By the time she helped her team win the NCAA championship last March, Lee Stecklein was more than settled as a University of Minnesota freshman.
As the Gophers extended their NCAA-record winning streak to 49 games in winning their second straight national title, Stecklein played in all 41 games of the season and scored three goals, including two game winners that came on power plays. She also added nine assists.
But instead of gearing up for a potential Golden Gopher three-peat this fall, Stecklein found herself in Bedford, Mass., in September vying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Women’s Team that will play in the 2014 Winter Games this February in Sochi, Russia.
“I miss the Gophers a lot; I have a bunch of great friends on that team,” the 19-year-old Roseville, Minn., native said. “Aside from hockey, being away from them is hard.
“It is hard. I feel I just got used to college and I leave for a whole different experience. It’s crazy, but this is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Luckily, as Stecklein fights for a spot on Team USA’s final roster (which will be narrowed down from 25 players to 21 players in December) she keeps in touch with her teammates the old-fashioned way, via cell phone, and can follow all of their progress on social media.
“Our media guy is great about keeping Twitter updated,” she said.
She also said she plans to go see Minnesota take on Yale University in New Haven, Conn. on Nov. 23 and 24 with Team USA and Minnesota teammates Amanda Kessel and Megan Bozek.
“I really am trying to follow and keep up,” she said. “I hope they do well. I think we have a great squad this year, and they are going to be a great team.
“I don’t feel guilty [about leaving]; I feel sad I can’t do both. All of my teammates and coaching staff really support this and are excited and happy for me. We have such a good program there that losing Kessel and I this year, I don’t think it hurt it as much because we’re so deep and have great players.”
As much as Stecklein misses playing for Minnesota, playing for the national champs is precisely what prepared her for playing at the international level.
“Last season with the Gophers we did do a lot of the same drills we do here,” she said. “Everything is a level above it. Everyone is going faster. It’s just higher intensity, so it was great to have that experience from the Gophers coming in because it’s so much above everything else.
“I had some great coaches with the Gophers, so I do think it’s an advantage having one year of college under my belt. I couldn’t imagine not having that. I really felt like they helped me prepare for that step.”
Former Gophers such as Gigi Marvin and Anne Schleper have also helped Stecklein adjust to the national team.
“We have a few Gophers on the D squad,” Stecklein said. “It’s great playing with them. They are amazing defenders. I love watching to see how they move along the blue line and when to take shots and when to pass, things like that. I think I can really watch and learn from them.”
Stecklein does have experience with Team USA. She played for the U.S. team that won gold in the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championship this year, and previously she played in two IIHF U18 Women’s World Championships, winning gold in 2011 and silver in 2012. She also participated in two Under-18 Series in 2010 and 2011, as well as the 2012 Under-22 Series.
Despite all that, she said she’s still not used to the pace of the senior national squad.
“That was an incredible experience,” she said of the World Championships this year. “I really do think it was helpful. I never played at that pace before with the women’s national team. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with the pace yet because that pace is always uncomfortable, but it’s definitely a stepping stone to be here with this team.”
She doesn’t worry too much about making the final cut in December either.
“It’s obviously a dream I’ve had since I was little, and I just want to do everything I can to help our team win gold in Sochi,” she said. “We all have a lot of stuff to do to make the cut, but thankfully that’s not our focus.
“The coaches have done a great job taking the focus off that as we get into that. That’s less of a concern of mine as much as becoming the best player I can be and hoping the coaches pick the best players for us to win gold in Sochi.”
Whatever happens, Stecklein has been granted a redshirt for the 2013-14 season.
“I think it will be hard going back to school after having a year off, but I think the team is great and I think it will be a smooth transition,” she said. “There will be two new classes that I never played with before.”
And even though playing with Team USA will make her that much better of a player when she returns to college, Stecklein said it’s still not going to be easy playing in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which has produced the last 13 national champions.
"The WCHA is always high paced and competitive,” Stecklein said. “It’s not going to be a cake walk.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.