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Taylor Heise is U.S. hockey’s new star, fueled by Olympic cut and pedal tractor pulls

Taylor Heise

Apr 10, 2023; Brampton, Ontario, CAN; USA forward Taylor Heise (27) reacts after a goal for Canada in the third period at CAA Center. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

As a young teen, Taylor Heise tacked a poster-size goal sheet in her bedroom, checking off each one as she met it. The Minnesotan also uncapped a black Sharpie and wrote the word “Olympics” in a strategic place on the bright green wall: just above her light switch.

The family since had the room repainted. The word is no longer there.

“I can see it in my mind,” she said. “I switched the light on and off in my room so many times.”

Heise is now plenty visible in U.S. hockey, skyrocketing through the program since being cut from 2022 Olympic team consideration two summers ago.

In the last 13 months, she won NCAA Player of the Year while at the University of Minnesota, made her senior national team debut at the summer 2022 World Championship (after testing positive for COVID, driving 13 hours home during isolation to shoot pucks into the family shed and then flying across the Atlantic Ocean the day before the opening game), led those worlds in points and was named MVP. She shares the team lead in points at this year’s worlds.

Among forwards, only future Hall of Famer Hilary Knight spent more time on the ice going into Saturday’s semifinal against Czechia (formerly called the Czech Republic) and a possible final against Canada on Sunday in Brampton, Ontario.

The U.S. is in need of an infusion of attacking talent now more than at any point in the last decade. It lost the last three major championship finals to Canada, and is on a five-game losing streak overall in the rivalry. Stalwart forward Brianna Decker announced her retirement last month. Olympic captain Kendall Coyne Schofield is out this year on pregnancy leave.

Enter Heise, a 5-foot-10 forward with a dominating presence, ability to take over a game by herself and skill to take the puck from end to end.

That’s how University of Minnesota associate head coach Natalie Darwitz described her. Darwitz, the 2010 U.S. Olympic team captain, likened Heise to Krissy Wendell, a fellow Gophers standout who was captain of the 2006 Olympic team and three times the leading U.S. points scorer at worlds.

"[Heise] wants the puck on her stick in big-time moments,” Darwitz said. “In two years, I’ve never seen her have an off day or an off practice or off game.”

Like so many, Heise fostered that determination as a child. But her story is unique, starting with the setting: Lake City, population 5,000, on Lake Pepin, about 70 miles southeast of the Twin Cities. It’s billed as “The Birthplace of Water Skiing.”

Heise’s parents both played basketball at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. They had three kids, and three hoops. Heise credits her initial drive to her younger brothers, joking they “would be willing to beat the crap out of you all the time.”

Around age 4, she began a three-year foray into pedal tractor pulling at local county fairs, often taking on kids twice her size. She placed second in the 5-year-old division at a national championship at the famed Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.

In first grade, she brought home a flyer advertising recreational hockey on Lake City’s lone rink. Her favorite early memory of the sport: those first skates with pink laces. But ice time was limited, so she honed her shot inside the family’s three-and-a-half-car garage.

She eventually switched districts so she could play for a school, which led to three-hour roundtrip weekday commutes from Lake City.

“She’s kind of big and strong now, but she started out as a seventh grader and weighed 98 pounds,” mom Amy said. “The coach didn’t want her on the ice until she was 100. She spent the whole year in seventh grade trying to beat 100 pounds, and she never got there.”

Heise also learned about short- and long-term goal setting. One of her first ambitions was to make the under-18 national team at age 15. She did.

She won three consecutive gold medals at the U18 World Championship from 2016-18. After a COVID break, it was time to make the jump to the senior national squad.

She got a shot in 2021, but in a four-month stretch missed out on three teams. She was dropped after an evaluation camp for the originally scheduled but postponed April 2021 World Championship, then cut again after trying out for the national team residency program that summer, missing both the rescheduled worlds and the 2022 Olympics.

She tries to block out that July 2021 cut day that put her Olympic dream on hold for another four years. The Olympic coach was Joel Johnson, who had coached Heise as a captain on the U18 national team and recruited and coached her at Minnesota.

“Joel knew me as a person,” she said. “He goes, ‘I know you’re going to figure it out.’ He goes, ‘I just think you need time.’ I understand that, but for me, I didn’t want to hear that in the moment. So I feel like it took me a few days to process it.”

Heise decided that staying upset wouldn’t help her get on the team in the following years. Her parents helped her develop a new mindset.

“If they [USA Hockey] don’t want me, then I’m going to prove in the whole next year that was the wrong decision,” she said.

If Heise wanted a tangible piece of motivation, she received several in a box that arrived at the family doorstep. It included Olympic team apparel and a credential that ultimately went unused. Replicas of her 2022 Olympic alternate jersey are available on USA Hockey’s website for $275.

As the Olympic team earned silver without her, Heise led NCAA Division I hockey in points and then won the Patty Kazmaier Award for female player of the year in March 2022. Teammates started calling her “Patty,” which was also fitting as she was born on St. Patrick’s Day.

Darwitz said Heise’s hunger extends to making those around her better. Makes sense, given Heise’s favorite player growing up was forward Julie Chu, who never led the U.S. in goals but was a national team captain and Olympic flagbearer.

A year after being cut from the Olympic team, Heise delivered on her personal pact to make herself indispensable. She was named to new coach John Wroblewski‘s roster for the summer 2022 Worlds.

After a positive COVID test, Heise didn’t arrive in Denmark until the day before the opening game. Wroblewski thought so highly of Heise that he still put her on the second line with veterans Alex Carpenter and Amanda Kessel. She tallied five assists, tying a women’s worlds record. This was not just Heise’s world championship debut, but her first senior national team game of any kind.

She finished with tournament leads in goals (seven) and assists (11). She became the first player in U.S. women’s hockey history to lead an Olympic or world team in goals or points in her major championship debut since the first worlds in 1990. She was named tournament MVP even though the U.S. lost to Canada in the final.

“I put in the work,” Heise said Friday, reflecting on the breakout performance.

Heise’s bedroom wall may have been painted over, but she now has goals written down and tucked away in a drawer. She is willing to share them. They include one she can check off this weekend -- winning a world title -- and another she is on pace to fulfill in three years -- playing at the Olympics.

“People say they’re going to do something, but if I’m writing it down, I’m going to do it,” she said. “I understand [making an Olympic team] is not all up to me. I understand that people pick the team, but I guess, when I wrote that, it was to train as hard as I can to make it clear that I’m the one for the job.”

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