BEIJING – As the celebratory champagne went flat and the interview requests and television appearances began to dry up, Lee Stecklein found herself wondering what to do with the next stage of her life.
The Roseville, Minn., native had just helped the U.S. Women’s Team win gold at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea and now was the time to weigh her options.
On one hand, she could continue to play the game as she’s done since she was 6 years old. Or she could take the degree in entrepreneurial management she earned at the University of Minnesota and look to reach the summit in another profession.
Fortunately for Team USA, she chose to return to the game and the teammates she loves with every inch of her 6-foot-0 frame.
“I definitely thought about not coming back. I actually missed the first camp back because I was pretty committed to moving on and figuring out what was next,” said the 27-year-old who led the U.S. in ice time at the 2018 Olympics.
“There’s a lot that goes into it. Four years is a long time, so it’s always good to take time and make sure you’re ready for that. In the end, winning felt really good and I wanted to be a part of that again.”
Not that she didn’t have options.
“I was fortunate to work for Cliff Bar company with their target sales team,” she said. “That was just a really good experience to see what else is out there.”
Stecklein’s decision to return to the U.S. program proved to be a blessing in more ways than just having her strong and steady presence on the blue line. With the retirement of three-time Olympian Kacey Bellamy and maternity leave of 2018 Olympian Emily Pfalzer Matheson, she quickly took over the role of mentor for a new cast of talented youngsters, including Caroline Harvey, Savannah Harmon and Jincy Dunne.
“Kacey’s role on this team is impossible to fill. She was a part of this team for so long,” Stecklein said. “And then to have Emily Pfalzer go on maternity leave at the same time, we all needed to step up and make sure we were being leaders on and off the ice and making sure the young ones knew what was expected of them.”
She didn’t have to go far to figure out what kind of leader she needed to be. All she needed was think back to how the veterans like Meghan Duggan, Gigi Marvin and the Lamoureux sisters went about their business when she played in her first U.S. Women’s National Festival in 2011.
“Just thinking back to leaders I was around when I started, they weren’t afraid to say something if they needed to. But really all you had to do was watch them,” Stecklein said.
More than just a mentor, Stecklein has discovered an offensive side to her game. Always known as a strong and steady defender, she burst onto the scoresheet at the 2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship with 7 points (2 goals, 5 assists) and was a plus-12 on her way to earning best defender honors for the tournament.
“One of the things that I’ve noticed is she’s more confident offensively,” said head coach Joel Johnson, who coached Stecklein during her four years with the Gophers.
“She’s always been incredibly effective as a defensive player and she’s just such a big, strong decision maker all over the ice. She keeps things to the outside and is very difficult to play against.”
The younger players have definitely gravitated to Stecklein’s “Minnesota nice” demeanor and her willingness to share the knowledge she’s picked up since joining the U.S. program.
“Lee is a person that everyone wants and needs on their team. She’s a great mentor, great friend, great person,” said Dunne, who is one of three defensemen on the team who are playing in their first Olympics.
“She’s kind of the mom of the team as well so her leadership translates on and off the ice and everything she does. She’s just one of a kind and you don’t win games without her.”
That was certainly the case in the quarterfinals as the U.S. had to scratch and claw past a pesky Czechia team to punch their ticket to the semifinals. After being kept off the scoresheet in team’s first four games, Stecklein came through when her team needed her most with her first goal of the tournament to snap a 1-1 deadlock.
“I’m happy that one went in. We had some girls going to the net, so I was hoping for a tip. Somehow it went off one of their players so I’ll take it,” said Stecklein, whose point shot deflected off a Czech defender’s stick and past a stunned goaltender Klara Peslarova, who whipped off her mask and threw it across the ice in disgust.
On a team that has not been scoring at a clip befitting of the number of shots they’re putting on goal, it was good to get contributions from an unlikely source. They’re going to need more of that if they’re going to hold on to the top position on the Olympic podium.
“I don’t know if it was relief as much as we trusted our process and we kept going,” Johnson said when Stecklein’s shot found the back of the net. “We had to believe that it was eventually going to go in and it did.”
Stecklein likes to refer to herself as a stay-at-home defenseman, but Johnson is happy that this is one time this veteran blueliner didn’t stay at home.
“She was considering moving on in life and I called her up and we had a nice conversation,” Johnson said after taking over as the head coach.
“I said it after the World Championships and I’ll say it again, we’re pretty fortunate that she answered the phone.”