“They’ll Always Remember the Game We Played”
From the Fall 2019 issue of Learn to Skate USA The Magazine
This February marks two years since the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. It also marks two years since the 2018 U.S. Women’s Hockey Team captured the gold medal there, an unforgettable feat.
By Mimi McKinnis
It was Feb. 22, 2018, in PyeongChang, South Korea. Olympic gold was on the line. The United States hadn’t topped the podium in women’s hockey in 20 years, and adding to the drama, they faced Canada — rivals they’d settled for silver against at the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
But for Team USA’s forward Kelly Pannek, it was “just another game.”
“It’s hard to slow your heart rate down, but you just have to know that you’re prepared for that moment,” Pannek said. “You have to trust the people next to you — the team that you’ve trained with and the work you’ve put in day-to-day.”
For Pannek, that day-to-day started after rollerblading around the unfinished basement of her childhood home in Plymouth, Minnesota.
“I remember caring so much about it,” Pannek said. “I’ve always been very competitive. I loved every aspect of hockey — working on my skating skills, handling the stick, working the puck, keeping my focus — the whole day-to-day grind. But the competitive aspect — that’s what really drew me to hockey.”
Pannek’s competitive drive was evident on her first team in the Armstrong Cooper Youth Hockey Association, and then as a member of the University of Minnesota, where she paced the team with seven game-winning goals and led the nation with 63 assists during her junior year. In 2017, she was redshirted for her senior season to train with the U.S. Women’s National Team, preparing to play on Team USA in PyeongChang.
“It was amazing to let it all sink in after the fact,” Pannek said. “They’ll always remember the game we played.”
The game, played 38 years to the day after the “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid, New York, saw the two North American teams tied 2 at the end of regulation. When overtime failed to separate them, a dramatic shootout ultimately gave Team USA a 3–2 victory, and their first Olympic title in women’s hockey since the event’s inaugural competition in 1998. It was a moment to remember — a moment USA Hockey’s American Development Model (ADM) Manager of Female Hockey Kristen Wright hopes will bring continued exposure to women’s hockey.
“In the last eight years we’ve seen continuous growth in women’s hockey,” Wright said. “Sometimes we see a drop-off in participation when players get to high school. They start to face other pressures and changing interests and choose those other interests instead of hockey. But overall, we’ve seen astronomical growth, and I think the girl’s side will continue to grow, especially after the world witnesses moments like Team USA’s gold medal game. It was a fantastic display of women’s sports.”
“It’s exciting to see,” Pannek said. “People need to see that perception doesn’t matter. Whoever you are, boys, girls, it doesn’t matter. If you love it and you work hard, you can be an Olympic champion.”
USA Hockey has seen an upward trend in membership across the board, notching a higher number each year since the 2012–13 membership season. With success on the international stage, like bringing Olympic gold home to American soil, the organization hopes to continue its steady increase of participation, making it easier than ever to find success in the sport.
“There are two ways to get into hockey: through Learn to Skate USA or through one of our ‘Try Hockey For Free’ days,” Wright said. “Learn to Skate USA is a great place to start because you learn all the basics of skating with an instructor. It gives you that solid foundation ahead of kids who have only skated on public sessions. We’ve also had a lot of success with our ‘Try Hockey’ initiative. We work with local hockey associations and provide free equipment like sticks and pucks. It’s a great way to experience hockey.”
Designed to teach the fundamentals of hockey skating, Learn to Skate USA’s four badge levels, plus power skating, teach skaters how to be more proficient and agile on the ice. Proper techniques for the game of hockey are the primary focus, and all elements are taught without a puck. Skaters will learn the basic hockey stance, stride, knee bend and other necessary fundamentals to be successful.
After mastering basic skating skills and advancing through Learn to Skate USA’s hockey curriculum, skaters can team up with their local hockey association, be it through a ‘Try Hockey For Free’ day or by joining a local team. From there, participants can rise through the ranks from first games to Olympic ice — and don’t be surprised if they learn a whole lot more than how to pass the puck along the way.
“More than skating, hockey brings about life skills,” Wright said. “It teaches you how to be a reliable teammate, how to be a leader, and improves communication skills. It shows you how to overcome challenges and face diversity. But most importantly, it’s fun. It’s both fun and competitive for any age — from your first steps on the ice as a kid, through high school and beyond.”
“You learn to play with no fear of losing,” Pannek said. “At the end of the day, when I look back at my experiences in each game, the lessons will all look the same, regardless of whether we won or lost. From the very beginning, it’s ingrained in the messaging, and being a member of Team USA — you’re part of something bigger. It’s way more than hockey.”
To set yourself up for success, master the basics in Learn to Skate USA’s Snowplow Sam, basic skills or adult curriculum, then advance to the hockey curriculum. To find a ‘Try Hockey For Free Day,’ visit TryHockeyForFree.com. To make the most of every experience, Pannek advises, enjoy the good days and take the hard times in stride.
“Honestly, the best moments come from the most embarrassing games,” she said. “Take the challenges — they build courage and strength. Own it. I grew up playing around with the boys and now I play against the best girls in the world.
“Besides,” Pannek added, “getting checked into the boards doesn’t hurt as bad as you think.”
Whether you have dreams of Olympic glory or simply want to learn to glide across a frozen pond, Learn to Skate USA, powered by Toyota, is here for every step of your skating journey. Get started at LearnToSkateUSA.com.