By Andrew Vitalis, special to WCHA.com
It's one of the most unique hockey stories you will find; and Annie Pankowski is still writing.
Four years old- that's how old Pankowski was when she first strapped on skates - roller blades that is. The Laguna Hills, Calif. native didn't care that for most in the Golden State, hockey was something people would usually only pay attention to every four years when the Winter Olympics came around. For Pankowski though things were different. They always have been when it comes to her.
There she was, rain or wind and almost always sun; rifling the roller puck into an open net, by herself, day after day. With each wrist shot she perfected her aim. With each backhand flip she began to learn how the puck responded and reacted whenever she manipulated her stick across the ground. With each goal a shot of adrenaline exploded through her body with the force of 100 slap shots. On the blacktops of Orange County the future USA National Team star and Wisconsin Badger learned two things - she liked to score and she was really, really good at it.
"I've always loved the excitement that goes along with scoring goals so I think that once I got a little taste of it, it was kind of addicting for me," recalled Pankowski. "A lot of coaches along the way have encouraged me. I would spend hours outside shooting roller hockey pucks in my net in the back yard, shooting them at the windows and stuff like that. I just think from a young age it was something really exciting for me to do - I just loved putting the puck in the net."
Now 20 years later, that golden touch around the net along with a fierce determination to compete are just two of the reasons why the current Badger senior has become one of the best women's hockey players in the country. In almost every statistical category you will see her name. In nearly every discussion centered around those who seem to always be in the right place at the right time; her name is mentioned. Eighty-three career goals (and counting), nearly 180 points and more individual accolades than you can keep track of (including being named a Top-10 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award finalist in 15-16 and 16-17); all from the mind and stick of a young girl from sunny California who turned a skill into a calling card and a hockey dream into a hockey career (Pankowski was recently picked first overall in the 2018 NWHL Draft).
She was a hit immediately. Prior to making her way to Madison, Pankowski steam-rolled through the prep hockey ranks like a runaway Zamboni crashing through the end boards. In other words - it didn't take long for those around her to realize she had a gift. Playing for the North American Hockey Academy (JWHL) the talented forward scored 50, 66 and 58 goals respectively three straight seasons from 2010-2013. During the 2012-13 campaign and after notching 58-44-102 points in just 31 games, Pankowski was named to the 2013 USA National Team. The following season (2013-2014) she lit the lamp 16 more times in just 16 games. One season later she skated into Madison and it was more of the same. Not only did she finish with 21 goals and 22 assists; Pankowski was 16th in the nation among freshman averaging 1.08 points per game. For her efforts the awards rolled in like a mid-summer storm system in the Midwest. WCHA Rookie of the Year … 2015 National Rookie of the Year … 2015 USCHO Rookie of the Year … 2014-15 All-WCHA Second Team.
The following year it was more goals and more points (22-36-58); and then again in 2016-17, Pankowski's junior campaign, as the California kid led the Badgers in scoring with 25 goals and 30 more helpers. After the 16-17 season the natural-born scorer took her game to another level by taking a hiatus from the college game and using her time away from Madison to skate and train with the U.S. Women's National Team. Now this season, back in Badger red for her final season in the WCHA, the redshirt senior has picked up where she left off by scoring 15 goals and adding nine assists in 20 games (second in goals, sixth in WCHA in points) for the nation's No. 1 team. That includes a recent seven game goal-scoring streak that ended last Friday night in Columbus, Ohio when the Buckeyes upset Wisconsin 1-0. The following day, last Saturday, Pankowski started another streak with her 15th tally of the season in the Badgers 5-2 victory.
To those who have watched the right-handed sniper, no matter where or what level; her ability to slow the game down when the puck hits her stick is something stars are made of. Her knack for finishing those moments has made her a legend. After all, it's one thing to catch a glimpse of the lamp. Actually lighting the lamp is entirely different.
"It's definitely a cerebral thing. You have to be someone who thinks a lot. I have spent a lot of time working with goalie coaches through high school and through college, spending a lot of time in those goalie sessions and learning what goalies are supposed to do in certain situations and learning how to beat them," remarked Pankowski. "I think that is something that has given me an advantage. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand angles and what a goalie thinks about when you are coming on the left side or the right side and what the flow looks like and what they are expecting. All of those things and learning how to handle those situations helps make someone a great goal scorer."
"Annie has one of the best scoring touches of anyone I know," added Sophia Shaver, Wisconsin senior and fellow 2018-19 co-captain along with Pankowski. "Just looking at how she gets into those areas in the middle of the net is something I look at and try to adopt into my own game and I'm sure the rest of the team does that as well. Just her ability to score and get into those in-close areas is pretty special."
