March 24, 2019

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A Women’s Hockey Star Emerges Again at Home in Minnesota

A Women’s Hockey Star Emerges Again at Home in Minnesota
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MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Whitecaps, the newest and possibly best team in the National Women’s Hockey League, occasionally practice in an arena that is the closest thing to a women’s hockey museum in this hockey-loving state.

Ridder Arena, home of the University of Minnesota women’s team, features sprawling murals high at each end, honoring the program’s Olympians and All-Americans. The Whitecaps stars Lee Stecklein and Hannah Brandt, gold medalists for the 2018 United States Olympic team, appear on both. And the All-American mural includes one of the Whitecaps co-coaches, Ronda Curtin Engelhardt.

All were on the ice for a recent practice, with Engelhardt, 32, even joining her players for postgame sprints. But nothing in the arena acknowledges the Whitecaps’ leading scorer, Jonna Curtis, a left wing who was never a Golden Gopher, an Olympian or an All-American.

That the unheralded Curtis, 25, leads in the Whitecaps in goals (eight), assists (11) and points (19), rather than one of the team’s three Olympic gold medalists — wing Kendall Coyne Schofield is the third — illustrates the deep statewide talent pool. Minnesota was the first state to sanction girls high school hockey, in 1994. According to USA Hockey, more girls and women play hockey in Minnesota than any other state: close to 14,000 in 2017-18, the most recent season available.

“I’m happy to be here on a team with most of the girls I grew up playing with,” Curtis said.

Last weekend, the Whitecaps, with 13 Minnesotans among 17 players in uniform, secured the N.W.H.L.’s regular-season championship with back-to-back victories at the Boston Pride and the Connecticut Whale. That also earned Minnesota (12-4-0, 24 points) the No. 1 seed and home ice throughout in the Isobel Cup playoffs.

Against Boston, the speedy Curtis scored the winning goal with 1 minute 42 seconds to play, crashing the net from the left and putting in a rebound for a 2-1 victory. Curtis finished tied for second in the league in points, one behind Hayley Scamurra of the Buffalo Beauts. Leaguewide, she outscored all seven forwards in the league who skated for the American team at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

“It just shows how consistent she’s been all year,” Brandt said. “She started the year pretty strong and she hasn’t really let up, whereas the rest of us have kind of gone up and down a little.”

In a single-elimination semifinal on Sunday, the Whitecaps will face the Metropolitan Riveters. The league championship game is the next weekend.

No matter what happens, the Whitecaps, a semiprofessional team founded in 2004, made their N.W.H.L. debut season an unqualified success. The league’s first expansion team and its first franchise outside the northeastern United States, the Whitecaps sold out all eight home games at Tria Rink, the practice facility for the N.H.L.’s Minnesota Wild, which has a capacity of 1,200. League officials say the Whitecaps are the first team in its four seasons to turn a profit. Sunday’s game is also a sellout.

In the small circle of Twin Cities women’s hockey, Curtis is a familiar name. A two-time Minnesota Ms. Hockey finalist in high school — she, Stecklein and Brandt were up for the award in 2012, with Brandt winning — Curtis holds Elk River High career records with 280 points and 124 assists. All three attended summer youth hockey camps run by Winny Brodt Brown, the Whitecaps’ captain. Engelhardt was among the instructors.

“We knew each other pretty well,” Stecklein said. “I remember hearing about this girl who was really good, had really good hands and had a toe pull that beat just about every team.”

A toe pull is a stickhandling move, also known as a toe drag, where the puck carrier pulls the puck toward them with the toe of the blade to avoid a defender. In preteen hockey, only the most advanced players master it.

Curtis planned on attending college in Minnesota until Brown, her idol and mentor, suggested she check out New Hampshire while in that area for a tournament.

“I went and visited, fell in love with the people and the campus, and never looked back,” Curtis said.

She broke her collarbone three times, which limited her to 15 games in her first two seasons. But she gained a year back through a medical redshirt and led New Hampshire in points her final three seasons without missing a game. Her 21 goals as a senior earned her first-team all-Hockey East.

But the Wildcats never posted a winning record during her time, and USA Hockey never chose her for an age-group national team or international competition. Graduating in 2017 with a bioengineering degree, Curtis returned to Minnesota to work for a pharmaceutical company.

She signed up to play for a team called Minnesota Shenanigans in the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota, a popular Twin Cities recreational league. Long hours and weekend shifts at work limited her appearances, she said.

“I wanted to start a career and wasn’t thinking too much about hockey,” she said. “But that year I wasn’t playing, I missed it. Hearing the Minnesota Whitecaps were going to be a thing, I got excited. I had to try out.”

Past connections helped. The Whitecaps founder Jack Brodt, Brown’s father, was a Whitecaps’ co-coach and the general manager. Engelhardt left her coaching job at The Breck School in suburban Minneapolis to join Brodt, a neighbor from Roseville, Minn., on the bench.

No one had forgotten the fast-skating girl with the soft hands. “She was always in our loop,” Engelhardt said.

Teamed with center Katie McGovern from Minnesota Duluth and right wing Kate Schipper from Minnesota on the team’s No. 2 line, Curtis had at least one point in each game of Minnesota’s season-opening five-game winning streak. Her best performance came Jan. 20 against Connecticut, with one goal and three assists in a 9-0 rout.

Coyne Schofield, who participated in the N.H.L.’s faster skater competition during All-Star weekend in January, is unquestionably the fleetest Whitecap. But the 5-foot-4 Curtis is not far behind, Brandt said.

Stecklein remembered an early-season race-to-the-puck drill between Curtis and Allie Thunstrom, a three-time Hockey East selection from Boston College and a former speedskater, being neck-and-neck.

“We have the fastest team, and she’s right up there,” Stecklein said. “She’s shifty. She’s tricky. Doing one-on-ones, she can go in either direction very quickly. And her hands are so smooth that they don’t give anything away.”

A job change allowed Curtis a more flexible schedule to fit in weekend games and most practices. Curtis shares an apartment with her Whitecaps teammates Margo Lund and Sadie Lundquist. Skating on a winning team with three Olympians and so many faces from her Minnesota hockey upbringing thrills Curtis, who thought her best hockey memories were behind her.

“I’m happy to just be playing again,” she said. “I always dreamed of being in the Olympics, because that was the only thing you could do after college when I was young. Now little girls can dream of being a professional hockey player. It’s great to start that out.”



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