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Minnesotan-filled U.S. women’s hockey team ready to defend Olympic gold medal

The U.S women’s hockey team will begin Olympic competition in Beijing on Thursday against Finland, its first game airing at 7:10 a.m. CST on USA Network.

United States women's ice hockey team practice for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics
United States women's ice hockey team players Hannah Brandt, Lee Stecklein and Dani Cameranesi talk during practice at the Wukesong Arena ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, Jan. 31, 2022.
REUTERS / Brian Snyder

Last the world saw the United States women’s hockey team on the Olympic stage four years ago in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the group was skating off the ice, jubilant, gold medals hanging around players’ necks after a thrilling shootout win over Canada.

Four years later, the group, filled with a mix of familiar names and newcomers, is ready to defend its gold medal, and its path back to Olympic glory began in Blaine, where the team trained at the Super Rink from October through January.

The U.S women’s hockey team will begin Olympic competition in Beijing on Thursday against Finland, its first game airing at 7:10 a.m. CST on USA Network.

“Having one (gold medal) is awesome, but I think knowing how awesome it was to get that one makes you want to get another one just as bad — and you want everyone else that wasn’t a part of that team to experience what it’s like to win a gold medal,” said forward Hannah Brandt, who hails from Vadnais Heights and graduated from the University of Minnesota. “I think that kind of makes you almost more hungry, knowing what it’s like.”

If the team is to repeat as gold medalist, a sizable contingent of players with Minnesota ties, like Brandt, will be a big part of the reason why. Along with head coach Joel Johnson, who lives in White Bear Lake and also coaches the University of St. Thomas women’s team, the group has nine players with ties to the state.

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Alternate captain Lee Stecklein, who will be competing in her third Olympic Games, is a Roseville native. Kelly Pannek and Dani Cameranesi both hail from Plymouth, Grace Zumwinkle is from Excelsior and Maddie Rooney from Andover. All played at the University of Minnesota except Rooney, who starred in net at Minnesota Duluth.

In addition, defenseman Megan Bozek and forwards Amanda Kessel and Abbey Murphy all have played at the University of Minnesota — Murphy was a freshman last season — making it the most well-represented university among the team.

“It’s … fun to compete at this level with all of them and see the success that Minnesotans can bring to this level,” Brandt said. “It’s definitely something that we take pride in.”

That group of Minnesotans will certainly be on display. While a starting goalie hasn’t been named publicly, last time around, Rooney was in net for four of five games, posting a .946 save percentage and 1.16 goals-against average. Cameranesi recorded five points (three goals, two assists) at the 2018 Olympics, tying for the team lead. Brandt added a goal and an assist, and Pannek had a pair of assists.

They’ll need top efforts from all of them to fend off a tough challenge from rival Canada, which is the only country other than the U.S. to have won a gold or silver medal since women’s hockey was introduced to the Olympics in 1998.

In the run-up to the Olympics, the U.S. and Canada faced off six times — the final three games, including one that was supposed to take place at the Xcel Energy Center, were canceled because of COVID-19 — with the U.S. winning twice and the Canadians taking four games, including two in overtime.

The My Why Tour was part of a concerted effort to get more games in during the run-up to the Olympics — the team also played against local teams in the Twin Cities area — which Johnson said in December was something that the veterans on the team requested.

Thursday, finally, after months of training and nearly four years of waiting, they’ll hit the ice again, ready to chase their Olympic dreams.

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“We all have that one goal,” Pannek said in December. “In 2018, it was that deep, deep, deep hunger to win and to need to win, and we still have that, but it’s just different coming off a gold medal. … When we’re at our best, we play still with a chip on our shoulder like we have something to prove. And I think that’s kind of what our identity we’ve come to refind is, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go out there and battle and win,’ and we have that desire, that deep, deep desire to win even though we won in 2018.”

Related Topics: OLYMPICS
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