By Bill Brophy
MADISON, Wis. -- Annie Pankowski is a Southern California girl. She lives in Laguna Hills. She has flowing blonde hair and a big smile. Robust and healthy looking, she looks like she fell off a retro Beach Boys record album for "California Girls."
So what's a girl like Annie doing in a place with wind chills and winter weather warnings?
"Playing hockey," said Pankowski with a friendly grin before practice at LaBahn Arena. And playing it very well. A state which traditionally has produced Olympic volleyball players, swimmers and softball stars also has produced Pankowski, who was the national collegiate rookie of the year in women's hockey last season and is the leading scorer for the once-beaten and nationally second-ranked University of Wisconsin, the league leaders as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) hits the home stretch.
Now, California is hardly like Minnesota in developing college hockey players, but the times are changing.
"Hockey on the women's side is structured so much different than on the men's side," said Mark Johnson, the Badgers' women's coach and a former U.S. Olympic team coach. "There are pockets of interest in the sport throughout the country among younger players."
That pocket includes California, where Johnson took his team to San Jose earlier this season to play two games against Providence. Both teams combined to conduct a youth hockey clinic afterwards.
A couple of Johnson's former college teammates at Wisconsin – Rod Romanchuk and Les Grauer – have daughters playing college hockey after growing up on the West Coast. Lexi Romanchuk followed her sister Paula to Providence after growing up in the Bay Area and is the Friars' captain, while Lydia Grauer is at St. Lawrence after growing up in Chino Hills, Calif.
The way Pankowski is playing, she has a chance to be the face of California women's hockey. She is one of the best college players on one of the best college teams and has always said her goal was to make the U.S. Olympic team some day.
"She is a strong skater," said Johnson, who has four national titles on coaching resume. "Annie is strong on the puck and has a good shot. Put a couple of those things together and she has capability to score goals and has scored some big goals. Those are pretty good ingredients.
"She can do things that maybe somebody that doesn't have her strength or power can't do."
Pankowski has at least a point in 25 of 28 games this season and ranks ninth nationally in scoring at 1.58 points per game. She has 44 points (17 goals, 27 assists) which already eclipses her team-best total as a freshman (21-22-43). With three weeks left in the regular season, the Badgers are ranked second in the country, just ahead of defending WCHA and national champion Minnesota, and have posted a 24-1-1 overall record, 18-1-1 in the ultra-competitive WCHA.
Among many eye-popping stats, there are two that defy hockey belief. Ann-Renée Desbiens, the junior goalie, has 14 of UW's 16 shutouts this season and was the major contributor to a mid-season string of eight-straight shutouts, an NCAA record for men's or women's college hockey. In outscoring opponents 111-16 this season, the Badgers have scored seven short-handed goals and allowed but four power play goals to their opponents. "That stat just doesn't happen in hockey," St. Cloud State coach Eric Rud pointed out last week, before his Huskies were blanked twice by the Badgers in Madison.
Pankowski is a big part of the penalty kill with three short-handed goals. The power forward also has emerged as a leader on the team with forwards Sarah Nurse and linemate Emily Clark, and captain Courtney Burke, a terrific defender. She often has been used by Johnson to take a critical face-off in late game situations.
"It feels good to be in situations like that," said Pankowski. "Emily Clark and I have both taken on that role. It is great to be put in those roles over and over and I feel more confident in those roles as the season goes on."
The Badgers won the WCHA playoff championship last year and made it to the NCAA Frozen Four before losing to Minnesota in the semifinals. This season -- which started with 18-straight victories, including a pair over the Gophers -- has seemed different, even better, said Pankowski.
"I think the excitement of the win streak early and the shutout streak was really exciting for everyone here," she said. "We aren't just a goal-scoring team. We have all the confidence in the world in Ann-Renée, who has been defensive players of the week, like four times (actually, five – along with a pair of WCHA Player of the Month accolades). That is awesome, because I know how hard she works. We play the whole game. That kind of momentum rolled into something in our back pocket that has made the game different this season."
Pankowski's road to Madison was a circuitous one, which included playing youth hockey on both coasts and an invitation to the world championships last year.
"My dad grew up in New Jersey as a Rangers fan and went to Cornell. My mom and dad's first date was at a hockey game," said Pankowski.
