When the Gophers women's hockey team opens its season against Bemidji State on Friday night at Ridder Arena, it will put on display a roster with 20 returning players from last season, four players who competed at the Beijing Olympics earlier this year and eight "super" seniors.
"We're deeper than we've ever been," said Brad Frost, beginning his 16th season as the Gophers coach.
The Gophers, who went 29-9-1 last season while winning their 11th WCHA regular-season title, were the top pick in the WCHA preseason poll and are ranked No. 2 in the nation in the U.S. College Hockey Online preseason poll.
"Everybody realizes we have a special opportunity this season," Frost said. "We've got Olympians back and fifth-year seniors as do others in the WCHA. There are some pretty deep teams in our league."
Three other WCHA teams — Ohio State (No. 1), Wisconsin (No. 4) and Minnesota Duluth (No. 5) — are ranked in the top five.
The Gophers are led by fifth-year senior Taylor Heise, the WCHA Player of the Year and the Patty Kazmaier Award winner last season. Heise, who had 29 goals and 37 assists in 39 games last season, was picked the WCHA's Preseason Player of the Year.
"We're really excited to come out and show what we've learned," said Heise, who was named the MVP of the IIHF Women's World Championship in Denmark last month after scoring seven goals to help the U.S. team win the tournament.
Grace Zumwinkle rejoins the Gophers after redshirting last season while playing for the U.S. Olympic team. Zumwinkle scored 17 goals in 20 games for the Gophers in the 2020-21 season.
"I'm happy to be back," she said, "The Olympics were a chance to learn from the best in the world. I hope to use that experience."
While the Gophers are making their official season debut — they defeated the University of Manitoba and the Minnesota Whitecaps in exhibition games — Bemidji State is playing its third series of the season.
The Beavers opened their season with two victories over Lindenwood at home before a 5-0 loss and a 2-2 tie at No. 10 Clarkson last weekend.
"They tied Clarkson, which is a very good team, on the road," Frost said. "They are a physical team and dangerous."
Among Bemidji State's 20 returning letterwinners is senior forward Reece Hunt, who led the team in scoring last season with seven goals and 13 assists.