Compared with the bright lights of the Olympics one year ago in Sochi, Russia, Lee Stecklein's return to the University of Minnesota women's hockey team and the world of being a student-athlete this year was different than the one she had left.
The 20 year-old redshirt sophomore defenseman spent the year leading up to the 2014 Olympics away from the Gophers with Team USA. Every day she was practicing and preparing for the Olympics. Time was spent learning in the weight room rather than any book.
Back with 32-3-4 Minnesota this year and looking to make a run of their own this postseason, her college teammates are happy to have Stecklein reunited with them in the maroon and gold, just as much as she is happy to be surrounded by them on the blue line.
"It was great. It was always good to come back and it feels like a homecoming here with the Gophers," she said. "It's been great. I can't believe it's already been a year."
The University of Minnesota defensive core is different.
In a way, the consistency on defense - Minnesota is tied for second in the nation in goals given up per game with 1.18 and has been in the top-five the past 4 years - comes from a lack of it. Watching the Gopher blue line out on the ice, it quickly becomes apparent that the defensive pairings are a suggestion rather than set in concrete.
Pairs don't exist. All six defensemen play with one another throughout a game. Time is not divided equally. Some are relied upon much more.
That's by design, according to head coach Brad Frost.
"Up front on the forward lines it's a lot more important to have those combinations. I think on the blue line we definitely have a ranking of our 1 through 6 and our number 6 doesn't play as much as number 1 is going to play," he said. "They have to be comfortable playing with everybody because when we roll five like we do the majority of games they need to be able to play with one another."
Whether it is the smooth-skating Stecklein, offensive-minded senior captain Rachel Ramsey, junior Milica McMillen using her offense on the power play and relishing the chance to be physical or sophomore Kelsey Cline, Minnesota's defense features a variety of styles. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Each brings something different to the position.
"There's definitely some different styles. We have some defensive players, some offensive players," said McMillen, who has 27 points (11G-16A) and a one-game suspension this year. "Every time that we're out there in a different grouping it helps to have different styles on the blue line."
Still, there's camaraderie among the blue line. Being the middle of the team, sitting in front of goaltender Amanda Leveille, who is tied for second in the nation with a .945 save percentage, and behind a forward corps that features two-time Patty Kazmaier top-3 finalist Hannah Brandt, the group is tasked to play several role on both sides of the ice.
Lately one of those roles has been an emphasis on the core values of tough, grateful, disciplined and devoted along with blocking shots.
"The last few weeks our coaches have really been harping on us to block shots and just show our dedication to the team through blocking shots, paying the price," said Cline, who has 8 points (1G-7A) in 39 games, last month. "A lot us know that it will hurt, but it's better than having a goal go in."
With Stecklein's return and freshman Sydney Baldwin, the 2014 Minnesota Ms. Hockey, stepping in to the returning Gopher defensive core, there's even more individual talent within the group.
"Obviously when you get an Olympian back on the team it helps out on-ice and off-ice. She brings that confidence and that experience to the team," said senior captain and two-time WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Rachel Ramsey, who began her Gopher career playing with Olympian Anne Schleper, about Stecklein. "It's why she's an assistant captain as a sophomore.
"And then Sydney Baldwin is really breaking out of her shell here in the second half. It's awesome to see. It usually takes about a semester as a freshman to do that, I think it did for all of us, so to see her slowly gaining that confidence because she's going to be a really, really big player down the road here for the next couple of years."
Despite being apart in 2013-14, Lee Stecklein and Minnesota did remain intertwined.
Just over a year ago, deep in the basement of Ridder Arena, the Gophers lounged around much like everyone else did at the time watching the US-Canada women's hockey Gold Medal game. Of course, it wasn't like everyone else. The players were watching hockey's equivalent of the Super Bowl in a room that had Olympians on the wall and personal connections abound. Some in the room had even represented their own country themselves.
With Stecklein and both Patty Kazmaier winner Amanda Kessel and Megan Bozek from the 2012-13 Gopher team that went 41-0 wearing red, white and blue, there was familiarity. A win for the United States meant a win for their teammates. Team USA led for most of the game, taking a 2-0 lead when Alex Carpenter scored for the Americans early in the third period.
Cheers were had at Ridder. Then just as it looked like Team USA had gold in the bag, the room was deflated. Canada scored to make it 2-1 and then Marie-Philip Poulin tied the game with 55 seconds remaining. She won the game minutes later in overtime, to take gold away from the Americans, with the Gophers being heartbroken for their former and future teammates being a post away from accomplishing their goal. (Okay the Canadians had mixed feelings.)
The 2013-14 Gophers didn't know at the time, but Team USA's fate nine time zones away was one which a month later befell themselves. Two-time champions with just one loss in almost two seasons, Minnesota's quest for a third consecutive title fell one game short.
