Emily Brown remembers one of her first impressions of Grace Zumwinkle. Both prep hockey stars in the state of Minnesota at the time; they knew of each other, but Brown had never seen the Breck product and 2017 Ms. Hockey winner up close and personal before. It's fair to say Zumwinkle left a lasting impression.
"The first time we played on the same team was on the 2016 U-18 World Championships," recalled Brown, a junior defenseman for the University of Minnesota. "We were also on the same team in Lake Placid one August for the U-18 Select Team (National Festival). I think we both kind of knew who each other were, being from different sides of the metro. One of practices leading up to camp I blocked one of her shots and I thought I was going to die. That was a nice first impression."
A lasting (and painful) one. Right about now players from across the WCHA reading this are nodding their head in agreement. They can relate.
Right from the very beginning, Grace Zumwinkle has stood out amongst the rest. Before she ever donned a Golden Gopher uniform, University of Minnesota head hockey coach Brad Frost remembers watching Zumwinkle on the recruiting trail right around the same time the soon-to-be 2017 USA Hockey High School Sports All-USA Girls Hockey Player of the Year began to become part of everyday conversations around hockey rinks throughout the Land of 10,000 Lakes. She was a game-changer and everyone knew it.
"I think what stood out early are the same things that stick out now quite frankly; her size, speed and probably most notably her ability to shoot the puck," mentioned Frost. "There are not too many young women in the women's game that are threats from outside the top of circle and she is one of those players." Sixteen goals and 31 points as an eighth grader. Thirty-seven points, including 23 goals as a high school freshman. It was more of the same in 2014-15 (64 points in 28 games) and 2015-16 (36 goals in 23 games played). By the time the Excelsior, Minn., native was a senior she had already amassed 114 goals and nearly 200 career points. Then in her senior season, the future Gopher compiled 58 more giving her a mind-numbing 241 career points in just 130 games played; including 156 markers.
Now three years later Zumwinkle's game dominates discussions across the college landscape and what was once considered unlikely, her ability to light the lamp has grown even stronger. When looking at her complete body of work you would be hard pressed not to find a game over the past two and a half years where the highlight reel doesn't include a well-placed slap shot to the upper corner of the cage or a one-timer that explodes off her stick with only one destination in mind- the back of the net. Heck, even her first college goal was, what else, but a one-timer against Merrimack in her very first collegiate game. She opened up that season (2017-18) with goals in her first three games and tallied six points in her first six. It was just the sign of things to come for the eventual All-WCHA First Team performer, WCHA All-Rookie Team honoree and 2017-18 WCHA scoring champion.
"I think she is unique in the sense that she has the ability to score from outside," stated Frost. "It's a special trait in women's hockey because most players are always looking to get a little closer and improve their opportunity to score and for Grace with her shot, she has the ability to score from the outside and be more of a threat; whether it's one-timing the puck, a regular slap shot, or a wrist shot. She just has that ability and that knack for being able to put the puck in the net. I look back at this past weekend (a Gopher sweep over Yale), she comes on a two-on-one and she shoots just inside of the top of the circle and scores and then her next goal is more of a two on one with the back-checker; the kid is all over her and ends up tripping her and she is still able to shoot and score. It's just that knack for shooting the puck not only hard but being extremely accurate and she shows just how important that is."
That goal was one of three Zumwinkle scored against the Bulldogs last Saturday and Sunday, helping Minnesota to a series sweep and wins 16 and 17 on the year. As for Zumwinkle, now with 16 goals on the season, #12 is fourth in the WCHA in overall goals scored (tied for first with 10 goals in league play) and sixth in overall points (28). Last Sunday already marked the sixth time this season when Zumwinkle has registered two or more goals in a game. A product of the Scott Bjugstad Shooting School for the past several years, she will be the first one to tell you that shooting the puck is a continuous work in progress and numbers, while nice, tell only a small portion of the story. In other words, behind every goal are hours and hours of practice and preparation.
"He's kind of the one who has taught me all of the fundamentals behind shooting," remarked Zumwinkle; when asked about Bjugstad- a former NHL veteran and uncle to former Gopher and current pro Nick Bjugstad. "I remember the first time showing up to his class with my sisters feeling like I knew how to shoot a puck and I don't even know what more he could teach me. After the first session I was blown away by his knowledge and the basic things I didn't know about shooting that goes into it.
"For me I just focus on the process and getting shots on net. With Scott, one of his big things he has taught me is to just get shots on net," continued Zumwinkle. "If I focus on that rather than goals, the goals will come. For me it's more focusing on the process rather than a quantitative number."
"They say the harder you work the luckier you get," added Brown, who along with Zumwinkle, has yet to miss a game in a Gopher uniform since stepping onto campus. "Sometimes to someone who doesn't know that much about the game they will say she's just in the right place at the right time well that is that hockey IQ everyone always talks about. That's all of that practice paying off and her instincts telling her where to be in those scenarios. Her work ethic, it is second to none and I think that's what sets her apart- she's always trying to do the little things right and put in extra work. After practices she will still be working on little things on the ice. Obviously, her slap shot, it didn't get that lethal from sitting around; she works on it all the time. When it comes to those little things she has that tenacious work ethic and it's paying off for her."
And like any good player, when one goal is reached another appears on the horizon. For example, one of the areas the junior is now focusing on more than ever is being that "go-to" player when the game is on the line and the pressure in the arena is so tight you can barely breathe. During her the first two seasons Zumwinkle has been as good as they come during the first half of the year, but like with anyone, the grab and grind play of the WCHA eventual wears you down. As a freshman, Zumwinkle scored 25 points in her first 22 games; then in the second half (after the New Year) added 10 points in the Gophers' final 13 games. In the WCHA Final Faceoff she struck for two goals and an assist helping Minnesota to a Final Faceoff title only to go scoreless in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the following week in a 4-0 loss to Wisconsin.
Last year, it was 26 points in her first 20 games and an additional 15 during the final 14 games of the regular season. In last year's WCHA Final Faceoff, Zumwinkle did what she does; scoring in two games. Then during the NCAA Tournament, despite peppering the opposing goalie with six shots in three games (Princeton, Cornell, Wisconsin), none of them got through. Those three games without a goal turned out to be the longest stretch of the season for her where she did not light the lamp. It not only marked the longest stretch of games in her career where she did not score a goal (has happened twice - the other three-game stretch was when she was a freshman); it meant that Zumwinkle skated off the rink last March, after falling to Wisconsin in the NCAA Championship game, still without a career point in the NCAA Tournament. As the Gophers now embark on yet another stretch run this season- beginning this weekend at St. Cloud State, don't think for a second that the two-time First Team All-WCHA performer isn't aware of that.
"One of my biggest focuses down the stretch here is going to be more of a player who can produce in pressure situations. Going into the back half of the season that's something myself and my line-mates are going to continue to work on," replied Zumwinkle. "For our team to be successful everyone needs to perform a role and whatever your role might be, whether it's playing defense or scoring goals, I think we need to own that and play it to the best of our ability."
"I think quite frankly that's been the biggest change for her this year and part of the reason why she's been as successful as she has," added Frost. "We have actually talked with her as a coaching staff to tell her the next step in her game is to start playing with more of an edge and have the mindset of, I'm going to try and be the best player on the ice each and every game. Instead of deferring, get out there and force other players to defer to you and she has really taken that step this year and done a great job with it."