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Maddie Rooney, Olympic hockey hero, takes her talent to Centennial High School

Maddie Rooney

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 19: Madeline Rooney #35 of the United States looks on against Finland during the Ice Hockey Women Play-offs Semifinals on day 10 of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Hockey Centre on February 19, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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A few weeks ago, Maddie Rooney, the star goalie of the U.S. Olympic champion hockey team, received a surprise phone call from her Minnesota youth hockey coach, Sean Molin.

Molin, who recently became head coach of the Centennial High School girls team outside the Twin Cities, was looking to fill an opening for a defense/goalie assistant.

“I knew she was busy, and I knew that she had lots of things [going on], but I thought, hey, she’s trying to get into coaching,” Molin said. “I thought it could be a good opportunity if we worked around her schedule.”

Rooney was interested. It had been five years since her last substantial conversation with Molin, who had coached her for a few years from age 12, on boys teams in peewees and bantams.

Rooney almost never became a goalie. Her dad was reluctant in her elementary school days, not believing in her ability enough to spend on equipment, she has said. It took almost two years of begging before her wish came true in the form of Christmas presents at age 9 or 10.

She remembers her first time earning a USA jersey. At 16, she was cut from an under-18 national team selection camp, but a goalie who made the roster was injured. Rooney had already departed for Minnesota, so she flew back to Lake Placid, N.Y., later that same day.

Since her last significant chat with Molin, Rooney finished her high school career with the boys team. She made the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship roster as the U.S.’ least-experienced goalie (and the only teenager). That November, U.S. coach Robb Stauber confided in Rooney at a practice that she was already penciled in for the Olympic gold-medal game the following February, which Stauber never shared publicly until after the Games.

Rooney made the 2018 Olympic team. She started all but one game in South Korea, including the final against Canada, won by the U.S. in a shootout for its first Olympic title since 1998. Rooney was one of the standouts. Somebody changed the position on her Wikipedia page from “goalie” to “Secretary of Defense.”

She returned home to Minnesota to find a letter from U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. She went on “Ellen” and “The Tonight Show,” sitting the closest to Jimmy Fallon of the four U.S. players chosen for the couch interview (the others: captain Meghan Duggan and twins Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando, all at least eight years older than Rooney).

Rooney eased back into normal life. For her, that meant business marketing classes at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and her last two seasons playing for the Bulldogs. Hopes were high.

In Rooney’s sophomore season -- before taking a year break for the Olympics -- the Bulldogs made the eight-team NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. She slashed her goals-against average nearly in half (to 1.65) and improved her record from 5-12 in 19 freshman games to 25-7-5, playing a nation-leading 98.6 percent of the team’s minutes.

In her junior season -- the year after the Olympics -- Rooney saw her GAA rise to 2.80 and her save percentage drop from her epic sophomore year, from .942 to .919. The team went 15-16-4.

“The outside pressure of the expectations that people had took a toll on me mentally, but looking back at it now, I’m grateful I went through that because it made stronger,” she said.

Meanwhile, Alex Cavallini, the only U.S. Olympic goalie not to start a game in South Korea, ascended. She was the top goalie in the CWHL and supplanted Rooney as the U.S. No. 1 under new coach Bob Corkum at the April 2019 World Championship.

“She was just flat out playing better at that time,” Rooney said. “I accepted my role for that tournament going into it.”

So Rooney, a year after denying four Canadians in the Olympic final shootout, watched from the bench as Cavallini denied four Finns in a world championship final shootout (after a Finland golden goal was controversially overturned upon review).

“I always say I’m more anxious on the bench than in the game,” Rooney said. “I was really happy for her to get the start. For it to come down to a shootout again after the Olympics was definitely weird to experience from the bench.”

This past winter, Rooney capped her college career with a resurgence. She brought her stats back near her sophomore-year level and finished with a winning season, albeit not reaching the ultimate goal of the NCAA Tournament (which ended up being canceled anyway due to the coronavirus, as did Rooney’s graduation). The campaign ended with a loss to Wisconsin on March 7. Rooney remembers sitting next to teammate Sydney Brodt in the post-game press conference, tears cascading.

She constructed a resume and LinkedIn profile to put her business marketing degree -- emphasis on sports -- to use. But she was always going to continue playing and coaching individuals or small groups of kids in the summer, part of her offseason routine.

That was the plan this summer, with an eye on joining the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) with the other top U.S. and Canadian Olympians. Then Molin called.

“Coaching high school has always been something I wanted to do,” said Rooney, who has done summer coaching since 2015 but no official role with a high school until now.

Come the fall, Rooney’s schedule will include PWHPA practices three days a week, weekday high school team practices, two or three high school games a week and weekend PWHPA games.

“One thing I’m in fear of,” in coaching, Rooney said, “if I get in a position where I’m not sure of the answer for a defensive position, that’s probably what I’m fearful for. Don’t know if that’s going to happen, but that’s probably my fear.”

Rooney can lean on the fact she’s not attempting something unprecedented. Natalie Darwitz, a 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympian, coached high school and college during her playing career. Rooney’s Olympic teammates and fellow Minnesotans Hannah Brandt, Dani Cameranesi and Kelly Pannek have also coached high schoolers since PyeongChang.

“I think it’s good for her to get some experience learning to be assertive with the kids, and learn from a coaches’ perspective,” Molin said. “With her name, she’ll be able to get a head coaching job.”

Rooney will play, and perhaps coach, for as long as she can make the national team. Once she puts the pads away for good, she wants to pursue sports marketing. For now, this week will mark a turning point.

She began her regimented offseason training with a new personal goalie coach Monday. It’s her most serious work on ice since her last college game three months ago. Then on Thursday, Rooney begins the offseason high school coaching program. It’s all so new, but with a dash of familiarity.

“With the connection that I have with Sean, I also knew the other assistant coach pretty well, and it was close to home,” she said. “It all just seemed kind of like the right fit.”

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