MINNEAPOLIS -- For the present and next generation of girls hockey players in Minnesota, Winny Brodt Brown represents so many things. A pioneer, as the state's first high school Ms. Hockey award winner for Roseville High School in 1996. A star defenseman on the University of Minnesota's first national championship team in 2000. And for more than a decade, a beloved hockey instructor and role model to up-and-comers like Olympic gold medalists Lee Stecklein and Hannah Brandt.
"I grew up with Winny Brodt as my coach, and my only goal every summer was to do whatever Winny was putting together," Stecklein said. "To go to her camp every summer and be coached by my idol who I grew up watching was incredible. It was my whole entire childhood."
Throughout that decade-plus, Brown continued to play for the Minnesota Whitecaps, the then-semipro team co-founded by her father Jack. As Stecklein and Brandt forged their college hockey careers at Minnesota, they urged Brown to play on so they could all be teammates with the Whitecaps one day. Brown, a mother of two who turned 40 earlier this year, needed no additional prodding; she still loved playing.
Last May, the National Women's Hockey League absorbed the Whitecaps as an expansion team. Stecklein and Brandt quickly signed on. On Saturday, when the Whitecaps make their NWHL debut against the Metropolitan Riveters at TRIA Rink in St. Paul, Minnesota, they all get their wish. Brown, by far the oldest player in the league, will take the ice for her first professional game, alongside Stecklein, Brandt and close to a dozen alumna of her summer hockey camps.
There's more. Brown's childhood next-door neighbor, Ronda Curtin Engelhardt, and her father Jack will be behind the bench as co-coaches. The Whitecaps expect a sellout at the 1,200-seat practice home of the Minnesota Wild, and it figures to be a special, emotional moment for all.
"It already gives me chills," Brown said after a Whitecaps practice earlier this week at the University of Minnesota. "I can't even explain what it's going to be like."
Brandt, who joined Brown on the 2016-17 Whitecaps for no pay to prep for the Olympics, took a stab at it.
"Winny always said she wanted to keep playing until she could be on a team with us, and now it's come full circle -- not only still playing, but playing professionally," Brandt said. "It's just really cool to be a part of this team and be a part of history, I guess, just playing with someone like Winny I grew up cheering for and being coached by."
There weren't many opportunities for postgraduate women to play hockey when Brown and her peers finished college. So Jack Brodt and his friend Dwayne Schmidgall, the father of Jenny Schmidgall (now Jenny Schmidgall Potter), founded the Whitecaps in 2004, the same year Brown opened OS Hockey Training for girls in Minnesota.
The Whitecaps belonged to the Western Women's Hockey league until it dissolved in 2011, winning the last three league titles, along with the 2010 Clarkson Cup over the Canadian Women's Hockey league champion Brampton Thunder. Over the years, the club attracted many of the best women in North America: Hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero, soon-to-be U.S. Hockey Hall inductee Natalie Darwitz and four-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist Caroline Ouellette among them.
After the WWHL ceased operations, Jack Brodt kept the Whitecaps going as an independent team, facing mainly Division I colleges. Talks to join the CWHL proved fruitless. The NWHL had interest in the Whitecaps as early as its 2015-16 inaugural season before approving expansion earlier this year.
Brown and Engelhardt share so much history. Their families, each with five children, lived next door to each other on Aladdin Street in Roseville, a Minneapolis suburb. For active kids, the seven-house cul-de-sac bordering Central Park's baseball and soccer fields was heaven. When winter arrived, everyone grabbed skates and sticks and headed to the pond at the end of the block, or the speed-skating oval a short walk away. Street hockey games in the Curtin driveway, where father Ron installed a floodlight, lasted into the night.
Tom Morris/TeMo Photo
Even at 40, Brown's skating remains her strength, enabling her to keep up much younger players.
"As kids, we always joked that we would make a tunnel to our houses," Brown said. "If one was doing their homework, the other would be yelling in the window -- 'Hey, get out here! We've got a game going!'"
Boys and girls all played hockey together. Engelhardt remembers skating on a Mites team as a 4-year-old with her older brothers Luke and Kurt, plus Winny, who is three years older. Brown was a senior and Engelhardt a freshman on Roseville High's 1996 undefeated state champions, and they later reunited for a national championship at Minnesota. When Engelhardt coached The Breck School, a private school in Golden Valley, Minnesota, to the Class 1A state girls title last February, she became the first woman to win a state title as a player and a coach.
Now Engelhardt gets to coach two of her childhood neighbors, her pal Brown and younger sister Chelsey Brodt Rosenthal, another longtime Whitecap.
"It's a unique experience for sure," she said. "I've known [Brown] my whole life. Now I get to yell at her and tell her skate hard, so it's kind of fun."
Engelhardt was kidding, of course. Even at 40, Brown's skating remains her strength, enabling her to keep up with or outmaneuver much younger players.
"She's breaking the mold for female hockey players," said Engelhardt, also an instructor at Brown's school. "I think it's awesome that she's seen this through. The team is moving forward, and I think it's just icing on the cake for her to play as a professional athlete and just show what girls can do. Why can't girls do it? Guys in the NHL are that age. And she's got kids, too. That's an element males don't have to deal with."
With a roster featuring 19 Minnesotans, six former Gophers and three Olympic gold medalists -- Chicagoland product Kendall Coyne Schofield is the third -- the Whitecaps could be one of the NWHL's strongest teams. And when Brown takes the ice Saturday for the first time as a professional, surrounded by so many players she taught as little kids, Ms. Whitecap herself might struggle to keep it together.
"It's already going to be a pretty emotional day because of what my dad has done for the whole program." she said. "He's kept it going and kept it alive for future girls who want to play like I did. It's going to be a pretty neat moment."