Minnesota has long touted itself as the perfect location for the NHL's Winter Classic, given its reputation as the "State of Hockey.'' Saturday, it turned out to be a pretty good spot for another big event: the announcement of the roster for the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team.
Nine players with Minnesota ties are part of the 23-player roster for the Beijing Games, introduced during the second intermission of the Winter Classic at Target Field. Eight are current or former Gophers, and one — goaltender Maddie Rooney of Andover — played at Minnesota Duluth. Six are Minnesota natives, the largest contingent from any state.
The roster includes 13 holdovers from the 2018 Olympic team, the first U.S. squad since 1998 to win Olympic gold in women's hockey. Former and current Gophers players on the team for Beijing include defensemen Lee Stecklein (Roseville) and Megan Bozek, and forwards Hannah Brandt (Vadnais Heights), Dani Cameranesi (Plymouth), Amanda Kessel, Abbey Murphy, Kelly Pannek (Plymouth) and Grace Zumwinkle (Excelsior).
The team was presented in an on-ice ceremony, complete with fireworks and waving flags on the Target Field video board. Though coach Joel Johnson felt the 9 below cold in his toes, he felt nothing but warmth in his heart as a crowd announced at 38,619 cheered the team.
"I was so excited to watch the crowd reaction to the Minnesota players,'' said Johnson, who will coach the U.S. Olympic team for the first time. "I thought it was really a special opportunity. It was fun to be a part of it.''
Johnson, now head coach at St. Thomas, coached many of the Olympic players during his long tenure on the Gophers' coaching staff. He noted the team's balance of veterans and newcomers, which he expects to be a strength of the group.
Knight, 32, is the oldest player on the roster and became the fourth American woman named to four Olympic hockey teams. Murphy and defenseman Caroline Harvey, both 19, are the youngest.
Stecklein and Kessel will play in their third Olympics. Bozek, Brandt, Cameranesi, Pannek and Rooney are two-time Olympians.
Other Olympic veterans on the team include three-time Olympians Brianna Decker and Kendall Coyne Schofield. All three goaltenders — Rooney, Nicole Hensley and Alex Cavallini— were part of the 2018 team at the Pyeongchang Games. Cayla Barnes, Megan Keller and Alex Carpenter also made the Olympic team for the second time.
Even the players who didn't have previous Minnesota connections have become temporary residents of the state. The U.S. team has been training at the Super Rink in Blaine since early October, where a group of 28 began the Olympic selection process. The roster was pared to 23, the Olympic size, last month.
After holding its first pre-Olympic women's residency in Blaine in 2010, USA Hockey moved it to the Boston area before the 2014 Sochi Games and to Florida in advance of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. Johnson said being back in Minnesota has benefited the team.
In addition to having its own locker room at the Super Rink — a space specially designed for the program — the team has been able to play many more games than in previous pre-Olympic residencies. In addition to six games against archrival Canada, the U.S. has regularly played area men's junior teams and boys' teams, giving it valuable game experience.
"We're excited about the opportunities we have in Minnesota,'' Johnson said. "We have a lot of resources here, from our training environment in Blaine to the chances to scrimmage teams to the great facilities here. We feel like we're going to be well-prepared as we go to Beijing.''
The Americans went 2-4 against Canada before the final three games were canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests in Canada's program.
The U.S. begins the Olympic tournament Feb. 3 against Finland. It also will play preliminary-round games against Russia (Feb. 5), Switzerland (Feb. 6) and Canada (Feb. 8). The quarterfinals, semifinals and medal rounds are scheduled from Feb. 11-17.