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Lee Stecklein’s return to U.S. hockey began with a fortunate phone call

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 4

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 13: Lee Stecklein #2 of the United States controls the puck against Olga Sosina #18 of Olympic Athlete from Russia during the Women’s Ice Hockey Preliminary Round - Group A game on day four of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Kwandong Hockey Centre on February 13, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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Over the last 14 months, the U.S. women’s hockey program lost five players to retirement who won a combined 15 Olympic medals: captain Meghan Duggan, 2018 Olympic final scoring heroes Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando, longtime blueliner Kacey Bellamy and Gigi Marvin, who played forward and defense.

All the turnover amplified the value of the woman who led American skaters in ice time at the 2018 Olympics.

That’s Lee Stecklein, the lone defender on the current national team -- which happens to be 23 players, the exact number of the Olympic roster that will be named Jan. 1 -- who has played at multiple Olympics.

The 6-foot Minnesotan is the tallest and one of the hardest-to-replace U.S. players. The team continues its pre-Olympic exhibition series with Canada on Monday night (8 ET, NBCSN, and the NBC Sports app).

WATCH LIVE: U.S.-Canada women’s hockey, Monday, 8 p.m. ET -- STREAM LINK

One might think Stecklein was always a shoo-in for another Winter Games, but that was far from the case three years ago.

She declined an invite to the team’s first evaluation camp of this Olympic cycle in September 2018. Stecklein had taken a job with Clif Bar in her native Minnesota after PyeongChang and wanted to see where it went.

Fate intervened in October 2018 when the U.S. coaching staff was named to start the new Olympic cycle.

One of the assistants: Joel Johnson, who recruited Stecklein to the University of Minnesota and coached her both on a U18 U.S. team and to three NCAA titles with the Gophers.

After Stecklein passed on that first camp, and missed an international tournament, Johnson recalled seeing a list of possible invitees to a December 2018 camp. That list “was kind of a little bit TBD,” he said, but it did not include Stecklein. He had heard rumors that she retired.

“I just said, ‘Has anybody reached out to Lee?’ And the answer was no,” said Johnson, a U.S. coach at the U18 and U22 levels dating to 2012, while also being part of the Gophers staff the whole time. “And I said, well, I’ll give her a call.”

Stecklein joked that Johnson, who in April was elevated to U.S. head coach, still reminds her of the phone conversation.

“Because, apparently, my answer was, ‘I don’t know,’” she said.

What Stecklein was sure of was that she missed playing hockey at that level. She was still getting on the ice with the Minnesota Whitecaps club team. Hannah Brandt and Kendall Coyne Schofield, teammates at the Olympics and then with the Whitecaps, had been asking if she would consider a return to the national team.

Johnson recalled his pitch in an interview last week.

“I think I said something like, you’ve got the rest of your life to figure that [career] out,” he said. “Want to give it one more shot with the hockey side of things?”

Stecklein accepted the invitation. Four months after that first camp back, she again led U.S. skaters in ice time at the 2019 World Championship (while also continuing her day job with Clif Bar).

“If there was any chance I can make the team, I wanted to give it a shot,” she said. “Once you go back to that camp, and you’re around everybody, you just want to continue to be a part of it.”

Stecklein describes herself as a stay-at-home defender, in contrast to the name “Lethal” that some call her, which is in reference to her middle name of Ethel.

She’s humble. Stecklein said that replacing Bellamy, the previous leader of the defense, is a group effort that also includes Olympic veterans Cayla Barnes, Megan Bozek and Megan Keller.

She will let others play up her singular value. Johnson has no problem doing that.

“She’s incredibly important, but it’s not because she’s been on two Olympic teams, it’s because of who she is on the ice and off the ice,” Johnson said. “She’s an absolute shut-down defender. She manages the game well from having the puck on her stick, or if the other team has it, she still manages to control the entire zone and the situation.”

Stecklein connects with everybody on the team, he said. That was apparent in the 2018 Olympic final shootout.

Stecklein, who wasn’t called on as a shooter, was scared to watch it unfold from the bench. So was Bellamy. So Stecklein braved it, gave Bellamy the play-by-play, then when the final save was made stayed there crying and hugging teammates.

Stecklein is 27 years old. No defender older than 30 has ever made an Olympic team, but she is not ruling out continuing to 2026. For now, Johnson feels lucky that she changed her mind in 2018.

“I’m just glad I picked up the phone,” he said.

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