Shaver has had a front row seat to the scoring show ever since she stepped onto campus. A freshman during Pankowski's sophomore campaign, she now finds herself as of one of six seniors (along with Pankowski) rounding out one of the most dominant senior classes in the nation. Another name on that list, and also a redshirt senior and Canadian National Team member, is Emily Clark. Like Pankowski, Clark took last year off to train with her country's national team and ultimately helped Team Canada win a silver medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics. It wasn't the first time both Clark and Pankowski's paths have coincided with one another. Ever since both of them suited up as freshman forwards in Madison back in 2014-15 they have watched the other grow; both on and off the ice. There isn't a person out there who knows more about Annie Pankowski's gifts then Clark herself. As a matter of fact, on Oct. 3, 2014, Clark scored her first collegiate goal and picking up one of the assists was, who else, but Annie Pankowski. The duo have made a living of turning rocks into diamonds and the Badger program has rolled all the way to three straight league regular season titles. Consider this - since their freshman season and when looking at games when both Clark and Pankowski have both been in the line-up, the Badgers have lost just eight times when neither player has been able to muster a point. Eight losses (and seven ties) in nearly four seasons and almost 150 games. Eight times! That's better than most teams can accomplish in one year.
"It is pretty special that we have been able to go on similar paths together. We have been able to put our college careers together but then we have also gone through similar paths with our national team experiences. She has always been really driven and passionate from her freshman year and by no means has that diminished - I actually think she is even more driven and passionate that ever," stated Clark. "I think the excellence she brings on and off the ice when it comes to everything she does; whether it's her meal prepping, fueling her body, making sure she's getting the proper rest, the mental side of things; she just puts her heart and soul into everything she does and that pays off. She is definitely a complete player but has that extra goal scorer tough which is something I don't think can be taught.
"She does little things on a consistent basis that makes her an incredible player that goes unnoticed but then she does do those SportsCenter Top-10 plays that get noticed nationally," continued Clark. "Mainly it's her patience and poise with the puck. I think anytime she does that cut-back move on the breakaway where she can get a goalie to slide completely out of their net and then be able to put it in because she gives herself so much room to do that. Anytime she has scored a breakaway goal it's just peer skill one on one with the goalie."
Pankowski did exactly that earlier this season – twice - both against Harvard, scoring the game winning goal on back to back nights in overtime on Nov. 23 and 24 (Wisconsin won 3-2, 2-1). Both daggers earned a spot on ESPN's SportsCenter's Top 10 plays. The extra session tallies also increased Wisconsin's winning streak at the time to seven games and upped their season record to 15-1. Now nearly one month later and 20-2-0 overall heading into this weekend's pivotal series against Minnesota (and battle for the top spot in the WCHA), Pankowski and her fellow group of seniors believe that the pieces are in place for the Badgers to finally get over the hump and grab onto that national championship trophy that up to this point has eluded the veterans. After coming up short the past several seasons, including losing in the national championship game two seasons ago to Clarkson and losing to Colgate 4-3 in double overtime in last year's Frozen Four; enough is enough. Led by Pankowski, Clark, Shaver and the rest of the Wisconsin seniors, the time is now.
"There is a pressure, the last kick at the can kind of thing. You want to leave here with one national championship but we have been really fortunate to have had great careers here and we have accomplished a lot of great things in our career's here already. Even though we haven't won a national championship yet you can't take away certain milestones how we have done in the WCHA," mentioned Clark. "The storyline the last couple of years have been will this year be the year the Badgers do it; will this finally be the year they get over that hump? I think the vibe on the team is just to enjoy the process every day, every weekend and to get better every weekend. I think if we continue to do that we will get rewarded at the end."
"This year we have a little chip on our shoulders from the past few years, coming so close and not getting as far as we wanted to, we are very focused," added Shiver. "We have a lot of great players who came back with Annie (Pankowski), Clarky (Emily Clark) and Maddie Rolfes, who is also playing a fifth year with us. They all have come back and have helped lead this team. We also had a group of great freshman who have come in a well. We just have a great group of players who are finally ready to finish things."
"Our team last year, they were joking that we don't lose in overtime anymore," chuckled Pankowski, referring to the double overtime loss to Colgate and the recent back to back overtime wins against Harvard. "That's a huge mindset, especially for this team. We have learned a lot and have grown from those experiences and they have helped prepare us for this season. Having people on the roster who have gone through the experiences like the Final Face-Off and the Final Four and stuff like that, those are certainly moments that you don't understand until you are there.
"What's awesome to see is that we are starting to even bring that refuse to lose mentality to practice every day," continued Pankowski. "We are working on our power play; we are working on our forecheck. We have that mentality in mind- that intensity when it comes to what it feels like when you are playing in the WCHA Final Face-Off and when you find yourself down or even up a goal late in the game, just working on certain situations and keeping all of them in mind. The past is past and I think all you can do is learn from it. We have and I think we are ready to use what we have learned."
With just 12 games left in the regular season the stage is set for what Pankowski and her fellow seniors hope will be another WCHA title leading into their final postseason push. Pankowski, for one, is already licking her chops and gripping her stick; ready for the moment when all of those wrists shots as a youngster on the streets of California will help Wisconsin unlock the door to the ultimate treasure- a national championship. If, or when, the puck finds its way to her blade, she and everyone else in a Badger uniform knows she won't miss. After all, she rarely does.