LAKEVILLE, Minn. — When it comes to stopping pucks, Skylar Vetter is a throwback to an earlier era. That’s not to say she stands up in the crease, or wears a form-fitting Jim Craig-style goalie mask. In fact, her goaltending heroes are modern stars like Marc-Andre Fleury and Jonathan Quick.
What makes Vetter — who recently signed her national letter of intent and intends to compete for the Minnesota Gophers’ starting job next season — a throwback is her teammates, whom she refers to as her "brothers." For the past 10 years, roughly, Vetter has played for boys hockey teams in her hometown of Lakeville, and has been the starting goaltender for Lakeville North High School’s boys team this season as a senior.
When the Minnesota State High School League first began sponsoring girls’ hockey as an official sport 25 years ago, it’s likely that a majority of that generation of female hockey players in the state had spent the bulk of their time on boys teams coming up through the ranks, for lack of organized girls teams.
Female stars from a generation ago, like U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame members Krissy Wendell-Pohl and Natalie Darwitz, played much of their youth hockey with boys teams. Girls hockey would eventually explode in popularity and today players like Vetter, who have played primarily on boys teams, are rare.
For Vetter, the journey began in the summer between third and fourth grades, when she got invited to fill in between the pipes on a Lakeville boys youth hockey team. She bonded immediately with the players, had a propensity for consistently stopping pucks and has stuck with the boys side ever since. After nearly a decade with roughly the same group of boys, Vetter’s senior year of high school is bittersweet.
“We’re all so close,” said Vetter, who is 2-2-0 with a 2.75 goals-against average. 866 save percentage and one shutout this season. “They’re like my brothers and I love them so much. I’d do anything for them, so it’s kind of heartbreaking that it’s my last year with them.”
Like any good brothers, they look out for their sister as well. When you are playing against the Panthers and you slash the goalie or shoot a puck after the whistle, you do so at risk of immediate and forceful retaliation.
“I’ve had a lot of my teammates take penalties for me, and they’re overprotective of me,” Vetter said. “They make sure I’m never alone at the rink, and they’re like my best friends. I’d give anything to be able to play one more season with them.”
The only time Vetter is alone at the rink is when her teammates are getting dressed or taking gear off after the game. After years of getting ready for games in a separate space, she has a routine down, getting dressed on a bench near the manager’s office at the Panthers’ home rink, and making do when they are on the road, even learning to get her goalie gear on while standing up if no bench is available.
“She and her teammates are so used to the process that it’s just what they do. It’s really not abnormal for anybody. This group of kids has been doing this every game since they were little,” said Panthers coach Jake Taylor, who played defense for the Gophers in 2003-04 before turning pro. “She never asks for anything special. She just takes charge and does it. Obviously, we would accommodate for that if needed, but she’s just a true professional.”
Dreams of more gold
In the near future, Vetter will be a collegian, having committed to play for Brad Frost’s Gophers when she was a ninth-grader. Earning the starting job at Ridder Arena is one hockey goal. The other involves taking off the red and black of the Panthers and the maroon and gold of the Gophers in favor of red, white and blue.
“I think about the Olympics all the time. It’s something I’ve dreamt about doing since I was little,” Vetter admitted. “So a goal for me is training for that. I don’t know what Olympics, when it will happen, if it will happen, but it’s something I’m pursuing.”
When the tryouts for the next Olympics come around, Vetter’s game will already be a familiar one to the USA Hockey brass. Before even finishing high school, she has played twice for her country in the IIHF U-18 Women’s World Championships, earning a silver medal in 2019 in Japan, and bringing home the gold from Slovakia last year.
Vetter comes from a family of athletic women. Her mother played collegiate softball at Nebraska. One older sister (Christi) played college hockey at Penn State (2014-19), while another sister (Brianna) was a collegiate golfer at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (2016-20).
Successful goalies must constantly adapt and adjust on the ice, knowing a puck could come from anywhere at any speed. In the locker room, Vetter takes pride in not having to adapt, whether her teammates are male or female.
“When I’m on a boys team, I’m still me. I don’t change at all. I’m still a little blonde girl and they sometimes think of me as their mom,” she said, with a laugh. “When I get over to the girls side, it’s nice. You get to talk about your nails and your hair and they won’t laugh at you. I don’t have to change a bit going back and forth, and I get along with everyone.”
Well, as long as you don’t shoot a puck after the whistle. Then you will meet trouble from her brothers.