Maddie Rooney can’t help but chuckle when she tells the story. During her youth hockey days in Andover, she always wanted to be a goalie, begging her parents for two years to let her try the position.
They didn’t see any reason to invest in all that expensive equipment, given what her father, Michael, saw in the test runs he conducted at the family’s home. “I put on street-hockey pads, and he would shoot on me out in the driveway,” Rooney said. “He told me he didn’t think I was good enough. We joke about it all the time now.”
The women’s hockey world has learned it is no laughing matter when Rooney, 20, is in net after her breakout season at Minnesota Duluth. Since making her senior international debut at last spring’s world championships, she has become the top goaltender for the U.S. women’s national team — and a virtual lock to play in her first Olympics two months from now.
Rooney is among three goaltenders on the 26-member U.S. team, which will face Canada on Sunday at Xcel Energy Center. She has played in four of the team’s six games this fall, going 4-0 with a goals-against average of 1.75 and a save percentage of .911.
Though she has only six games of international experience, Rooney has impressed U.S. coach Robb Stauber — himself a former Gophers and NHL goaltender — with her keen understanding of the game. As that continues to grow, so does her confidence, another critical factor in her rapid ascent.
“I was a little bit surprised when I made the team for the world championships,” Rooney said Wednesday from the team’s training base in Florida. “I wasn’t really expecting anything. But playing in the WCHA for two years really prepared me, and I went into worlds with a ton of confidence.
“The Olympics has always been the ultimate goal. But if you asked me a year ago last September if I thought I’d be on the team, I never would have expected it. Everything is happening really fast, and I’m just taking it all in.”
Before her shutout victory over Russia at the world championships in April, Rooney had played only one game for a U.S. national team, in an under-18 series against Canada in 2013. She had participated in some USA Hockey goalie camps but was not invited to the August camp that preceded the 2016-17 season.
That was before her blockbuster turn as a sophomore at UMD. Rooney was 25-7-5 last season with six shutouts and a save percentage of .942, fourth best in program history.
Two weeks after she set a WCHA Final Face-Off record with 112 saves in two games — earning the tournament’s most outstanding player award — Rooney stopped all 14 shots she faced against Russia at the world championships.
“There were multiple games last year we probably shouldn’t have won, but Maddie saved our butts,” UMD defenseman Jessica Healey said. “I always feel so confident having her back there. She has so much belief in herself. And her work ethic is unreal.”
Stauber lauded Rooney for her quickness and athleticism in the net, as well as what he calls her “hockey IQ.” He considers the mind to be a goalie’s most valuable asset, noting that Rooney’s ability to analyze and react sets her apart.
“She’s had very little goalie coaching, which is probably a blessing in disguise,” Stauber said. “She trusts that hockey IQ, and she’s willing to figure things out on her own. That’s really rare.
“She understands the game, and she understands shooters. To be able to read the body language, read the stick, read the shot and then make a decision, there’s no substitute for how valuable that is.”
Rooney was 9 years old and in her second season of Squirts when her coach allowed her to try playing in goal during a practice. After getting her parents on board, she went on to play two prep seasons with Andover’s girls’ team, then shifted to the boys’ team as a senior to get used to the faster, more physical play she would see in college.
Her career accelerated when she was named UMD’s starter early last season. The confidence she gained from winning that spot helped her get on a roll, Rooney said — one that shows no signs of slowing down as the U.S. team speeds toward the Winter Games in February.
“I was very nervous at the world championships, but once I stopped that first shot, I was OK,” she said. “To be able to have this opportunity to play, I’m just really humbled by it.”