For Hannah Brandt and Lee Stecklein, signing with the Whitecaps wasn’t solely about returning home to play hockey in front of their families and friends. Their reasons run much deeper than that.
The 2018 Olympic gold medalists, whose signings will be announced Wednesday by the National Women’s Hockey League, share a long-running association with the league’s newest franchise. Brandt was a huge fan of the team when she was a child and played for it in 2016-17. Stecklein developed her game as a member of the Junior Whitecaps program before she and Brandt starred for the Gophers.
Both of them relish the opportunity to usher the Whitecaps into their first NWHL season, opening a new era for the women’s game in Minnesota. Stecklein, a defenseman from Roseville, and Brandt, a forward from Vadnais Heights, are the first native Minnesotans and first Olympians to join the roster. Former Gophers goaltender Amanda Leveille became the team’s first signee Monday.
“I know it was a dream of Jack Brodt to join the league,” Stecklein said of the Whitecaps’ co-founder and general manager. “He built this team from the beginning, and to bring it to this place shows the dedication and passion he has. To be able to be part of this is really special.
“I always hoped I’d get to play for the Whitecaps some day. And to sign with Hannah and play here with her, I’m just so excited.”
Brodt founded the Whitecaps in 2004, and the team has played an independent schedule in recent seasons. The NWHL acquired them in May as the league’s fifth team, making the Whitecaps the first women’s hockey franchise in Minnesota to pay its players. They will begin league play in October.
Brandt and Stecklein, both 24, won NCAA titles with the Gophers in 2013, 2015 and 2016. Brandt completed her college career in 2016 and is the program’s all-time leader in points (285) and assists (170). Stecklein, a big, mobile defender, ended her Gophers tenure in 2017; like Brandt, she was a first-team all-America selection.
Stecklein is a two-time Olympian, while Brandt made her Olympic debut last February as the Americans won their first gold medal since 1998. Both have extensive international experience and were teammates on the U.S. gold medal teams at the world championships in 2015 and ’17.
The Whitecaps’ entry into the NWHL means Brandt and Stecklein can begin their careers as paid pro players in the state that nurtured them through youth, high school and college hockey, in a place where they’ve always felt supported.
“I wanted to stay in Minnesota, and I’m really excited to be part of the Whitecaps again,” Brandt said. “I’m biased, but I think Minnesota sets the standard for women’s hockey. We should have a team in this league.
“This is going to be a huge year for women’s hockey. It’s important to capitalize on the audience we gained with the gold medal and give those fans something they can watch. This is another chance for us to grow the game.”