Minnesota’s PWHL team signs 3 Olympians with local ties as first players

Minnesota’s new professional women’s hockey team has signed its first three players, landing three Olympians with local ties to lead the club.

Wednesday, the newly created Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) announced that Minnesota signed forwards Kendall Coyne Schofield and Kelly Pannek as well as defender Lee Stecklein.

The three all agreed to three-year deals, and the league didn’t disclose their salaries.

“With the signing of three of the top players in the world, Minnesota cements its foundation as a team built on excellence,” PWHL Minnesota General Manager Natalie Darwitz said. “Kendall, Lee, and Kelly’s world-class hockey skills and leadership qualities embody the level of excellence that the culture of Minnesota will be built on. We are thrilled they are the first three players to join Minnesota as we build a championship team.”

Aside from the trio being among the stars of the sport, Minnesotans may also recognize Coyne Schofield, Pannek and Stecklein from their past stops.

Coyne Schofield and Stecklein both played for the Minnesota Whitecaps in the 2018-19 season, helping the club win the Isobel Cup. In fact, it was Stecklein who scored the overtime goal in the championship game to win the title.

Stecklein, a Roseville native, also starred at the University of Minnesota, serving two seasons as the team’s captain and winning three national titles, the last two coming as a teammate of Pannek’s.

Pannek, a Plymouth native, starred for the Gophers during the second half of Stecklein’s collegiate career and helped Minnesota capture back-to-back national titles in 2015 and 2016. Pannek also led the nation in scoring, was a First-Team All-American and a Patty Kazmaier Award top-10 finalist in the 2016-17 season.

But the three players aren’t just stars in Minnesota.

Coyne Schofield has been Team USA’s captain since 2019, helping lead the team to three Olympic medals, nine IIHF Women’s World Championship medals and several more at the senior, U22 and U18 levels. Now 31, she also won the prestigious Patty Kazmaier Award while captaining Northeastern University in 2016 and was a top-10 finalist for the award two other seasons. After starring for the Whitecaps, she became a founder of the PWHPA and played three seasons from 2019-21 and 2022-23 and served as President from 2019-23 leading into the formation of the PWHLPA.

“Signing this contract is a reflection of so many people who have worked tirelessly to make this dream a reality,” said Coyne Schofield. “I’d like to thank Mark and Kimbra Walter and Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss for embracing this endeavor and building a league alongside the vision of the players. This is monumental and it is only the beginning.”

“Minnesota is elated to welcome Kendall to the team,” Darwitz added. “Kendall is one of the premier faces of women’s hockey and was a catalyst for the creation of the Professional Women’s Hockey League. Kendall has already distinguished herself as a highly accomplished player and will have a tremendous impact on the team. She is a speedy, energetic, and dynamic two-way forward. We warmly welcome Kendall and her family to Minnesota!”

Pannek, 27, is a two-time Olympic medalist and five-time World Championship medalist with Team USA. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, she joined the PWHPA and played the 2019-21 seasons and the 2022-23 campaign after the 2022 Olympic break.

“I could not be more excited to be a part of this new era of women’s professional hockey in Minnesota,” Pannek said. “I have always taken great pride in representing the State of Hockey throughout every stage of my career, and to do it now as a pro is a dream come true. I can’t wait to get to work as a part of this organization to hopefully bring home more trophies to Minnesota!”

“We are thrilled to sign Kelly and welcome her to the Minnesota Team,” Darwitz added. “Kelly is a strong two-way center with elite vision and superb playmaking skills. Kelly has been influential in Minnesota, both in growing the game of hockey and giving back to the community. We are excited to add Kelly to our Minnesota organization!”

Stecklein has been a fixture on Team USA’s blue line since joining the U18 program in 2010. The 29-year-old is a three-time Olympic medalist and eight-time World Championship medalist in addition to having won hardware in several other international tournaments. After playing for the Whitecaps, she played in the PWHPA from 2019-21 and, upon her return from the 2022 Olympic break, won the Top Defender award in the 2022-23 season.

“I am honored to be part of the first wave of players to sign officially with the PWHL, and I am thrilled by the opportunity to continue my career in Minnesota,” Stecklein said. “Thank you to the women who stood united over these years and those who worked daily to make this league a reality!”

“Minnesota extends a warm and enthusiastic welcome to Lee,” said Darwitz. “Lee is a two-way, highly respected defender whose experience and skill set will be a great addition to the team. Lee’s positive influence extends from the locker room to throughout the Minnesota hockey community. We are fortunate to sign a player of Lee’s caliber to our team.”

The trio fills Minnesota’s allotment for signings during the PWHL’s initial free agency period. Next up is the PWHL Draft, which is scheduled for Sept. 18 and where Minnesota holds the No. 1 overall pick.

The signings come a week after Darwitz was announced as Minnesota’s general manager and just two weeks after Minnesota was announced as one of the league’s inaugural six markets.

Team names and home arenas are still to be announced leading into training camps in November, and the league says each team will have 24 regular-season games with play launching in January.