By Ryan Williamson | Oct. 26, 2018, 12:56 p.m. (ET)

Hannah Brandt handles the puck at the Winter Olympic Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 15, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. 

 

As a young hockey player growing up in Minnesota, Hannah Brandt didn’t have a professional women’s hockey league to look up to. Fast forward just a few years and Brandt is now a star for the women’s pro team right in her hometown.

Earlier this month, the 2018 Olympic gold medalist embarked on her first season in the National Women’s Hockey League, where she’s a forward on the Minnesota Whitecaps.

Brandt, who also starred in high school and college in Minnesota, is embracing the opportunity to now play professionally in the self-proclaimed “State of Hockey,” and so are the Whitecaps, who are 4-0 going into a weekend series at the Buffalo Beauts.

The Whitecaps, a long-established independent team, entered the NWHL ahead of the league’s fourth season, joining four East Coast teams that have been part of the league since its inception.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Brandt, 24, who graduated from Minnesota in 2016 and spent the previous two seasons training with the national team.

Making her pro debut with the Whitecaps on Oct. 6, Brandt registered a goal and an assist in a 4-0 win over the Metropolitan Riveters, who play in New Jersey. The game — the first pro women’s hockey game in Minnesota — was played in front of a standing-room only crowd at the brand new TRIA Rink in downtown St. Paul.

“We knew everyone was going to be excited about it being the first game, but it even exceeded my expectations,” said Brandt, who will play her second home series beginning Saturday against Buffalo. “It was just more exciting than I could’ve imagined.”

So far, Brandt has been a key player for the Whitecaps. She scored a goal in three of Minnesota’s first four games, putting her in a six-way tie for the league lead. Her performance in the opening series against the Riveters also earned her NWHL Player of the Week honors.

It doesn’t hurt that Brandt is playing around a number of players with international experience, including fellow 2018 gold medalists Kendall Coyne Schofield and Lee Stecklein. Brandt and defenseman Stecklein, both Minnesota natives, also played together in college with the Golden Gophers, while speedy forward Coyne is from the Chicago area.

“It’s fun to play with Kendall because we haven’t gotten to do that much outside of the national team,” Brandt said. “It helps to play with these girls because were keeping that chemistry and playing solid competition in our league.”

To go along with her strong play in the NWHL, Brandt will have another opportunity to showcase her skills in her home state when she practices with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild on Dec. 14 as part of the Girls’ Hockey Weekend Celebration being put on around the U.S.

It’s all a continuation of a proud, Minnesota-based hockey career.

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Growing up in Vadnais Heights, a suburb just north of St. Paul, Brandt had long admired fellow Minnesotans Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz. Both Twin Cities natives went on to play for the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis and represented Team USA at the 2002 and 2006 Olympic Winter Games. Darwitz also captained Team USA at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

“Minnesota has always had great players, and the people here are always excited to cheer them on,” Brandt said. “It’s awesome to see.”

Brandt parlayed a decorated career at Hill-Murray in suburban St. Paul to a four-year run at Minnesota, where she led the team to three national titles. She was a finalist all four years for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, which is given to the best collegiate women’s hockey player each season.

While succeeding at Minnesota, Brandt also starred at the international level. She helped lead the U.S. to an Under-18 gold medal in 2011 and made her senior national team debut in 2012.

After helping the U.S. to world titles in 2015 and 2017, Brandt was a shoo-in for the 2018 Olympic team, where she tallied a goal and an assist in five games en route to the dramatic gold-medal game victory over Canada.

It’s been more than eight months since Brandt and her teammates took home gold, but she says it certainly hasn’t felt that long.

“It’s been just such a whirlwind,” Brandt said. “We’ve gotten to bring our medals around the country and hear everyone’s connections to women’s hockey and where they were watching the Canada game. It’s been really cool.”

Brandt is quick to admit that she and the rest of the 2018 Olympic team are already looking ahead. Next up for Team USA will be the Four Nations Cup in November in Saskatchewan. Brandt will play in the NWHL in the meantime.

“It’s so exciting to see all the young girls that have shown up to our games so far,” Brandt said. “We want those girls to come and watch us play so they can dream to play professionally.”

Ryan Williamson is a sportswriter from Minneapolis-St. Paul. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.