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Whitecaps hockey team off to quick start in first NWHL season

ST. PAUL -- When the Minnesota Whitecaps were established in 2004, they were part of the Western Women’s Hockey League.

Ronda Curtin Engelhardt, a member of some of those first teams, remembers the long bus rides to Saskachewan at a time when players had to pay their own way or find someone to sponsor them.

The Whitecaps eventually became independent, often playing against college teams.

Now, the Whitecaps, who have endured all this time, have found a home in the National Women’s Hockey League, and as the league’s all-star game rolls around Sunday, the Whitecaps are situated atop the standings in their first season in the league.

“It just shows the passion Minnesota has for hockey,” said Engelhardt, the team’s co-head coach. “It’s just cool to see it get to this point because who knew back then that it would actually get to this point. You never know, you always hope, but you just never know, and so it’s great to be a part of it.”

Some of the players on the team, like Winny Brodt Brown, whose father Jack Brown, is the other co-head coach, have been there from the beginning.

That core is joined by a younger group, some of whom recently played for the Gophers and some who have become Olympians, like Hannah Brandt and Lee Stecklein.

“Joining those two groups, I think it’s really good mix of veterans and rookies, but we’re all playing a very similar style of hockey and it came together actually really quickly,” Stecklein said.

Stecklein is one of eight Whitecaps who will be playing in the NWHL All-Star Game this weekend in Nashville, captaining Team Stecklein, which includes teammates Jonna Curtis, Kate Schipper, Allie Thunstrom, Amanda Leveille and Brandt. Teammates Amanda Boulier and Kendall Coyne Schofield will be on the other end of the ice.

Other events include a skills challenge, the Play Like a Girl Leadership Summit, at which Stecklein will speak, and a youth clinic.

When the Whitecaps return to action in early March, they have just two more regular-season games left.

To this point, they are 10-4 with 20 points, tops in the league though they’ve played one more game than the rest of the teams.

“We have a talented group of women, and I think from the start, from day one, there was this extra energy and just excitement to be a part of this and to help grow the game,” Engelhardt said.

They’ve had success off the ice, too, packing TRIA Rink, the Wild’s practice facility, and inspiring a younger generation of players.

“There’s just a fan base here of young girls who love to play hockey and love to watch hockey and want to be in our shoes one day, and it’s so cool to be able to play in front of a sold-out crowd and to look up into the stands and to see so many young females watching you play and then to talk with them after in the autograph line and to hear them say ‘I want to be a Whitecap one day,’ ” said Leveille, a former Gophers goalie.

Most of the roster either hails from Minnesota or played college hockey in the state. The Whitecaps have drawn top talent and affords them the opportunity to keep playing professionally close to home, as opposed to out east where there rest of the league is based.

“The Whitecaps as an organization has been around for long enough that it’s somewhere I always wanted to play, but now that it’s a part of a professional organization, it’s just a whole other step up, and we’re excited to keep it moving forward,” Stecklein said.