Taylor Heise ready to lead Team USA

Team USA’s Taylor Heise looks on during a U.S. women’s national hockey team scrimmage on March 28 in Lake Placid. (News photo — Parker O’Brien)

LAKE PLACID — As U.S. women’s national hockey player Taylor Heise got off the ice during a national team practice here on March 28, a group of girls CAN/AM hockey players lined the tunnel waiting to high-five the players.

Every one of those young players knew who the 24-year-old from Lake City, Minnesota, was. Heise has risen to the women’s hockey ranks and turned into a star after being selected first overall in the inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey League draft.

While playing for her hometown team, PWHL Minnesota, Heise has become one of the most polarizing players in the newly founded league, because of her stick handling and goal scoring ability. She currently ranks in the top 20 in points in the league despite having missed five of her team’s 19 games with an injury.

Her PWHL Minnesota team leads all teams in average attendance this season, averaging over 7,000 spectators per game, according to The Hockey News, a Canadian Ice Hockey Magazine. To Heise, the idea of having fans and an audience was something she never envisioned.

“I always say that little Taylor, she would’ve been mindblown right now,” Heise said. “Looking back to where I’m at now and where I want to be in the future — the things I want to accomplish still — (it) wouldn’t have even been possible back (when I was younger). It’s been really cool to watch (the sport) grow and I try to hold myself accountable. I want to be graceful in where I am. I want to take advantage of every opportunity I get because they don’t come often.”

Team USA’s Taylor Heise high-fives girls CAN/AM hockey players after a U.S. women’s national hockey team scrimmage on Thursday in Lake Placid. (News photo — Parker O’Brien)

This past weekend, Heise was one of 39 U.S. hockey players who were in Lake Placid vying for a spot on the U.S. women’s national team that will compete in the IIHF Women’s World Championships in Utica from April 3 to 14. The complete 23-player roster was announced on March 31.

Growing up

Despite growing up in a basketball family — both of her brothers play collegiately — Heise decided to play hockey when she was around 8 years old for a co-ed team in Minnesota. Even though both of her parents were basketball players, Heise said they were fully supportive of her hockey journey.

“(They) made sure that I had every opportunity that I could have that I got,” Heise said. “They drove me an hour and a half every single day to practice in the cities if I wanted to. But they are very well-spoken in the fact that If I wanted to go, I was going to go, if I didn’t want to go, they weren’t going to take me. Which is exactly how I’m going to teach my kids as well.”

Heise excelled right away and soon her dominance on the ice carried over to the collegiate level. While playing for the University of Minnesota, she recorded nearly one point per game during her first three seasons.

After her junior season, Heise was selected to take part in the 2021 U.S. Women’s National Team evaluation camp, which helped determine the 2022 Winter Olympic team. However, Heise was cut from the team and decided to return to Minnesota. In the face of adversity, she continued to work on her craft and improved her game.

“I’m a big believer in faith,” she said. “When I was a kid, I just worked really hard and hoped that the things that I worked hard for were going to come and if they didn’t so be it, you’ve got to work for it.”

Heise closed out her final two collegiate seasons by scoring 133 points (59 goals and 74 assists) in 78 games, while winning the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, which is given to the top female college ice hockey player in the United States, in 2022. She was later selected to compete for the U.S. national team at both the 2022 and 2023 World Championships.

After being selected first overall the inaugural PWHL draft in September, Heise said she blacked out in excitement.

“I didn’t know where I was going to be, I didn’t know what pick I was going to be,” she said. “I just knew that where I was going to be, I was going to be very happy living my best life and dream. My dad was, like, crying in the stands, which he doesn’t cry so it was a very interesting situation.”

To Heise, being selected first overall meant that all of her hard work was worth it. But rather than looking at the selection as an achievement, she says it’s an honor and a privilege, especially since it’s her hometown team.

“I have so many fans and so many people who care about me personally not just on the ice, but off the ice,” she said. “When I talk to them after games and they truly ask how I am as a person and that means a lot to me.”

Team USA

Heise officially made the team on March 31, which wasn’t much of a surprise, considering that she competed on the team in back-to-back years — including being named the tournament’s MVP in 2022, after leading the tournament in goals and assists.

“To be a part of a team like I was for the past two years would be amazing. It’s an honor, it’s a privilege and to be around the best players in the country,” she said. “It’s going to be really, really fun and it’s going to be an opportunity of a lifetime hopefully my parents will be able to go. It’d be an honor. This is an amazing group and I can see so many people right now are so excited to be a part of that opportunity. We’ll see how it goes.”

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