Hannah Brandt kept watching No. 26, the speedy lefthanded teenager in the red Team Canada sweater.
Sarah Potomak was one of the youngest players on the ice when the U.S. and Canada Under-22 national teams went head-to-head in late August, but the 18-year-old Canadian’s sharp attack quickly drew Brandt’s eye.
“You could pick her out of a crowd,” said Brandt, a veteran on the U.S. team and Gophers co-captain. “She was one of the best players out there at , that was obvious.”
Soon, Potomak had everyone else’s attention too. With the score of this Under-22 series showdown knotted with just more than a minute to go in the second game, Potomak netted the winning goal to tie the series at 1-1, one night after Brandt had led Team USA to a win in Game 1.
But in the aftermath of a frustrating loss in Lake Placid, N.Y., Brandt’s mind flashed to the future — one in which she and Potomak will be on the same side.
Together, the talented pair of forwards — the senior veteran and the hotshot freshman — are expected to lead defending champion Minnesota on its charge for a fourth national title in five years when the season opens at Penn State on Thursday. The No. 1 Gophers received all 15 first-place votes in the national preseason top 10 poll.
“To see her score a big goal like that just shows that she’s probably going to come in and contribute the same way for us,” said Brandt, who went on to score two goals in Team USA’s series-deciding Game 3 victory. “That’s really exciting.”
A native of British Columbia, Potomak learned hockey by tagging along to the local rink with four older brothers. In the 13 years since then, she’s developed into a player Minnesota coach Brad Frost calls “probably the most talented player to come out of Canada” for her class, gaining a reputation for quick hands, quick feet and stellar offensive abilities.
Frost said last week that the 5-5 left winger will get meaningful minutes immediately, perhaps alongside center Brandt at times.
“One thing about women’s hockey is freshmen can come in and make an impact right away,” Frost said. “We’re expecting big things.”
Brandt, the WCHA Player of the Year and scoring champion the past two seasons, was once in a similar position. Three years ago, coming off a standout high school career at Hill-Murray, Brandt was quickly lauded for her vision and passing ability. Whatever pressure she felt did not show. Brandt scored a hat trick in her first collegiate game, and ultimately finished second in the nation in scoring with 82 points.
Last week, Potomak smiled at the idea that she’ll be heavily relied on this season. While Brandt was again named preseason WCHA Player of the Year, Potomak was picked the conference’s preseason Freshman of the Year.
“I love having expectations and a challenge,” she said. “I want to make an impact right away. So it doesn’t make me scared or nervous. It just makes me excited.”
It doesn’t hurt to have a mentor who understands those sentiments. Brandt was a big reason Potomak originally chose Minnesota, committing while in 10th grade. Long before Brandt found herself watching No. 26, No. 26 was watching Brandt.
“She makes plays when it looks like it’s impossible to make plays,” Potomak said. “She’s super fun to watch and she’s someone I want to model my game after. So I think being able to play with her and learn from her will help me do that, help me become a better player.”