Lee Stecklein still has a hard time grasping how it all could have come together so perfectly. The only explanation is that it was meant to be.
A disciple of Winny Brodt-Brown and the Junior Whitecaps program — “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Winny,” Stecklein said — the Roseville, Minn., native grew up dreaming of the day she could pull on a Minnesota Whitecaps jersey. She was among those who told Brodt-Brown that she had to keep playing until the time came the two could share the ice. And, as she was reminded in January, Whitecaps co-coach Ronda Engelhardt was involved in coaching Stecklein during her younger years.
Up until late last spring, however, it looked as though Stecklein’s first professional season would take her away from Minnesota for the first time. Previously a standout at her hometown Roseville High, she had moved onto University of Minnesota, where she helped captain the Golden Gophers during her junior and senior seasons and won two national championships. Every full season of her career, barring two campaigns spent in Olympic centralization with the U.S. national team, had been spent in her home state. The State of Hockey was all Stecklein had known.
Just as it appeared she’d have to leave Minnesota to take the step into the professional ranks, though, the word came down: the Whitecaps were joining the NWHL as the league’s first expansion team. The 24-year-old Stecklein, as well as former Golden Gophers co-captain Hannah Brandt, were snapped up early in free agency.
“It’s very surreal,” Stecklein said. “Even if the Whitecaps haven’t been in (the NWHL), they’ve been around for 16 years, so I’d always hoped to go play for them someday. And now to know that they’ve achieved their goal of joining a professional league, and to know that I get to be a part of that first team, I don’t think I could have ever pictured that happening. It’s just too many pieces falling together at the same time.”
For the Whitecaps, though, bringing Stecklein aboard was more than penning a heartwarming tale about a childhood dream come true. It was an opportunity for Minnesota to bring aboard a highly sought after Olympian, a cornerstone defender and arguably one of the most impactful free agents on the market, as she was on the verge of making her professional debut. While in the NCAA, not to mention while with Team USA, Stecklein made her name as a sublime two-way defender who could use her offensive ability, on-ice smarts and long reach — at 6-feet, she’s the tallest player in the NWHL — to make an impact in all three zones.
And rest assured, Stecklein has been as advertised, particularly through the opening weeks of the campaign. Across the first two weekends of the season, she compiled six assists in four games as the Whitecaps began their inaugural NWHL campaign by downing the Metropolitan Riveters in four consecutive meetings. It was around that time, with the 2019 NWHL All-Star Game set to head to Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Feb. 10, Stecklein was called upon by the league to trade in her ‘A’ with the Whitecaps for an all-star ‘C.’ “I was really excited, a little shocked, just because there are so many amazing players that they could choose from,” Stecklein said. “But I’m excited to have a great team there and be participating for the first time — and it will be a lot of people’s first time — that’s something else that will be fun to be able to experience together.”
Don’t go thinking Stecklein has slowed since being named an all-star captain, either, despite what the scoresheet might suggest. Though she’s only managed two points in the 10 games since late-October, Stecklein has continued to provide an incredibly steadying presence on the back end for the Whitecaps. For that, she credits Engelhardt, Jack Brodt and Minnesota’s coaching staff. “They’re not trying to overcomplicate it,” Stecklein said. “We have two practices a week, and they’re really trying to give us the room to be creative while sticking within some systems…It’s really simplifying it so that we get to go out there and play some hockey.”
And Minnesota’s somewhat free-wheeling style of play has led to tremendous expansion success. Sure, there have been a few stumbles, including three losses to the Boston Pride across December and into early January, but the Whitecaps enter the all-star break riding a three-game winning streak, sitting atop the NWHL standings and having captured the attention of their hockey-mad market. “We’ve had amazing fans at all of our home games, we’re sold out each and every time, and little girls are picking up quickly that we have a pro women’s team,” Stecklein said. “They’re supporting us like I didn’t even anticipate.”
Seeing the support for the Whitecaps means a lot to Stecklein, too. As an Olympian, and one who achieved her childhood dream of standing atop the podium in Pyeongchang, she understands that winning gold with the national team will forever remain a dream for young girls in the game. But seeing the welcome the Whitecaps, and in turn the NWHL, have received in Minnesota this season, she can’t help but think bigger. “To know that (the NWHL) is also there as a place, another dream, for the little girls is what I find incredibly important,” Stecklein said. “Knowing that these girls are hoping to become Whitecaps someday is even more important when you look at women’s hockey in the long run.”