NICOLE HENSLEY - Lakewood’s Nicole Hensley could be a golden girl as Team USA’s goalie.
ARTICLE REFERENCE: MIKE CHAMBERS | email@example.com | The Denver Post
LITTLETON — On a recent blustery afternoon at the Edge Ice Arena, home of the Foothills Hockey Association, distinguished alum Nicole Hensley tried to connect the past and present and explain how she got this far — how she became America’s No. 1 women’s hockey goaltender.
Six years ago, Hensley was a senior at Green Mountain High School and playing for the all-girls Colorado Select hockey program. Her only college scholarship offer came from a start-up program at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., and playing international hockey was a far-fetched fantasy.
Six years later, Hensley is the NCAA Division I all-time saves leader and on pace to lead Team USA on the ice for its Olympic opener in February at Pyeongchang, South Korea. The little girl from Lakewood who grew up mostly playing with boys at Foothills is now a two-time World Championship gold medalist and a concern across Canada, the country she recently tormented.
On April 7 in Plymouth, Mich., Hensley backstopped the Americans’ thrilling 3-2 overtime victory over Canada in the WC gold-medal game. She finished 3-0 in the tournament, beating Canada twice and stopping 54-of-56 shots overall. She shut out Canada, the defending Olympic gold medalist, in a preliminary-round game in which she was named MVP.
USA goalie Nicole Hensley of Lakewood ...Photo provided by USA Hockey/Nancie Battaglia
USA goalie Nicole Hensley of Lakewood prepares to make a save against Canada at the 2015 Under-22 Series at the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y. The Americans won the three-game series 2-1, going 1-1 with Hensley in goal.
The tournament unfolded following an 11th-hour compensation settlement between the U.S. women’s team and USA Hockey. The players threatened to boycott the World Championship before the parties agreed to a four-year contract.
“To be able to win on home soil — the first time the U.S. has ever won on home soil — and to do it after what we had gone through in the weeks before, it was definitely a special time and for me, personally,” Hensley said. “It’s definitely one of my biggest accomplishments to really contribute to the team.”
The 22-year-old Hensley, a 2016 Lindenwood graduate, will compete for the U.S.’s No. 1 Olympic goaltending position with former University of Wisconsin star Alex Rigsby, 25, and Madeline Rooney, 19, a junior-to-be at Minnesota-Duluth. Based on the recent World Championship and that head coach Robb Stauber also will coach the Olympic team, Hensley is the favorite to succeed the retired Jessie Vetter as the Americans’ No. 1 Olympic goalie.
“We just like the way she’s trending. We like it a lot,” Stauber, a former NCAA and NHL goalie, said. “She’s very focused. She has a great mindset to continue to improve her game, along with her work ethic. All the goalies are very capable, but at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to who seizes it like (Hensley) has. That’s what it’s going to take. There is very little room for error. All the goalies know that. Nicole understands it. Again, we just really like how she’s trending.”
Stauber played for the Minnesota Gophers and became the first goalie to win the Hobey Baker Award as NCAA player of the year in 1988, after his sophomore season. Hensley enjoys working with Stauber, who took over for former Avalanche defenseman Ken Klee last year.
“I definitely think it’s a unique situation and helpful to have a head coach that has seen as many scenarios on the ice as you have, and understands when things are going well, and not going well,” Hensley said of Stauber. “The goalie position is so different than the rest of the team, so it’s nice to have someone who understands it and has been in your shoes.”
Hensley won’t assume she will be the opening-day Olympic starter.
“We have a great trio and, between the three of us, the team can be really confident in any of us, no matter who’s playing,” she said. “We do a good job of pushing ourselves by pushing each other, but at the same time lean on each other if we need to. For me, personally, they’ve done a good job of moving me up and not throwing me to the wolves right off the bat. I’m just honored to be on the team and be part of our goaltending trio. I’ve learned so much from Alex over the last three or four years. She’s been in the program so long and is the veteran presence in our goalie group.”
Hensley will train in the St. Louis area most of the spring and summer before joining the rest of the U.S. women’s team in Tampa, where it will reside and train before departing for South Korea in February. Plans for the U.S. men’s hockey team are unclear, with the NHL announcing it will not schedule around the Olympics to allow its players to participate.
“No matter where the Olympics is, you know it’s going to be a spectacle,” Hensley said. “Not having the NHL guys there probably magnifies the women’s game more, and with the proper marketing and advertising, it should help grow the sport in Korea and other parts of the world.”
Many of Hensley’s teammates play professional or club hockey, or in college. They will take a year off from those endeavors as Hensley takes a year off from coaching. She was Lindenwood’s video coach last season as a graduate assistant.
“When I’m done playing hockey, I want to be a college hockey coach,” Hensley said. “So I began doing that at Lindenwood and I was able to train at the Lindenwood facilities. They were really flexible with me because they obviously want me to succeed with this as well.”
The little girl from Lakewood might become more than an Olympian from Colorado.
She likely will have an entire country counting on her to make the big save.
A closer look at Nicole Hensley:
— Product of Foothills Hockey Association (mostly boys) and Colorado Select (girls) club hockey organizations.
— NCAA record 4,094 saves at Division I Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.
— As a true freshman in 2013, made 90 saves in a 2-1 triple-overtime loss to Robert Morris.
— Three-time winner of the Colorado Sportswomen of the Year for hockey
— Inducted into Colorado Sportswomen Hall of Fame, 2016