Her accomplishments read like something a sixth-grader might dream: Win a state championship, play for Olympic gold and have a chance to become the only hockey player — men’s or women’s — to win four NCAA titles. Graduate from the Carlson School, double major. Become one of 15 nominees for the Humanitarian Award, which goes to “college hockey’s finest citizen.”
Lee Stecklein, a three-time Gophers captain, was asked if she’s been able to reflect on all those accomplishments — real, not imagined — heading into Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal at Minnesota Duluth.
“If I reflect too much, I’ll cry,” the Roseville native said.
The stakes are too high for that now. The No. 5 Gophers (25-7-5) are two-time defending national champions, but this is the first time they’ve had to go on the road to start the NCAA tournament since 2011.
No. 3 UMD (25-6-5) has won three of five games against the Gophers this season, including last Saturday’s 2-1, double-overtime thriller in the WCHA semifinals at Ridder Arena.
UMD also swept the Gophers in Duluth two months ago.
“Those two losses stung a little more than most just because we weren’t happy with how we played,” Stecklein said. “So it was definitely a quiet bus ride, but I think it gave us a kick in the pants to be better.”
Since that series, the Gophers are 9-2-3, including two ties against No. 1 Wisconsin. In those 14 games, the Gophers have allowed just 16 goals during regulation, which is a credit to goaltender Sidney Peters and the rest of the defense.
That’s Stecklein’s specialty. A 6-foot stay-at-home defenseman, she has a commanding presence, nimble feet, and a calmness whenever she gets the puck, turning up-ice in transition.
“She’s so strong; she plays so many minutes,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “She’s not flashy with her offensive ability, but defensively and as a leader, she’s just at the top of her game.”
Stecklein was a sophomore when she helped Roseville win the state championship in 2010. Gophers assistant coach Bethany Brausen was a senior on that team, and they were teammates again at Minnesota three years later, when the Gophers went 41-0.
“Growing up, Lee was someone who played big, even if she wasn’t even the biggest kid on the ice,” Brausen said. “Now you look at her, and she’s physically big, but she’s also playing huge.”
On that undefeated Gophers team, Stecklein began as the No. 5 defenseman behind Olympians Megan Bozek and Mira Jalosuo (with Finland) and two eventual All-America picks Rachel Ramsey and Milica McMillen.
That winter, Stecklein got invited to a Team USA camp as an alternate and wound up becoming a surprise pick for the Olympic team.
“When I think about it, it’s absurd that it happened to me,” she said.
She was Team USA’s youngest player at the 2014 Olympics, where the Americans suffered a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Canada in the gold medal game.
Stecklein spent that season away from the Gophers, who lost the 2014 NCAA title game to Clarkson 5-4. She returned and helped them win national championships in 2015 (over Harvard) and last year (over Boston College).
Stecklein will graduate this May after majoring in entrepreneurial management and marketing.
She hopes to play for the 2018 Olympic team and will head to the world championships later this month, along with Gophers center Kelly Pannek and former Gophers including Bozek, Hannah Brandt, Amanda Kessel and Gigi Marvin.
First, Stecklein has a chance to make more history. Brandt and Kessel are among the hockey players who’ve won three NCAA titles. Nobody’s won four.
“Who would be more deserving to do that than Lee Stecklein, honestly?” Brausen said.
“She’s an incredible teammate and she’s an awesome person. I truly have not seen her in a time of life where she was not exceptional.”