5 Women's Hockey Players Head Back To College After Winning Olympic Gold Medals

By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 06, 2018, 5:43 p.m. (ET)

 

Kelly Pannek’s favorite memory of the gold-medal ice hockey game happened after Team USA and Canada had gone into overtime. The clock stopped with the two teams still tied 2-2. The game would be decided in a shootout, with the outcome resting heavily on the young shoulders of goaltender Maddie Rooney.

The two women had grown up in Minnesota together, Rooney two years younger than Pannek, who’s 22. And they both play for two of Minnesota’s top collegiate hockey programs: Pannek at the University of Minnesota, Rooney at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

“Right before we were going into the shootout, Maddie was leaning against the boards in front of me,” recalled Pannek. “I leaned over and said, ‘Hey, do you want to talk or do you want to be quiet and serious?’”

“Well, what do you want to talk about?” asked Rooney.

For the next few minutes, the two women talked and laughed on the ice. Then Rooney went on to stop four of Canada’s six shots, helping the U.S. women win their first Olympic gold medal in ice hockey in 20 years. They beat Canada 3-2 in the shootout.

The pre-shootout chat reminded Pannek of what the college players brought to the 2018 Olympic hockey team — a sense of “relaxed intensity.” 

“Just being able to ease Maddie a little bit and get her to a good spot to go into the shootout was something that I know I’ll always remember,” added Pannek. 

The two women are back on their respective campuses this fall and will soon be back in the rink — Pannek as a redshirt senior with the Gophers in Minneapolis and Rooney as a redshirt junior with the Bulldogs in Duluth. 

Both women paused their college careers last year to train with the U.S. national team and compete in PyeongChang.

 

Kelly Pannek competes for the Minnesota Golden Gophers women's ice hockey team.

 

Three other 2018 Olympians return to Boston College: Kali Flanagan and Megan Keller are senior defensemen for the BC Eagles, while Cayla Barnes, the youngest player on the 2018 U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team, will resume her freshman year, also on defense.

“Being back on campus after the high of winning an Olympic gold medal is really exciting,” Flanagan said. “Winning Olympic gold was such an incredible honor, and to be back at Boston College, with the teammates and coaches who helped me get to where I am today, is really special. It's so much fun getting to know my new teammates and reconnecting with the girls I played with before I left, and getting back into the routine of college hockey has been awesome. I'm really happy to be back on campus and can't wait to see what this year brings.”

In late June, the Eagles’ coach, Katie Crowley (a three-time Olympian), announced that Flanagan — one of the fastest players in women’s hockey — and Keller—a three-time world championship gold medalist — would share co-captain duties with fellow senior Makenna Newkirk.

“Can’t wait!” tweeted Flanagan after the announcement.

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Keller is the first defenseman to win the Cammi Granato Award as Hockey East’s Player of the Year in 2017. Playing in her final collegiate season, Keller holds BC’s record for most points scored by a defenseman (115) and will likely become the fourth player in BC history to reach 100 career assists this year (she has 89 to date).

Even with more accolades to come, college life for these players might seem a bit dull after the high of winning an Olympic gold medal. But not to Pannek, a forward who during her junior year ranked second in the nation and first for the Gophers with 62 points.

To Pannek, the quiet college life is “a huge blessing.”

She was thrilled to celebrate the gold-medal win with her Olympic teammates, family, friends and community last spring. But now she wants to shift her focus back to her normal life.

“I’m definitely someone who enjoys that stability and regular routine,” she said by phone from the University of Minnesota campus.

Pannek is also looking forward to being a leader on her collegiate team. The five collegiate hockey players who made the 2018 Olympic team are the younger members of the national team. Although they are working into bigger roles, they are often not the ones who were called upon in the biggest moments.

“But in college, players on the national team tend to be those players,” Pannek said. “If there’s a big penalty kill, chances are you’ll be out there.”

 

Kali Flanagan competes for the Boston College Eagles women's ice hockey team.

 

She also appreciates the support of her fellow Gophers and their perspective on Team USA’s Olympic gold medal.

“My teammates are balanced,” she explained. “They’re super excited [about our gold medal] but are also like, ‘OK, yeah, but you’re back here now, let’s get back to work,’ which I think is a really rare thing.”

The season starts with an exhibition game on Sept. 23, and Pannek is looking forward to testing herself. She wants to see if she can still play at the level she achieved last year.

“Where have I grown, and how does that translate to college hockey?” she’s asking herself. “And when I’m at my best, how does that back others? Is that making them better? That’s always something I can work on no matter where I’m playing.”

Asked if she has yet to show her Olympic gold medal to her professors, Pannek said not yet. 

“If they ask, maybe I’d bring it, maybe if it was extra credit,” she joked. 

On Oct. 5, Pannek and her Gopher teammates will face Rooney and the Bulldogs in Duluth (neither team will play the Boston College Eagles until playoffs in March).

Pannek and Rooney already joked about what it will be like to face each other in different team uniforms.

“It will be fun, but it will be hard,” said Pannek. “I’ll probably start laughing, especially if she starts to save my shots.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.