After a December exhibition game at Xcel Energy Center, U.S. women’s hockey coach Katey Stone was asked how she enjoyed being in the state of hockey. “I understand they like to claim that here,” she said with a grin. “I’m not sure I agree.”
Though the Harvard coach might argue that Massachusetts holds that distinction, she happily loaded up her defensive corps with a bumper crop of Minnesotans. Four of the seven defensemen on the U.S. Olympic team — Gigi Marvin, Megan Bozek, Anne Schleper and Lee Stecklein — are current or former Gophers. Marvin (Warroad), Schleper (St. Cloud) and Stecklein (Roseville) are Minnesota natives as well.
Their common hockey heritage has created a bond among the four, evident on the ice and off. At the U, Bozek and Schleper said, the emphasis on disciplined defensive play — and on team unity — provided a foundation that still serves them well.
“Once you’re part of the Gophers family, you’re in it for life,” said Schleper, who finished her college career with an NCAA title in 2012. “We know each other so well. Because we know each other’s tendencies, that makes us even more of a threat, and it adds to the chemistry of the D corps.
“With the Gophers, you learn that whole defense-first mentality. It’s the same with Team USA. Playing big, strong and physical is what got us all to this point, and it’s how we have to play at the Olympics as well.”
The four defensemen — along with forward Amanda Kessel — are among 10 Gophers who have represented the U.S. in women’s hockey at the Olympics. Two other alumnae, goalie Noora Raty and defenseman Mira Jalosuo, will play for Team Finland in Sochi.
Marvin, 26, was a forward at the U and in the 2010 Olympics. She converted to defense in 2012 and is among the most seasoned of the 21 U.S. players, with 97 international games. In the past two world championships, Marvin has been among the highest-scoring defensemen in the tournament, and she has helped the U.S. win four world titles.
Bozek is an outstanding two-way player as well. The highest-scoring defenseman in Gophers history, she has three goals and seven assists this season and is the team’s second-leading scorer. She and Kessel led the Gophers to back-to-back NCAA titles, including the one that concluded last year’s undefeated season.
While the four defensemen all have slightly different skill sets, Bozek said, they do have several things in common. All of them are tall, ranging from 5-8 (Marvin and Bozek) to 6-0 (Stecklein). All are rugged players who relish contact. And none will hesitate to shoot when the opportunity presents itself.
“We had a great D corps in Minnesota, probably the best in the country,” said Bozek, 22. “When you’re playing with people like that day in and day out, they’re going to make you better. With the Gophers, we learned how much more we could give to be the best we could be.”
While Bozek, Schleper and Stecklein are first-time Olympians, they have played major roles with the U.S. team over the past year. All were on the team that won the 2013 world championship, vaulting the U.S. to the No. 1 world ranking heading into the Winter Games.
The goal at the Olympics, Marvin said, is not any different than it was at the U: to be fast, physical and present a constant challenge to every opponent. An increased emphasis on strength training has improved the Americans’ speed and power. Schleper said the defensemen take great pride in their game, knowing they can set the tempo and tone for a team that also features brilliant playmakers on offense.
Off the ice, the group watches Gophers women’s hockey games online, keeps up with events in Minnesota and spends lots of time together. Underneath those USA jerseys, they said, their blood will always run maroon.
“It’s fun to have so many Gophers,” Bozek said. “And it’s comforting, knowing there are so many people on this team who know where you came from and what you’re capable of doing.
“At the U of M, they strive to make you a better player. And that’s what we try to do for each other. We want all of us to be as good as we can be.”