The Minnesota Whitecaps may be an expansion team, but they aren’t your average expansion team. Before joining the NWHL this season they existed as an independent team where many of the players on the current roster played alongside one another. Some of them played for the Junior Whitecaps, with or against one another growing up at some point in time, which is understandable considering 19 of their 25 players hail from the state of Minnesota.
“I love my defense in front of me. I actually had the pleasure of playing with Lee Stecklein before playing with her at the pro level — we played together at the University of Minnesota and she’s such a talented defender,” raved Leveille following a Whitecaps win in New Jersey. “She leads by example (on the ice) and in the room as well.”
Praise goes both ways, and Stecklein was quick to return the favor minutes later when she met with the media following the same game. “I think our D is partly really strong because we have an amazing goalie in Amanda Leveille, who I had the pleasure of playing with her in college, and I’m really happy to be able to continue to play with her here (with the Whitecaps),” said the grinning gold medalist.
Listed at six-feet tall, Stecklein is tied with Buffalo’s Meghan Fonfara as the tallest player in the NWHL and she has been a tower of power for the Whitecaps throughout their first four games this season — at both ends of the ice. Minnesota has only played against the Metropolitan Riveters thus far, but her defensive presence was a big reason why the league’s reigning MVP (Alexa Gruschow) was held off the scoresheet in each of those games.
“It’s been great so far,” Stecklein said of her first two weekends as a professional player. “I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; there are a lot of really good teams. We’re playing the defending champions in our first four games. We knew it was going to be really, really important that we came out and had a great start. I’m excited.”
On the flip side, the 24-year-old is leading all NWHL players in assists (6), and those six points are good enough for second in the league. But one statistic she’s not near the top of the league leaderboard is shots on goal because she hasn’t recorded one yet! “My coaches have been telling me my whole life to shoot more, so that could be part of it,” said a smiling Stecklein.
Her decision, along with the decisions of the other US Olympians, to join the NWHL this season has made this possibly the most talented group of players that fans of the league have seen over its first four seasons. Stecklein probably could have played wherever she wanted and with whatever team she wanted. So why the NWHL?
“I think a huge part of it was that the Whitecaps were joining the league, to know that there was going to be a professional team in Minnesota,” she explained to us. “This team has existed for quite some time but to be joining a pro league, it was just a perfect fit. I always wanted to play for them and to play in this league as well. I was just really lucky that the timing worked out.”
The timing worked out because Stecklein had just achieved the ultimate dream of winning a gold medal with USA Hockey at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Her favorite memory from that journey that ended with a shootout win over their nemesis, Team Canada?
“I think the moment when we realized we won the gold medal will stick with me forever,” she said with an ear-to-ear smile. “I’ve forgotten so much of the actual game. You’re just focused on going out for your next shift, getting off and letting your teammates go out and do their job. I can’t wait to watch the game again sometime, I feel like I’ll be watching it with brand new eyes. That moment I knew we won is definitely really special, and then to get to celebrate and share that with the team — not just for the few days after at the Olympics, but to continue that on a tour in the United States, to be welcomed home like we were — there are a lot of really awesome memories there.”
Stecklein and her teammates got to meet a lot of celebrities, other athletes and passionate hockey fans during their victory lap around the country.
“One of my favorite [memories] is we went to this mini-tennis tournament at Madison Square Garden and we got to meet the Williams sisters. I’m a huge tennis fan, so to sit there courtside and watch them play was awesome,” she recalled. “Then to get to meet them and take a picture. I never, ever pictured that I’d get to sit there next to Serena Williams!”
Winning is nothing new for Stecklein, who was co-captain with Brandt for two seasons at the University of Minnesota where she won three NCAA titles and had 93 points in 157 games as a Gopher. “I am so grateful for my time at the U, it was my dream school, the best coaching staff, the best teammates I could’ve asked for; and I was able to get a great education. It went by so fast, and I just couldn’t recommend that place more highly. It was the perfect fit for me and I made lifelong friends there, some that I get to continue playing with here.”
This season the Whitecaps are playing eight sets of back-to-back games and for Stecklein, it’s very reminiscent of playing college hockey, schedule-wise. “For me playing back-to-back games, it feels a bit like college; but I like it. Hopefully, someday there will be even more games so we’ll be playing every weekend, even if there are back-to-back games,” she said. “Right now everyone just learns how to take care of their bodies the best way, taking everything as it comes and doing the best we can when we get out on the ice.”
Even though they are setting the league on fire with their 4-0-0 start, there are still plenty of things to work on. “Winning is always fun! But we have to continue to move our feet, winning races to the puck, winning the battles along the boards,” said Stecklein. “The little things that will hopefully get better at as we have more practices and more games.”