Neal: ‘Big Unit’ Stecklein stands tall on defense to win another title

Ken Klee took to the microphone Friday night as fans stood on the Xcel Energy Center floor to celebrate the PWHL Minnesota team that won the league's inaugural Walter Cup title two days earlier.

They cheered as Klee ticked off the accomplishments of the team and lauded the players responsible for them. Then the coach pointed out that PWHL Boston was held to only three shots on goal in the third period in the decisive Game 5.

"The defense, led by the Big Unit," Klee said.

By now, Lee Stecklein has gotten used to that nickname again. About 10 years ago — no one could remember exactly when — Klee was coaching Stecklein in a U.S. national team development camp when he and fellow coach Bob Deraney first called her Big Unit. The moniker came as the 6-foot Stecklein was in the early stages of a career in which she has become perhaps the best defender in the world and one of the most decorated players in women's hockey.

"Great frame, great reach, great size. She's awesome," Klee said. "She's the complete defensive package for me. I feel safe when she is on the ice."

Since that camp, Stecklein had not heard the nickname until Klee was named PWHL Minnesota coach one week before the regular season began, after Charlie Burggraf resigned for personal reasons. Klee immediately referred to her as the Big Unit again.

"I don't mind the nickname," Stecklein said with a chuckle. "Six feet has helped me immensely on the ice, so I will take any nickname that comes along with that.

"I had forgotten about it until this season. He brought it back. He loves it and the girls love it too."

Stecklein had just finished signing hundreds of autographs and taking dozens of pictures with fans who attended the celebration, which was scheduled to take place at Rice Park but was moved indoors because of rain. The players first met at nearby Tria Rink then walked to Xcel — with the Walter Cup in their clutches — for the program. St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher read a proclamation making May 31 PWHL Minnesota Day.

Wild general manager Bill Guerin looked on, probably imagining what the scene would be like if his team ever wins a Stanley Cup.

Stecklein and her teammates then left the stage to mingle with fans following a topsy-turvy season in which PWHL Minnesota started strong, went on a three-week break for the world championships, lost its final five regular-season games and first two postseason games upon returning before finally catching fire.

The title could have been won a week ago at the X, but Minnesota lost Game 4 1-0 to Boston in double overtime, the winning goal coming 70 seconds after a Minnesota goal was overturned because of goaltender interference. No matter, the team went on the road to win the decisive fifth game 3-0 in Lowell, Mass., three days later.

A teammate asked Stecklein during the Game 4 replay review what would happen if the goal were overturned. "We pick up our gloves and we keep playing," she replied.

Minnesota couldn't recapture the same energy after the reversal and lost the game. But Stecklein's world travels served her well in the aftermath. During the review, she was thinking about five years ago.

"The world championships in Finland in 2019," she said. "Finland scored in overtime, and goalie interference. It was called off and we ended up winning in a shootout."

This time, Stecklein picked up her gloves, went to Boston and returned a champion. Again.

That's at least 14 titles for Stecklein: a state championship for Roseville, three NCAA championships with the Gophers, eight international goal medals and now her second professional title, the other coming with the Minnesota Whitecaps in 2019. Someone on social media claimed she's won 16 titles.

"I don't know either," Stecklein said. "So I can't help you."

Pleasant off the ice — her other nickname is Team Mom — but unyielding in skates. And a multitime champion. Stecklein didn't know what she was in for when her parents signed her up for hockey as a child. As it turns out, she was in for a lot.

"You just kept going and you make good friends," she said of her journey. "It has taken me to so many amazing places and life around the world. And to know I'm 30 and I get to keep playing hockey. That's something I didn't necessarily think of, even in high school."