dream realized for me, and Minnesota State Mankato gave me that opportunity. That’s where the journey started.”

The journey led Essay to a career in education following his undergraduate studies in physical education and health education. From the University, he was able merge sports and education.

“I was going to play in the NHL like every boy growing up in Canada. Then reality sinks in and you’re like: ‘What else am I passionate about? And to me, the road to education and coaching, just made me feel alive.”

He taught at Mankato West High School and Hoover Elementary in North Mankato. He coached hockey at West and was recruited to do color commentary for Maverick hockey games.

He taught and coached within the Mankato public school system for 10 years, followed by four years as athletic and activities director and another four years as an assistant principal. Meanwhile, the University allowed him to continue what he calls his “path of passion and purpose” in getting his master’s degree in educational leadership and his administrative license.

That led to his current role as principal at Harriet Bishop Elementary School, overseeing more than 500 students in grades K-5.

“The University has done a remarkable job of offering programming and opportunities for me to continue to grow as a leader,” Essay says.

He stays connected with the University through a hockey alumni group.

“We have two or three functions where we get together as a group and just celebrate,” Essay explains. “We are all so proud.”

One such event is the “Can-Am Cup” that takes place each summer, when Essay and his fellow hockey alumni return to Mankato for a Canada vs. U.S. showdown at the golf course, splitting the team into the players’ countries of origin.

“We do it like the Ryder Cup,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity. That’s part of  having older guys like myself connect with these younger kids who have gone through the program.”

Essay received his U.S. citizenship three years ago—an incredibly powerful event that allowed him to reflect on the role of Minnesota State Mankato in his journey.

“Coming from a foreign country – I think it’s one of the pieces that makes Minnesota State Mankato so special, that family bond,” he says. “I think hockey’s been able to do that, but I also felt connected to the educational department. I wouldn’t be where I am today. They’re like family members to me.”