Stephens excels despite unlikely hockey roots

Aaron Blake

With a team-leading 17 goals and second-most 29 points through 26 games, the numbers associated with Minnesota women’s hockey freshman Kelly Stephens stand out.

But so do the letters “WA” next to the forward’s name.

Hailing from Shoreline, Wash., Stephens represents half of the WCHA’s Washington-state crop. Such is to be expected from a state without boys’, much less girls’ high school hockey.

“Very seldom do I see players come out of Washington,” said Sylvain Leone, Stephens’ coach of the Vancouver Griffins of the National Women’s Hockey League. “I coached all three of them that I know of playing Triple-A hockey.”

Stephens stepped on the ice for the first time when she was nine years old.

“A guy friend of mine was doing this learn-to-skate program,” Stephens said. “I went with him to the six-week class and started out with hockey skates.”

As fate would have it, there was a hockey association 15 minutes from her home which she joined. The association was only one of two in the state and was, of course, for boys.

Making the top boys’ teams and playing through second-year bantams, Stephens had to look elsewhere.

“The next year I was told I wasn’t going to be able to play anymore,” Stephens said. “Prep school wasn’t really an option because it was expensive, so I went to a private school up in Langley, British Columbia.”

Stephens’ new school was a boys’ academy in which she was one of only three girls – all of whom played hockey.

Eventually, Stephens found her way into the NWHL, where she played for Leone.

Training at development camps and playing at a women’s hockey festival in Lake Placid, New York, led to Stephens recruitment by Gophers coach Laura Halldorson.

“I had heard of her name before I actually saw her play because she was so good when she was younger,” Halldorson said. “But the first time I really saw her play was out in Lake Placid the summer before her senior year.”

Stephens also played for a U.S. under-22 team at the time of the Lake Placid festival. Halldorson went to Calgary to see Stephens’ team play a Canada under-22 team, only to find out Stephens had broken her wrist the last day of the festival.

“I actually saw her less than I was planning to see her,” Halldorson said. “But both my assistants had been out earlier in the summer when she was at a development camp. They said she had a great week and were very high on her.

“I didn’t know exactly how she was going to be when she got here. But I’m very happy with her contributions so far as a freshman.”

And the contributions have been plentiful. Stephens, who’s played on the top line since November, ranks fifth in the WCHA in points, third in goals, and first in game-winning goals (five).

Stephens has garnered weekly conference honors three times and United States College Hockey Online honors once this season.

What really makes the 5-foot-6-inch Stephens stand out from most WCHA opponents is a physical, hard-nosed style that produces not only excitement but also wins.

Halldorson, who’s seen Stephens blossom first-hand into one of the most potent offensive threats in college hockey, points to one unique asset.

“What she has that most people don’t have is tremendous speed,” Halldorson said. “She’s a great skater going forward and that generates a lot of opportunities offensively.”

Freshman teammate and close friend Kristy Oonincx talked about what Stephens brings to their team.

“Kelly has a team-first attitude,” Oonincx said. “She’ll do anything for her teammates not just on the ice but off the ice, too.”

Stephens’ dedication to not only her team but also the game of hockey is well illustrated by her days at the boys’ academy.

“Seattle is two-and-a-half hours away (from Langley),” Leone said. “So she commuted to every ice time last year.

“It was insane, but it speaks volumes for her commitment.”

Aaron Blake covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]