At the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, the 24-year-old captain of the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps has picked right up where she left off in PyeongChang with her stellar defensive play. After the U.S. bounced back from a 2-1 deficit against host Finland with a five-goal third-period eruption, the defending world champions haven’t trailed once.
Partnered with Emily Pfalzer, Stecklein logged a team-high 19:53 in the 3-2 round-robin win over archrival Canada, and is averaging 20:17 per game. The 183-cm, 77-kg is a mobile dynamo. She has beautiful stride mechanics and is positionally sound.
The way Stecklein conducts herself both on and off the ice speaks volumes. Not only was she a three-time NCAA champion with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, but she’s also won four straight Women’s Worlds gold medals. Professionally, too, Stecklein brings great energy. That goes beyond her day job as a sales coordinator with Clif Bar, the American energy bar maker.
The two-time Olympian captained Team Stecklein at the NWHL All-Star Game on 10 February, and scored the Isobel Cup winner just 49 seconds into overtime against the Buffalo Beauts on 17 March. One of seven Minnesotans on this Team USA roster, the Roseville native was thrilled to bring the championship to her home state in the Whitecaps’ inaugural NWHL season. Named playoff MVP, she triumphed as a teammate of U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hannah Brandt.
We sat down with Stecklein after the Americans defeated Switzerland 8-0 on Sunday night.
How do you like the direction the team is going through three games?
I think we've been really happy with our start. Definitely in the first game [against Finland], we felt like our first two periods weren't what we expected of ourselves. But from there on, that third period, and then the next six, I think we've really stepped it up. We've made sure we're working together, working on whatever we need to be working on, talking things out, and using these games to our advantage.
You beat the Finns 6-2. Now, in your freshman year with the Gophers, Noora Raty won 41 straight games and set NCAA records for wins and shutouts.
So do you feel a little bit of guilt when your team puts up six goals on somebody who did so much for you?
I don't know if I'd say "guilt"! But it's definitely tough to play against her, even though you know her really well. She's an amazing goalie, one of the best of all time. So it's fun. As mad as she is after games, a few days later, when I get to see her, we'll start talking about it again. But it's always fun to play the Finns. They're a good team.
It's been over a year since PyeongChang. What would winning another gold medal in Finland mean in terms of continuing the momentum you built for your team and women's hockey?
I think it's incredibly important to have a strong start here at Worlds. It's the beginning of the next quad, and while we're always really focused on the Olympics, each one of these is incredibly important. You're playing against the best in the world and it's what we train for all year. It's our end-of-the-year tournament. It's always tough, it's always a battle. We're definitely striving for that gold and just getting better overall.
You don't always get the headlines that, say, Hilary Knight or Kendall Coyne Schofield do. But you play more minutes on this team than anyone else. What does that mean to you?
It's always exciting. You know your coach trusts you to be out there in important situations. You have to bring your best, and that's what we're all training for. I'm really lucky to have forwards who do make those headlines! [laughs] Because they're doing some incredible work. So it's whatever I can do to support them. I think that's how a lot of us D feel. We know we're an important part of the team and we feel recognized internally, which is really cool.
When you evaluate your own performance after a game, what's your measure of success?
I often try and see if most of the time when the puck left my stick, was it going to a teammate's stick? And was that teammate better off, in a better position? Were they able to do something with that? Or was I handing her a grenade? It's not always measurable, but it kind of gives me an overall feeling of whether I'm doing my job as a defenceman.
Okay, let's transition from the physical to the mental. The books! What is it about reading that made it your go-to diversion?
[laughs] I don't know. We were always encouraged to read growing up. I would say I definitely maybe wasn't like a huge reader when I was younger necessarily. But when you find a good book, it's a nice, separate space. It's something I can do to stay calm or to pass time. If I'm physically recovering, I can still be reading. We have some long plane rides. We have some down time where reading's been helpful and useful, and I enjoy it.
I would say Janet Evanovich is one. When I read, there are a lot of different types of books, but often, it is for entertainment. So one that's light and fun with a little bit of mystery is always intriguing.
Besides Mrs. Evanovich's Stephanie Plum mysteries, have you read anything off the beaten path lately?