When that date of veterinary school classmates Rich Pankowski and Diane Craig accelerated into much, much more, the Pankowskis moved to Orange County to set up a veterinary practice in the OC. They also enrolled their youngest son John into skating classes. As John got older, younger sisters Ali and Annie found their way to the rink and took up both ice hockey and roller hockey. Ali, who was Annie's first role model, became so proficient at ice hockey that she played defense at Princeton and is currently playing in Switzerland.
"I think I have forgotten how to skate on roller blades," said Annie. "It was big when I was younger. I played until 10 or 12, but by then I went into ice hockey all the time."
Pankowski developed in the Anaheim Ducks' youth program, playing on boys' mite and squirt teams, and won a national U-12 girls championship with the Lady Ducks. She also was a big fan of the NHL's Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Her family's cat was named Pronger after the Hall of Fame defenseman and her favorite player was Paul Kariya, the Ducks' star forward.
But Pankowski left southern California in the fall of her sophomore year of high school to attend the prestigious North American Hockey Academy in Stowe, Vt., where she played with current teammate Molly Doner, another left coast girl (from Washington). Pankowski returned in March to finish the school year in Orange County. "She did that for three years," said Johnson. "She traveled the country from one coast to the other to learn to be a hockey player."
Pankowski committed to Wisconsin two years ago. About the same time, she was asked to try out for the U.S. Olympic team. She was one of the last cuts, six weeks before the 2014 Games began. Johnson is thrilled with the development of his right winger and he feels that being cut is her motivation to improve at Wisconsin.
"She is focused in on something bigger than this," said Johnson, the leading scorer on the gold medal-winning, iconic 1980 men's Olympic team. "Her ultimate goal is to play on the Olympic team in the next go round. She played in the world championships last year and that helped her on a daily basis, as far as working and growing and continuing to progress in her game. She has a chance to make that team."
Pankowski scored a goal for the U.S. against Canada in the gold medal game of the world championships last year. She admits that was a personal highlight, but she learned daily from the intensity and work ethic that her U.S. teammates brought to practices as well as the game. And with some perspective now, she feeds off the memory of being cut, still short of her goal to play on the Olympic team. "It hurt at first, but I got a taste of what it was like and I realized I could play at that level," said Pankowski. "I knew the work I had to put in to get there."
She has learned to train hard, eat right and play with intensity. She felt at ease at the world championships last year as one of six current or former Wisconsin players on the team, and she tried to soak in the advice of the best women's players in the world and bring it back to the WCHA.
"It was a great experience," said Pankowski. "You get a chance to see the great players and what they do to make them great and the leadership they bring. You see players like Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight and you get to talk to them and find out what makes them tick. Skating on the ice at practice with Meghan Duggan feels like a game with the intensity she brings to the rink every day. You bring that attitude here. You skate every day, some days after class when you are tired. But skating with Meghan Duggan, I never saw her take a practice as just another day."
Now she works with UW assistant coach Jackie Friesen on using her 5-foot-9 inch frame to be more aggressive, refining her game. She gets shooting tips from Johnson, a 12-year NHL veteran who scored 40 goals as a freshman center at Wisconsin. She is always learning, hoping to become the most decorated women's player to come out of California.
"There are so many different things that can make you great," said Pankowski. "There is not one certain secret formula that everyone has to learn. There are things that are unique to you and that you can offer to the team. It's not like you have to do this exact thing and this is how you have to play and this is how it has to look like."
Pankowski's Badger team has the various components of a team ready to make another big post-season run – depth, difference-makers in Clark, Nurse and Pankowski, solid defense and superlative goaltending. The Badgers play at Ohio State this weekend and host Minnesota State Feb. 13-14. If they win all four games, the Badgers would be on the verge of clinching their fifth WCHA regular season title and the first since 2012. They finish the regular season at Minnesota, a team which has had a stranglehold on the crown the last three years, but a club which needs to run the table over the last six games to keep the championship, providing the Badgers don't stumble before getting to Minneapolis.
"We have all improved as a team," said Pankowski. "It's hard not to when you have such great coaches, great facilities and resources like we do here. Also, here (at LaBahn), there are pictures of players on the wall everywhere so you get the feeling 'I want to be like them.'"