Kelly Pannek was present when the Gophers fell 4-0 to Wisconsin last March, missing their first Frozen Four after six consecutive appearances.
But she wasn’t on the ice.
Pannek stopped in Madison, Wis., on her drive back from Florida, where she had trained with the U.S. women’s Olympic team ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. The gold medal she won in South Korea was barely two weeks old while she watched her dominant college team endure one of its biggest disappointments in recent history.
Even if she hadn’t taken what would have been her senior year off from school and the program in order to be a part of that Olympic team, she’s not sure she would have made a difference in that loss.
“The hardest part wasn’t so much saying, ‘I wish I could have been there,’ ” Pannek said. “It was more of, I know how tough it is. And that senior class was my class. So to know I wouldn’t get a chance to play with them again, that part kind of stung.”
She traded in memories with some of her best friends on the Gophers for a gold medal. But now Pannek has a second chance at that nostalgia as a fifth-year senior and captain. And while she has already achieved the pinnacle of women’s hockey, one last shot at a WCHA and NCAA title hasn’t lost its appeal.
This weekend’s home series against Wisconsin pits the No. 1 Badgers (20-2-0, 10-2-0 WCHA) against the No. 2 Gophers (21-2-1, 11-2-1-0) with a potential regular-season title on the line. And Pannek is admittedly feeling the pressure to lead this team to some hardware.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily fair,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said of the expectations. “You look around the country, a lot of Olympians have come back, and I think they probably all feel, like: ‘Oh geez, I’ve got to produce. I’ve got to lead. I’ve got to do all these things now that I’m back.’ And for her, I just want her to be herself and just play free and get after it.”
Her teammates, at least, have helped carry that burden with depth scoring. There are 12 Gophers that have recorded at least 10 points, with Pannek tied for fourth on the team with 11 goals and nine assists.
Senior forward Taylor Williamson said it was “super hard” to play without Pannek last season, saying the team missed her ability to take control of a game. And there wasn’t just a hole on the ice. Frost said Pannek’s outgoing personality is commanding in the locker room, so her absence left a void of vocal leadership.
It didn’t take long for Pannek to find that groove again, though she did say it was a bit “weird” to go from focusing on just hockey for an entire year to everything that college entails. She also sometimes feels a little old when compared to the freshmen, who don’t always understand her jokes even though it’s only about a five-year age gap.
What all of her teammates do understand, though, is what they can learn from Pannek’s international experience, such as consistently intense training every day. Williamson said the Olympics gave Pannek a “new perspective on the game” and what it takes to be one of the best players “in the world.”
While Pannek is finishing up a business degree and has the opportunity to play professionally with the Minnesota Whitecaps in the National Women’s Hockey League, her immediate goal is all about restoring her beloved college program to undisputed greatness. She wants everyone to think of the Gophers as the best women’s hockey program in the country, no debate. And she wants every one of her teammates to experience winning a national championship, as she did her freshman and sophomore seasons.
“Obviously, a gold medal is the peak of the sport, especially our sport where there is no other thing that you’re trying to achieve,” Pannek said. “But also at the same time, the feelings you have winning a gold medal are the same feelings you have winning a national championship.
“I feel so fortunate to have won both, and I know how special it is to win a national championship. And just because I’ve won a gold medal doesn’t take away from any of those things.”