I bought a book I haven't started reading yet. It's called Norse Mythology. I kept seeing it at the airport. It's a bunch of short stories, rewriting some of the Norse myths in simpler terms, maybe, so they're a little easier to understand, but the same basic concepts. So I'm excited to start that one. I brought it along. We'll see if I get to it.
Do you read about hockey or other sports?
When I was younger, I read quite a few Mia Hamm books. I'll read an occasional autobiography. Not sports-related, but I do want to read the Michelle Obama book Becoming. Kendall read that and really recommended it.
E-books or print?
I usually do e-books. I do love print. But when we're on the road, having a Nook or using my phone is a bit easier than carrying around a few books. [laughs]
Are there other avid readers on the national team? Or, conversely, anyone who gives you a hard time, like, "Oh my God, are you reading another book?"
[laughs] I would say a few people give me a hard time. Gosh, Hannah Brandt gives me a hard time. I do think Kendall reads a few. As I said, she recommended Becoming. And other girls read a bit, but I think I probably get the most into it.
Have you read books that relate to your degree in entrepreneurial management and marketing?
[laughs] Not in a while! I still have a few that the professors recommended, thinking I was planning to read them later on. But I haven't gotten to them yet.
And the Clif Bar folks – have they provided any inspiration?
I read [Clif Bar founder] Gary Erickson's book [Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business: The Story of Clif Bar Inc.], right before I started, actually. And that was a really good book. Someone else recommended the book by the Patagonia CEO, [Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard]. My brother had it and he handed it to me. So that one is apparently is supposed to be really good too.
Getting back to hockey, you had a great NWHL season. That included the all-star game in Nashville in February. Apart from Team Stecklein being named after you, what was the most fun part of captaining Team Stecklein?
[laughs] I think the skills competition, for me, was really exciting. I'd never been part of one like that before, and it was really fun to just see everybody hang out on the ice with teammates or former teammates, getting to all be out there together. I saw people do some really cool things. I remember seeing our girls do the accuracy shooting and being really good at that. It was just a fun weekend overall to see everyone in Nashville come out and support us. I wasn't sure what the hockey scene would be like down there, but they have a really strong girls program, and they were around all weekend. So it was fun to see those girls too.
At the NHL All-Star Skills fastest skater event, Kendall did her lap in 14.346 seconds. She was clocked at 13.9 seconds at the NWHL competition. How low can she go?
I don't know. She said the course was different. I don't know if I believe her! She is such a fast athlete, and she uses her speed on the ice well, which I think is something else that should be recognized. She's good at skating a fast lap, but when you need her in a game, God, she can book it.
You scored the winner against Buffalo, but you’re still looking for your first goal ever in IIHF competition. Do your coaches tell you to shoot the puck more?
I would say that is a message I received quite often! [laughs]
Seeing that OT goal go in, you weren't really expecting that, right?
Yeah, I was not – honestly, I shouldn't even say this – I wasn't shooting to score. I thought one of my teammates was going to the net for either a tip or a rebound. And it happened to go off a member of the other team's stick, which was actually Dani Cameranesi. So it hit her stick and went right in. And it was exciting to do it in front of our home crowd. They've been awesome all season. They're like a seventh player on the ice. So to win it for them was really cool. I felt bad that it went off Dani, but we said we'll have to recreate that one for both of us later. [laughs]
Like here in Finland?
[laughs] Yeah, we'll do that here and it'll be good for both of us!
Looking ahead to your birthday on April 23, you'll be old enough to rent a car without paying extra fees.
A big milestone, obviously. How do you plan to celebrate?
Well, timing-wise, I actually realized I'll be going to Arizona shortly afterwards. And I might need to rent a car. So that'll make it more exciting! [laughs] And I'll get some sun. Actually, it's been quite sunny here too in Finland. It's been great weather.
Beyond these Women’s Worlds, are you optimistic that women will soon be able to earn a full-time living playing pro hockey?
That's definitely a goal. It's definitely something we're working towards. And who knows where that goes and how we get there? But I think it's something that all of women's hockey is focused on right now, which is awesome.