Minnesota’s top-ranked women’s hockey team is known for its speed and quickness. But the squad is not afraid to flex a little muscle now and then. Two players in particular, junior forward Kelly Stephens and freshman defender Danielle Ashley, excel at playing a physical style of hockey.
“They play with a sort of no-fear philosophy,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “They’re not intimidated by anybody. They’re not going to back down to anybody.”
Occasionally, the aggressive tendencies displayed by both players can lead to prolonged stays in the penalty box. The duo has combined for 16 of the team’s 41 penalties this season. Stephens has amassed 71 penalties in 80 career games for the Gophers.
“We still have to be very disciplined because it does no good to have them in the box,” assistant coach Brad Frost said. “They’re two great players on our team, and if they’re in the penalty box that hurts us more than anything.”
Both Stephens and Ashley have backgrounds in boys’ hockey, so both had to change their style to adjust to the women’s game
“It’s different for me to go in a corner and have to hold up,” Stephens said. “It’s something now I’m aware of, and I have to pay attention to.”
Ashley faced the same difficulty in her transition.
“Coming from boys’ hockey it was really tough because I was so used to the hitting,” she said. “Then going into the female it’s just more riding out and playing the man.”
Ashley has learned from her older teammates and from her coaches how to avoid getting sent to the penalty box.
“They taught me different ways of maneuvering my body so I won’t get as many penalties,” Ashley said. “So that I’ll play smart defensive hockey instead of going right at the girl and hitting her into the boards.”
During a scrimmage early in the season, Ashley had two separate collisions with teammates. After practice Stephens pulled Ashley aside to give her advice on what to expect from officials in the WCHA.
“She explained to me that it’s good to be aggressive, but keep your head in the game, play smart and know what your job is,” Ashley said. “That really calmed me down and helped me out.”
Despite her visits to the sin bin, Ashley’s strong play has helped solidify a Minnesota defense that lost two seniors to graduation last season.
“It’s an element that every team needs is the ability to play tough and play physical in your defensive zone,” assistant coach Joel Johnson said. “And she is certainly one of our best.”
A native of Burlington, Ontario, Ashley started playing hockey when she was seven and signed with the National Women’s Hockey League in Canada when she was 14 years old, the youngest person ever to sign a contract in the NWHL. Playing professionally before college helped her adjust to playing Division I hockey.
“Playing at such a high level when I was 15 really helped me with pressure situations, understanding different plays,” Ashley said. “It just helped me understand a bit more.”
The learning experience in the NWHL paid off, and is evident to her coaches.
“She’s got great hockey instincts and knows where to be and when to be there,” Johnson said. “Combine that with the skills that she has, and that puts her in an elite level.”
Stephens also has plenty to boast about. The Shorline, Wash., native played for the United States in the Four Nations Cup in Skovde, Sweden, last week and is a member of the U.S. Women’s Under-22 Team. Stephens leads the WCHA with 13 assists, and is second in point scoring.
Stephens plays tough, but has also matured as a hockey player.
“She’s now started to have more composure,” Frost said. “She’s continued to become faster, stronger and a more complete hockey player.”
Because of this, Stephens and Ashley complement each other at each end of the ice.
The two are not enforcers, but they don’t mind doing some of the grunt work.
“For us, it’s good to have that presence on the ice,” Frost said. “They don’t even have to do anything, but if the other team knows that they’re there it may hinder the opposition from doing some things.”
Stephens and Ashley skate hard and carry big hockey sticks. The duo plays a big role in setting the tone for the team.
“Every team has players that can go out and change the style of the game,” Stephens said. “Setting the pace is huge in the beginning of the game.”