Lee Stecklein has been on the ice since she was 6 years old. Just 13 years later, she would capture an Olympic silver medal. But the Sochi gold-medal game wasn’t the first big-time tournament experience in the 19-year-old’s hockey career.
She won the 14U A Minnesota Hockey state title in 2008 before leading Roseville High School to four Suburban East Conference crowns and a state championship in 2010. Stecklein and the Raiders were state runners-up in 2012.
After that, it was on to her freshman year at the University of Minnesota, where she was part of the unprecedented, undefeated 2013 NCAA national championship team that finished the season a perfect 41-0.
This year, she was named to the 2014 Olympic women’s team.
Stecklein has been a part of championship games at every level of her hockey career. But the first trip will always be one that sticks out.
“(In 2008), that was my first time at state, so I remember just being so excited to be there,” said Stecklein. “I had watched my sister play in state tournaments and championships but it’s really different when you’re playing in it with your team.
“It’s a memory you won’t forget.”
Roseville Role Model
Vic Brodt began coaching Stecklein as a 9-year-old Squirt and remained at the helm through her senior year of high school.
"I would best describe Lee’s hockey as simple and effective,” said Brodt, head coach of the girls’ hockey team at Roseville High School. “She has never been an extremely flashy player. However, she has been a fantastic skater who handles the puck very well and has great vision on the ice. She has been playing this style since her youth days of Squirts and 12U."
Brodt wasn’t surprised to hear Stecklein’s name called for the U.S. Olympic team this past January. He knew her style of play wasn’t only going to help the U.S. team but was going to be a guiding light for girls in Roseville and across Minnesota.
"Lee has been such a great role model for youth in Roseville and an excellent representative of Minnesota Hockey,” he said. “I am so proud of her accomplishments. It’s wonderful to see a product of our program being represented in the Olympics.”
Brodt believes the culture and structure of Minnesota Hockey is unique and is the main reason the state continues to produce top talent year after year.
"As Minnesotans, we are fortunate to have a successful community-based program that is not available in other parts of our country. Lee was able to stay home with family and friends to develop as a player and person. She is not only a great hockey player; she is a very caring, humble and genuine person. She will continue to have success on and off the ice.”
In 2008, Stecklein’s 14U A squad was made up of girls from different areas. North St. Paul, Tartan and Roseville combined together to form the team after many had played against each other growing up.
How do rivals become teammates and go on to win it all?
“Honestly throughout that season we started out separate,” recalled Stecklein. “It was like, ‘OK, those are the girls from Tartan, those are the girls from North St. Paul and those are the girls from Roseville.’ We saw that separation, especially at that age of 14. But we had a great coach who made sure we did a lot of things together. Even just the bus trip up to Moorhead for the state tournament helped.”
Coming in ranked as the bottom seed, Stecklein said being an underdog with lower expectations also forced the team to become one cohesive unit.
“We knew we had to come together to keep playing,” she added. “That in turn brought us together.”
The U.S. Women’s Olympic team was far from being the underdog, but like six years ago, it meant building a team.
“Any time you play with a new group of girls there’s an adjustment period,” said Stecklein, the youngest member of the Olympic team. “But you quickly realize you’re a team with the same goal—to win that last game of the year.”
Win or Lose, You Made It There
Stecklein admits that she loves winning. It’s the competitor in all that strives to play well in the big game, particularly at the end of the year with a season and title on the line.
But whether it’s a 12U championship, a game for sibling pride, or the Olympics, the result often means little compared to the journey.
“It’s always a big game with a lot on the line in a championship tournament,” said Stecklein. “And no matter what level, it feels great to win that last game but you will find that it’s more than that.”
“Each time out there you realize you’re representing something bigger than yourself. In youth and high school it was Roseville. It was the state of Minnesota as a Gopher at the national tournament. And then it’s for your country at the Olympics. Going out there and growing the sport of women’s hockey, you look back on each tournament as more than just winning a title.
”I remember the great time we had, even if we lost. That’s what you look back on the most.”