Taylor Heise is chasing a third gold medal in her final year with Team USA’s u18s. And her impressive performances in Dmitrov point to a successful future.
Not many players get to feature in three u18 World Championships. Fewer still get a chance to win a hat-trick of gold medals. But USA captain Taylor Heise is hoping to do just that here in Dmitrov.
The Minnesota native made her WW18 bow in St. Catherine’s, Ontario in 2016, helping Team USA recover from 0-2 down to beat Canada in the final. Then she was back to repeat last January in the Czech Republic before coming to Dmitrov as a stand-out leader on Joel Johnson’s roster.
All along that journey, which continues Tuesday with another match-up against those old Canadian foes as the Americans look to top Group A, she’s been excited about the opportunities to mature into a top performer.
“Being on the national team has definitely helped me develop,” Heise said after her team defeated Russia on Sunday. “I have tried to take something from every other player I’ve been with here.
“In my first year, I just tried to play the role that the coaches wanted from me and really, it’s pretty much the same this year. But I’ve really developed my skills, my shooting and my strength.”
She’s also displayed an impressive maturity, whether dealing with opposing players on the ice or opposing crowds in the tribunes. And the more feverish the atmosphere, the better she likes it. “In my first year I played in front of 5,000 screaming Canadians, and the atmosphere was similar here against Russia,” Heise added. “I like it, it’s super cool and for me personally, it helps me game. I love to see all those people doubting us. As a team, we’re good at just letting it go. We know we’re going to go out and play our game and not let the noise bother us.”
How much impact does she have on the ice? Take Sunday’s game against Russia. It had the look of a banana skin for the Americans, dragged to overtime less than 24 hours before facing a host nation on a high. A fervent crowd in Dmitrov had witnessed a historic victory over Canada in the previous game, and scented the chance of another big scalp. Heise produced a captain’s performance, grabbing an early power play goal to settle any nerves on her team and leading by example at both ends of the ice. For coach Johnson, that’s part of what makes her so special.
“Taylor’s our captain for a reason,” he said. “She plays incredibly well, be that on the power play, on the PK or in 5-on-5. She has great strength, she skates fast, she shoots the puck hard and she’s also a real ‘team first’ player. It’s really exciting to see her playing some of her best hockey here, and it’s fun to watch her.”
That captaincy is a role that Heise relishes. “It’s an amazing honour, and something I always wanted,” she said. “It’s an awesome experience to be able to lead the younger players, and even the older ones. But I’m not the only one. Our leadership group this year is seven or eight people and they really help. They always come in, I like to get their opinions, they like to hear mine, and we make decisions as a group. We’re all there to support each other and I think this year it really helped the team to come together right at the beginning.”
From the first games in Dmitrov, togetherness has been vital in a championship that is bringing more evidence that Europe’s top teams are steadily closing the gap on the USA and Canada, and may threaten to end the North American duo’s stranglehold on gold and silver medals at this level. For Heise, though, it’s a challenge and a motivation, not a cause for concern.
“That gap is definitely closing,” she added. “In my first year it was wide open, but as people develop, the games are getting closer.
“Personally, I love that. I love to play different people and I think everyone benefits when we see all these other countries developing. It makes us want to work even harder than before. Plus, playing all these talented teams is a great experience and it excites me. It’s cool to see that women’s hockey is not just about Canada and the USA.
“I know it might scare some people but it gives us confidence: we see all these other countries getting better, and we know that we have to do that as well.”
Now 17, this is Heise’s last chance to play with the u18s. But it’s set to be the beginning of another story in the senior game.
“I’ve always put myself in the u18s, but now I’ve got a chance at the under-22s,” she said. “I’m just going to work my butt off for that. I’m going to go to the University of Minnesota and I want to just take in everything that I can there.
“In the future, I hope to go to the Olympics, but that’s a long shot right now. I just want to keep working my hardest, trying to take what I can from everyone I’ve played with and give it my best shot.”