MINNEAPOLIS — There were surely some surprised glances exchanged between Mike and Lori Zumwinkle more than a decade ago, when their kindergarten-age daughter Grace came home from school with a flier and declared herself a hockey player.

Mike had played college football at St. John’s University. Lori had played collegiate tennis at the College of St. Benedict. They were a rarity here in the State of Hockey.

“Unlike most Minnesota hockey families, neither of my parents played growing up, which is very uncommon,” said Grace, now a senior for the Minnesota Gophers. “In kindergarten, my class crush at the time was playing hockey, and that’s what motivated me to sign up.”

So Mike and Lori took their daughter, who had very little experience on skates, to the rink for her first practice in the Chaska/Chanhassen youth hockey program. The results were memorable, to put it kindly.

“I showed up for the first day and I was by far the worst one out there because I had never skated,” Grace recalled. “All the other guys had NHL parents and I basically just stood in a square on the ice. Then I got off the ice and I told my parents, ‘I was the best one out there.’ I had not even moved, but my parents weren’t going to tear down my confidence, so I’ve been going ever since.”

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At the age of 21, Grace Zumwinkle is a modest and friendly person who leads by example. You would never hear her declare herself the ‘best one out there’ after a Gophers game. But many others are making those claims on her behalf these days, as the Gophers head into the WCHA playoffs led by Zumwinkle’s offensive surge as a senior.

Heading into Saturday’s WCHA playoff opener versus Wisconsin at Ridder Arena, Zumwinkle has put up nine goals and six assists in the Gophers’ last nine games. The outburst is not accidental. It came as a result of Zumwinkle — who is listed at 5-foot-9 — going to the “dirty” areas of the rink more often and using her size to spend more time near the opponent’s crease.

“Because of the skill she possesses, she’s never been that typical power forward, grinder type, but as of late this year in particular, she’s found herself at the net-front quite a bit more, and that’s been very intentional,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said of Zumwinkle, who leads the WCHA in goals (16) and is second in points (23). “Once she gets there, she’s hard to move, and she has the stick skills to put the puck in the back of the net.”

Zumwinkle is one of 10 finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, which is given annually to the top college women's player in the country. The winner will be announced on March 27.

Gopher junior Grace Zumwinkle skates through the neutral zone with the puck. Zumwinkle currently leads the Gophers in goals with 16. Photo by Craig Lassig.
Gopher junior Grace Zumwinkle skates through the neutral zone with the puck. Zumwinkle currently leads the Gophers in goals with 16. Photo by Craig Lassig.

Ms. Hockey for Breck

As a prep at Breck, Zumwinkle was named team MVP all four years she played for the Mustangs, and was Minnesota’s Ms. Hockey in 2017 as a senior. Those were honors earned with a combination of an elite shot and top-level skating skills. She had also spent much of her youth going to Ridder to see the Gophers’ play, and when she got an offer from Frost, it was accepted without much debate.

“When she was in high school she was dominant because of her shot and her ability to skate,” Frost said. “Here, she’s become dominant by using her size to her advantage. Her shot and her skating are still elite, but she’s gotten a lot better with her 200-foot game. She’s not just an offensive threat anymore.”

While 2020 was tough on everyone, 2021 has been especially harsh for the Gophers. On Jan. 10, they were 8-1-0 and ascended to the top ranking in the national polls. Then Frost’s team endured a stretch where they played four games versus Wisconsin and four versus Ohio State, and went 1-6-1.

In their final series of February, the Gophers scored 6-1 and 9-1 wins at Bemidji State to get their groove back and gain a little bit of confidence, then had a weekend off to get a little healthier heading into the playoffs.

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With all of the schedule changes and other challenges that the pandemic has presented, Zumwinkle joked that “flexibility and interchangeability” are the favorite words of Frost and his assistants this season, and it is important to remind themselves that just being on the ice is a gift each day.

“This year has definitely not looked the same as years past, with the game schedules. But one thing our team has tried to focus on is just being grateful for the opportunities,” said Zumwinkle, who has 83 goals and 147 points in 103 career college games. “You look across the country and some programs haven’t been able to play, so we remind ourselves of how special it is to have this opportunity, and to make the most of it.”

Zumwinkle’s immediate plans include another month of hockey, as a return to the Frozen Four is the team’s goal every year. With the NCAA granting waivers due to the pandemic, she has a few good opportunities to pick from next year. She could return for a fifth season with the Gophers and Zumwinkle admitted she is leaning that way.

She also is keeping an eye on USA Hockey’s tryout process for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Playing for Team USA in the U18 world championships in 2016 and 2017, Zumwinkle already owns a pair of international hockey gold medals, and would certainly like to add to the collection.

Beyond hockey, as a finance major in the U of M’s renowned Carlson School of Management, there will likely be opportunities to pick from there too.

“She’s brilliant,” Frost said, putting it bluntly. “You’re not going to find a nicer person than Grace Zumwinkle. She’s a really thoughtful, caring leader.”

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