Frost's team fell behind 3-1 before clawing back to tie the game. Although Minnesota tried to overcome a late two-goal deficit to Clarkson University, a last minute comeback of its own was not enough and the Gophers fell 5-4 to the Golden Knights.
When it comes to hockey, there is always an adjustment to be made. Players need to get comfortable on the ice. Chemistry needs to be built.
School is like that too.
Even standing at 6 feet, Stecklein doesn't stand out off the ice. Talking with her long enough it's easy to forget that she's not just a normal college student, one that has an Olympic medal and can claim to be one of the best in her field before being able old enough to legally drink rather than find it.
These days the only time she gets recognized from Sochi is when she's back home and has had a few kids come up to her.
Of the Minnesota Olympians, only Stecklein returned to the Gophers this season. (Kessel, considered to be one of the elite players in all of women's hockey, announced in September that she would sit out this season due to lingering concussion symptoms rather than play her senior year. She had missed part of the lead up to the Sochi Olympics for the same reason.) She was the only one which went from having the luxury of spending all day focused on hockey to juggling it with being another college student.
It's a necessary evil that doesn't come up in the human interest packages.
Being back away from the lights and minutes away from her hometown of Roseville at the University of Minnesota also meant a return to school and re-starting her Entrepreneurial Management degree at the Carlson School of Management.
Balancing life as a student-athlete once again took an adjustment, she said.
"It was tough coming back to school. I did a summer class this last summer just to ease my way back in, but I had a pretty tough fall school-wise," added Stecklein, who is also thinking about majoring in marketing too. "So this year balancing everything I had to learn to redo that."
During the fall semester she four core business classes with all the same people. "It's a lot reading and the first time I had taken those upper level Carlson classes, but it's better," she said.
Despite taking a year off and trying to get back by taking core business classes, she was able to get through and adjust off the ice. Stecklein was one of six Gophers named a WCHA scholar-athlete, meaning her GPA is at least above a 3.5 for the previous two semesters or in total.
On the ice, the adjustment the Gophers blue line has made continues to evolve.
It helps that there is stability. Same goes for when one of the two new faces is not entirely that new and can play out there for two or three shifts.
"Just adding (Baldwin) this year, which is just one freshman where as last year we had a few freshmen on D, it was easy for us to teach her and kind of mix her in fast and learn quicker than last year," said Cline. "From this year to last year I think we're more confident because most of us are back and more comfortable with each other."
Cline said her biggest area of growth this season has been in understanding positioning and where to be in what situation in the Minnesota system. She's not alone. McMillen also noted her own improvement defensively and being a two-way player with the help of those around her.
"I used to kind of not know what I was doing in the D zone, just running around," the junior said. "I think (Joel Johnson) has really helped and (Ramsey) and all the older players helping me with that."
As everyone tries to grow, there is adaptability in a regiment. Sometimes that gets broken due to extenuating circumstances, however. This past weekend Minnesota sophomore Megan Wolfe was put in one of those in an NCAA Quarterfinal game against RIT.
Listed as a defenseman/forward hybrid (as is Cline and fellow Gophers Paige Haley and Brook Garzone), Wolfe, normally the sixth defenseman, was thrust into a more offensive role. It's something she done before. (She's not alone. In fact, Minnesota's blue line entering this weekend's Frozen Four leads the nation in creating offense with 3.62 points per game.) Wolfe had previously been lauded by her forwards for setting them up with one-time passes.
Now she was one of them.
With freshman forward Kelly Pannek ejected, Wolfe became the second line center. When new linemate Meghan Lorence was given a game misconduct minutes later, she rotated in and out of a forward corps down to nine forwards and missing two of its top-six.
For Frost, her play as a forward despite not practicing for months was no surprise
"I thought she did a great job. That's the thing about somebody like Megan," he said. "She's very good at both positions and it's just wherever we need her to show up."
What Wolfe did is fitting. Each defenseman will complement one another on the blue line. Yet it is also the exception because for all the growth throughout the year there are defined roles which everyone understands.
"I think every girl on the team if you were to ask them their role would be able to tell you what it is. The coaches do a good job letting you know whether it is to be scoring goals, whether it is to a stay at home defenseman, whatever it is they let you know. I think the girls really try to play to that."
None more may be true than Ramsey. Wearing the number 5 her father, "Miracle on Ice" Olympian Mike Ramsey, had in the 1980 Olympics, the senior captain is not afraid to use her heavy slap shot. At times she can act more like a fourth forward than a defenseman because of it. Opposing offenses have to worry about Ramsey, a first-team All-American, being open and finding the net as she has 9 goals this season. With one, possibly two games in her final collegiate campaign Ramsey is 4 assists away in her career from 100.
One of the team's two captains (senior forward Rachael Bona is the other), she's also one of its leaders on and off the ice. Every person on the Minnesota blue line can turn to another and have help, but everyone brought up Ramsey.
"We've really come together this year defensively," said McMillen. "Now that I'm a junior and we have Rachel, and Lee is back and we really helped (the underclassmen) along and they are doing really well."
On the ice, Lee Stecklein isn't alone. No one is. Fully back this year, the adjustment back to college hockey is one that is more of a team effort. When you play as long as she does for Minnesota, getting comfortable is not that hard when you play with every player on the blue line.
"It has been a pretty big mixture. I feel like I play a lot with Rachel Ramsey and Kelsey Cline, but then this last weekend I was with Wolfe and Baldwin too," she said last month before playing Minnesota State. "It does mix up quite a bit and I think (Frost) can do that because we're so used to everybody. "
The time on ice stat does not exist in college hockey. If it did she would have be among the leaders in women's college hockey. There are moments at Ridder when it seems to be easier to count the times Stecklein's familiar number two Gopher sweater is not somewhere on the ice skating and cutting down gaps.
Stecklein's sophomore season, in which she scored 26 points in 38 games as a more defensive blue liner, went well. It had to in a year which culminated with a second-team All-American honors.
And just like McMillen and Cline and Ramsey and Wolfe, Stecklein has had something to grow and work on along with them. For the Olympian, coming back meant more responsibility as well as putting more offense in her game. Much of the year Frost told Stecklein, who had more special teams time this season, that she needed to shoot, saying "good things will happen."
Although she knew that to be true, it was also easy to at times over-rely on teammates.
"I think when you're surrounded by people like McMillen and Rachel Ramsey and Syd Baldwin, they all have fantastic shots. I could shoot this, but you know I have D partners on the ice who are always open that can shoot it just as well," she said.
Eventually things clicked. It took until mid-January to get a goal. Since then she has five.
"So I started listening to my coach and knew exactly what he was talking about and it has just started to go into the net," Stecklein said. "Knowing that when I am in the right spot I have to take it and I have to get better at shooting and shooting it faster."
Up on a wall behind the far goal at Ridder Arena there's a reminder of what Stecklein accomplished in the Olympics. Every Olympian get her likeness transposed on a mural wearing the colors of her country.
Up there is a reminder of where Lee Stecklein was a year ago. Far, distant and way from her teammates, whose own accomplishments are on another wall, all while wearing a different sweater. It's strange in a way how the best players in the world just go on and do their own thing, coming back to college once the millions watching the Olympics turn away. This weekend's Frozen Four at Ridder Arena features several of them playing on games that are only available online. Stecklein's Gophers are as will Carpenter and her Boston College Eagles.
Poulin won't be there, the golden goal scorer denied a last chance at college gold by Wisconsin last week, but she did open the year in Minneapolis with Boston University.
All are different from where they were in Sochi, as is every college hockey player. With Stecklein and the Gophers, the entire blue line has come together in time for the Frozen Four. From a group of individuals apart and playing pre-defined roles with one another to a group which has given up 10 goals in their last nine games there is chemistry among the whole group.
Even if she didn't realize it, Stecklein's own growth has influenced teammates.
"Lee just really knows what she's doing and you're able to pick up something from that. She's a really good leader and she helps out the younger players," said McMillen
Just as much, however, her teammates have influenced Stecklein in her return.
"Everyone helped with the transition. I didn't realize how different I was from freshman year just with confidence and ability and everything," she said. "I do feel a little more confident since freshman year, but my freshman year - not that we always don't have great D, we just had some world class D my freshman year - which was great for learning experiences.
"Now coming back, I'm a little more comfortable holding the puck, trusting myself to make the right decisions. I finally got to shooting more and just things like that, knowing that coaches are expecting more of me every game."
And she has. With the Gophers killing a penalty late in the NCAA Quarterfinal game against RIT, which turned into a two person disadvantage with the visiting goalie pulled, Stecklein shot the puck down the length of the ice. It went in.
If you look close enough there's a second reminder of Stecklein in Ridder near the lights along the wall behind the penalty box. Over there is the Gopher banners, including the 2011-2012 national championship one she was apart. Even though it doesn't have the same lavish look as an individual, with the weekend ahead and two wins away from a second title in the maroon and gold, one with this group means that much more. This group has spent the year together trying to get a goal which eluded all of them a year earlier in different locations.
It's one which is a lot closer to home.
Minnesota will play Wisconsin in a Frozen Four semifinal Friday at 5 p.m. CT. The winner of that game faces the winner of Harvard-Boston College (8 p.m. CT) on Sunday at 3 p.m. CT. All games are at Ridder Arena and streamed on NCAA.com
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 -- Follow @gopherstate