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Gophers Hockey: Hannah Brandt and Lee Stecklein turn on ice and offseason experiences into leadership

Coming off of a national championship and gold medal, Minnesota's newest captains.lead the way in the team's 4-0-0 start. They also look to help the team's talented newcomers avoid the same mistakes they made.

Minnesota senior forward Hannah Brandt (22) is in her first season as captain.
Minnesota senior forward Hannah Brandt (22) is in her first season as captain.
Eric Miller/Gopher Athletics

With a laugh and a smile giving away any hint of seriousness, Gopher defenseman and co-captain Lee Stecklein is relieved to know that the role of shutting down high-profile freshman Sarah Potomak this season will not be hers.

"Not fun. She is shifty," said Stecklein, a native of Roseville, MN, about facing her during an August international competition between the United States and Canada.

"I remember at the U-22 series just being really glad that Sarah Potomak and (Minnesota senior goaltender) Amanda Leveille is on my team and not the other team there."

Instead, Stecklein and fellow co-captain Hannah Brandt's role this season will be to help her, along with six other freshmen and two transfers, adjust to playing college hockey in Minneapolis after a successful yet busy summer themselves.

Hours after winning a national championship for the Gophers at home in March, Stecklein, Brandt and junior forward Dani Cameranesi flew to Russia for the Women's World Championships. There the Americans won another gold medal. Both also participated in the U-22 camp in Lake Placid, NY along with working on individual skills such as shooting and skating.

Stecklein even found the time to go study abroad in Australia over the summer with two teammates.

The duo's experiences and winning ways in the offseason have helped shape their leadership both on and off the ice. They each share a positive outlook with a highly competitive spirit. Both will be the first to point out improvements in their individual performances.

Brandt, a senior forward from Vandais Heights, MN knocking on the doors of many major Gopher scoring records, has taken what she learned from her own past captains.

"They always did a good job of motivating us, good communicators, and making sure the freshmen are included and that the team bonded," she said.

Entering her third full year playing at the University of Minnesota, Stecklein, meanwhile, has yet to finish a collegiate season without lifting a trophy. The Gophers won national championships with her in 2013 and 2015. (Stecklein missed the 2014 season representing the United States in the Olympics.) She is - despite working to be more offensive from the blue line - one of the top shutdown defenders in college hockey and she was honored to be voted by her teammates as captain.

Although helpful that Stecklein doesn't have to adjust herself, having to do so twice helped with her experience on the blue line. It is one piece of advice she passed along to the freshmen.

"Coming in on defense, you think you know defense and then you realize really quickly that we have a whole new thing going here. It's a lot to adjust to," Stecklein said. "Making sure that they understand that everybody is going through that adjustment period, telling the D that they are going to be overwhelmed for a bit. It will take a few games to really get used to it."

So far the defense, which includes one of the top incoming college hockey freshmen in Illinois native Sophie Skarzynski, has gelled despite losing first team All-American Rachel Ramsey. Through four games the Gophers may not have painted a defensive masterpiece yet their attempts have a high resale value nonetheless. The blue could not physically play better.

In a game where the ultimate goal is to limit goals and score more than the opposition, Minnesota has not given up a single one.

"We can obviously score, and that's a great thing, but I'm just as impressed or more impressed by our defensive play, our back checking keeping things to the outside and really forcing teams to struggle to get opportunities on the ice," Gophers head coach Brad Frost said following Saturday's 11-0 win over St. Cloud State.

Skarzynski represented the United States at the U-18 World Championships each of the last two years. She goes everywhere on the ice. So far she is being brought along slowly and at times reined in, but contributing with the rest of the blue line. South St. Paul native Anna Barlow has also gotten time playing defense in her opening month of collegiate play, splitting between there and a forward role.

They aren't the only ones finding a role. Throughout the first four games of the season Brandt has centered a line with Potomak, whose elusive offensive skills lived up to the hype as she finished last weekend with six points (2G-4A) in two games en route to being named the WCHA Rookie of the Week.(She was also the youngest player named to Team Canada's Four Nations roster for next month by over two years.)

Despite her offensive flurry and water bottle clearing goals, she still has things to learn from both captains nd coaches. Defensive responsibility matters for the forwards too. Frost mentioned it as something for Potomak, reigning Minnesota Ms. Hockey Taylor Williamson and other such as transfer Caitlin Reilly to focus upon and work. It's an annual rite of passage into college in a way.

"(The freshmen) make the same mistakes that every freshman makes every year, that I made my freshman year," Brandt said. "Other than that they're working hard, they're having fun just learning every day at practice."

Still, freshmen can make a quick impact in women's college hockey. For the best it is expected. Both Stecklein and Brandt, who announced herself to the college world with a hat trick in her first game, are present reminders of players who have done so in their freshmen seasons.

They have continued to do so on different sides of the ice, leading and getting more experienced in both life and hockey, passing what they have learned onto the Potomaks and Skarzynskis of the world.

"I feel entrusted with (the honor) and I'm sure Hannah feels the same way," Stecklein said.

With the hindsight of time and work put in, the duo is better prepared to help shape Minnesota's culture for the next group trying to emulate their own success.

And at the same time be nice about it.

#1 Minnesota (4-0-0, 2-0-0-0 WCHA) travels to Ohio State to play the Buckeyes (2-2-0, 0-2-0-0 WCHA) for two games this weekend. Friday's game begins at  5 p.m. CT and Saturday's starts at 1 p.m. CT.


Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --