At the start of overtime Sunday, Jack Brodt predicted the Isobel Cup would be won on an ugly goal. The Whitecaps co-head coach instructed his players to hover around the net, looking for the tip or the rebound or the fortunate bounce that would break a tie with Buffalo.
Lee Stecklein expected things to play out that way, too. Instead, the Whitecaps defenseman delivered a beauty: a smash from the left point that ripped past Buffalo goalie Nicole Hensley, giving the Whitecaps a hard-earned 2-1 victory in the Isobel Cup final. Her goal 49 seconds into the extra period sent a standing-room crowd at Tria Rink into a frenzy, ending the Whitecaps’ first season in the National Women’s Hockey League with a 14-4 record and a crown.
Stecklein was just trying to get the puck to the net, hoping a forward would finish. But when Katie McGovern won a faceoff in the Beauts’ end, she put the puck right on Stecklein’s stick, setting up a memorable end to the NWHL’s fourth season.
“She won the draw so clean it almost surprised me,” said Stecklein, who was named the Most Valuable Player of the Isobel Cup playoffs. “I just knew I had to get the puck to the net, and somehow, we were going to find a way.
“I saw my teammates scream. They turned and jumped. And that’s when I knew it went in for sure. I don’t remember much, because I was on the bottom of a pile.”
A crowd announced at 1,200 saw a fast, furious game that Brodt said was “nerve-racking” to watch from behind the bench. The Whitecaps and Buffalo (12-5-1) matched each other’s speed, skill and grit for just short of 61 minutes, with outstanding goaltending and team defense yielding few chances to score.
Buffalo netted the game’s first goal at 17 minutes, 1 second of the first period, when Emily Pfalzer beat Whitecaps goalie Amanda Leveille from the right point. It took only 82 seconds for the Whitecaps to tie it on Amy Menke’s breakaway goal at 18:23.
The score remained deadlocked for a tense 42 minutes until Stecklein, a former Gophers player and Olympic gold medalist from Roseville, hammered home the winner. The Whitecaps became the fourth different team to win the championship in the NWHL’s four-season history.
“I gave [backup goalie] Julie Friend the biggest hug ever and said, ‘Can you believe it?’ ” said Whitecaps defenseman Winny Brodt Brown, a charter member of the team and its oldest player at age 41. “We just jumped out and tackled Lee. When it came off her stick, we were all like, ‘Oh, my goodness. That thing is going in, and this game is over.’ ”
The Whitecaps outshot Buffalo 31-23, including a 25-15 margin over the final 41 minutes. Leveille made 22 saves, while Hensley, an Olympic teammate of Stecklein’s, stopped 29 shots.
The victory was a deeply emotional one for the Brodts. Jack, who is also the Whitecaps’ general manager, co-founded the team in 2004 to give his daughter Winny and other young women a place to play after college.
He kept the Whitecaps afloat after their former league collapsed in 2012, piecing together an independent schedule — mostly against college teams — and hosting games at community rinks all over the Twin Cities. The Whitecaps last won a title in 2011 as a member of the Western Women’s Hockey League. Brodt recalled that he “had to battle” just to assemble a schedule in recent years, until the NWHL brought the Whitecaps into the league last spring.
“I feel like I’m flying right now,” Brodt said. “I’m just on a cloud. This is unbelievable. It’s one of the most exciting things that’s happened to me in a long time.”
Player after player thanked both Brodts for making the moment possible. Winny said her father’s perseverance “just shows we’re fighters in our family,” a trait she proved as well with her unflappable performances in Sunday’s title game and in Friday’s 5-1 semifinal victory over the Metropolitan Riveters.
Both the Beauts and the Whitecaps played lockdown defense, blocking shots and clearing rebounds to limit both teams’ potent offenses. Facing another period of firewagon hockey, Brodt Brown joked with her teammates in the locker room before the overtime. “I said, ‘Hey, girls, I’m 41,’ ” she said. “Let’s get this thing over with.”
Stecklein wasted no time in giving her what she wanted. As the fans gave the team a standing ovation, a tearful Brodt Brown held the Isobel Cup over her head and skated past the packed bleachers.
“As a player, you play for moments like this,” she said. “I never thought at my age I’d be playing in a big game like this again. To see how far we’ve come with this, and how far it’s going to go, it’s a pretty special moment that I’ll never forget.”
Isobel Cup final
Whitecaps 2, Buffalo 1 (OT)